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STUDY ABROAD : Subject Guides - Must read

What to expect when studying engineering?

What do you study on an engineering degree? We take a look at what these courses involve, the specialisations in the engineering field and what international students can expect to study.

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Engineering is undoubtedly one of the most popular degree choices. With a range of specialisations and very good career and professional prospects, engineering degrees rank in the top five most-searched qualifications by international students. Nobody can deny that there is a certain prestige that is attached to having completed a degree in the field. However, have you ever taken the time to investigate exactly what an engineering course entails and what you’ll be studying as a student? We place the subject and degree under the microscope for closer examination.


What exactly is engineering?


It’s useful to kick off the investigation by looking at the definition of engineering. At its most fundamental level engineering employs the use of rational and logical problem-based thinking, employing science and mathematics, to solve issues. Engineering is about understanding how things work, the processes behind this and how to improve, design or re-invent such processes.  This can be everything from how to construct buildings optimally to the operation of satellites.


Engineering involves the maintenance of both systems and products, underpinned by a rigorous protocol involving everything from testing and development to installation. The process of engineering is often one that is marked by refinement and modification, aimed at finding the best and most efficient ways of doing things.


Study engineering


What are the different specialisations?


Engineering is not limited to one particular field of expertise or specialisation. In fact, as technology and science have advanced so have the number of engineering specialisations. In many cases there is overlap and similarity between the different types of engineering, so qualifying in one area does not necessarily preclude you from working in another.  Let’s take a look at some of the more well-known disciplines, as well as some areas you may not have heard of, and what’s involved:


Civil engineering


You’ll be predominantly working on large infrastructure projects from design through to maintenance. This can be everything from a highway system to a water supply system.


Electrical engineering


Electrical engineers work on and design systems, machines and devices that require the use or distribution of electricity.  


Mechanical engineering


As a mechanical engineer, you’ll be designing and developing machines, components and mechanical systems used for various purposes. You may find yourself working on an engine for example or perhaps a complex conveyor belt system.


Chemical engineering


The focus of a chemical engineer is to develop, design and implement chemical manufacturing processes for product creation. You’ll be asked to find solutions for how raw materials can be converted into beneficial products, like food or fuel.


Computer engineering


As a computer engineer, you’ll be creating computer hardware and software. You’ll get to grips with how computers may be able to solve complex problems. Computer engineering shares a close affinity with electrical engineering.


Aeronautical engineering


You’d be right for thinking this has a lot to do with flying and planes. It’s all about the research, development and creation of technology for aircraft. Aerospace engineering is a closely related specialisation that focuses on technology for machines travelling beyond the earth’s atmosphere.


Nuclear engineering


Nuclear engineers are involved in the design and implementation of processes, systems and equipment that make use of nuclear power and reactions. There are numerous applications for this that you may be familiar with such as nuclear power plants and MRI machines.


Mechatronics engineering


This field of engineering focuses on creating machines and devices that can use environmental inputs to produce certain actions. It is often considered to be a mix of electronic and mechanical engineering.




If you specialise as a nanoengineer you’ll be working on a micro-scale. It combines a number of the more traditional engineering fields to create solutions that require hugely reduced size to be effective, such as in medicine and information technology.


Biomedical engineering


As a biomedical engineer, you’ll concentrate on the research, design and development of medical-related products and processes. This can include surgical equipment or replacement joints for example.


How is an engineering degree structured?


Although not all engineering degrees will follow an identical structure and may vary from institution to institution, there are certainly commonalities as to how the curriculum is designed. The degree can be roughly divided into two distinct parts. Being a four-year programme, the first two years will focus on core subject disciplines and the second part of your degree then develops your knowledge and understanding of your chosen engineering specialisation.  You’re likely to experience teaching in a variety of settings including:


  • Practicals

  • Lectures

  • Tutorials

  • Projects

  • Laboratory work


The first year of your study will focus on core principles of engineering and associated subjects. There is also attention given to the practical application of this knowledge. Some of the areas you may focus on include:


  • Materials science

  • Structural science

  • Mathematics

  • Engineering principles (mechanical, information and electrical)

  • Product design

  • Computer programming


Moving into your second year you’ll be learning core areas of engineering and the associated subjects at a more advanced level, with greater detail. These include:


  • Advanced mathematics

  • Mechanics

  • Material and structural science

  • Fluid mechanics

  • Economics

  • Electrical and information engineering


You may also find that as you progress through your second year more emphasis is placed on choosing a discipline to specialise in. You will need to be able to demonstrate an advanced understanding of engineering design. You’ll also spend quite a bit of your time involved in laboratory experiments and design projects.


The third, and penultimate, year of your studies will see the introduction of an engineering specialisation, like the ones mentioned previously in this article. You will be encouraged to study eight to ten core areas of the specialisation to expand and develop your knowledge.


You may however be given an option to take a general engineering option, which means less of a focus or specialisation specific subjects.  You’ll find that the technical requirements for the course will increase quite significantly during your third year, including the use of computer software and computer-based projects.


To reach your fourth year of study you are going to need to have completed all the modules and course components for the previous three years and have achieved above-average results. This year of study provides an intense focus on your specialisation, with individually focused projects, research and high-level teaching.


The projects that you’ll undertake will require creativity and lateral thinking. They may be experimental, design-related, computational or theoretical. The idea is to prepare you as much as possible for the rigours of working in the engineering industry or to progress to further study at a higher level.  Most universities teaching at this level include master’s level teaching in the fourth year.


International students engineering


What about postgraduate studies?


Studying a postgraduate engineering qualification is a way of refining your skills and knowledge as well as being exposed to some of the latest developments and research in the field. It can be a way to enhance your career prospects as some engineering disciplines require advanced levels of skill and understanding. Often your postgraduate programme will incorporate key elements such as management, including projects, technical skills, business acumen and leadership skills.


A master of science in engineering (MSc) is usually a one-year programme full-time and in some cases offered over two years part-time. The course will usually have either a professional or research focus, with your choice being closely allied to your personal aims. If you’re interested in career development with a sharp focus on industry then a degree with a professional angle would be more appropriate. Often you will need to have been working in industry for a degree of this nature and they may also offer workplace projects during the course.


It’s important to remember that there are a significant range of postgraduate engineering qualifications, both in terms of specialisations, course structure and level. It’s critical to evaluate your objectives and check with your prospective institution to get more information on a postgraduate course.

Armed with a better understanding of what studying an engineering degree involves and what you can expect, why not have a look at our take on the traits that make a great engineer or use our course matcher to find your perfect course.

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