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A picture of a civil engineer with a doctorate at work: should you do a masters or doctorate if you want a graduate job?

Will a civil engineering MSc, PhD or EngD help me get a graduate job?

Civil engineering graduate jobs are competitive to get. Will a postgraduate qualification on top of a bachelors degree impress employers? TARGETjobs investigates.
Employers prefer to hire graduates with an MEng or MSc over those with a BEng.

Should I do a masters in civil engineering, structural engineering or a related engineering field, such as sustainability?

Seeing the letters MSc or MEng after your name tells employers that you are on course to become a CEng (chartered engineer). The CEng is an internationally recognised professional qualification that signifies that you have a high level of professionalism (and therefore allows companies to charge clients more for your work). A masters degree in engineering guarantees you’ve met all the educational requirements for chartership. But beyond that is it worth it? Will it do anything for your career? Here are some things to consider:

  • If you already have an MEng (four-year enhanced undergraduate degree), you’ve already met the academic requirements for the CEng. In this case, spending another year at university to do an MSc is unnecessary for your professional qualification.
  • If you decide to stick with your BEng qualification and not gain an MEng, you can work towards the lower professional qualification of IEng (incorporated engineer). This still showcases your professionalism, but you won’t get the same opportunities for leading projects and complex problem solving as your peers who have completed a masters or MEng. And civil engineering firms usually prefer to hire graduates with a masters-level qualification.
  • There are more bursaries and research grants for an MSc (taught or research) available than for a final year of undergraduate study.
  • When it comes to getting a specialised engineering job, an MSc in a relevant subject often tips the scales in your favour. Some firms advertise for engineers with masters-level degrees in specific areas, such as flood alleviation, mining and geotechnical engineering. But be careful to make sure there are jobs in your area of study. Employers look carefully to see if the modules you’ve completed on your masters match their needs.

Will doing a PhD in engineering give me the edge in industry?

The stereotype goes that engineering PhD students are on course to becoming academics, while EngD students (see below) are aiming for jobs in industry – but that’s not necessarily the case. Frances Elwell moved into industry after earning a PhD and is now a resource manager in Mott MacDonald’s environment business, overseeing 190 people.

If you want to work in industry, the main downside of a PhD is that it takes at least three years: time which could be spent earning valuable job-experience, working towards chartership, and enjoying pay rises. However, over the long-term, having a PhD also has its pluses:

  • A PhD may not make you attractive to an employer looking for someone with breadth of experience, but it is a big advantage if you are applying for a job which requires specific expertise. Key areas of research in civils at the moment include nanotechnology, resilient infrastructure and the application of biology to structures.
  • For some people, it makes sense to work for a while before undertaking a PhD. If you’ve already got few years of industry experience under your belt, you’ll know how to direct your research in an industry-relevant way. The right PhD will put you at the cutting-edge in terms of knowledge and prestige.
  • Engineers with PhDs often get a higher starting salary than those who have graduated from an undergraduate degree, but this isn’t universally the case. According to previous studies by the Association of Engineering Doctorates, engineers with PhDs on average earn £70,000 more over the course of their career than those without doctorates. However, note that the most recent study is a few years old and more recent figures are hard to come by.

Will an EngD get me the best job?

For civil engineers, the EngD is an attractive alternative to the traditional PhD. Like the PhD, it requires you to make an original contribution to engineering knowledge. Unlike the PhD, the EngD is driven by the research needs of sponsoring companies and has a very strong industrial focus. EngD students usually get higher stipends than PhD students, access to university MBA courses, and direct experience working in industry. Here are some things to consider:

  • An EngD can lead to a job with your sponsor company, but this is not guaranteed even if you perform well. Some sponsors use EngD research to resolve immediate and specific business problems, not to recruit.
  • EngD candidates spend up to 75% of their time working in industry, often on a range of industry-related research projects. This can be put towards fulfilling the practical requirements for the CEng.
  • According to previous studies by the Association of Engineering Doctorates, EngDs earn £100,000 more over the course of their career than their counterparts. Ultimately, they claim, EngDs are more likely to be appointed to senior roles and specific industry disciplines. However, these studies are a few years old and more recent statistics haven’t been produced.
  • With taught courses such as business and project management, the EngD prepares you for the commercial side of an engineering career. Employers report that engineers who come with an EngD are able to hit the ground running. However, for some people, the hours spent in the classroom may be a waste of time. Many larger engineering firms have good professional development programmes that train graduates in the same skills.

Choosing whether to stay in academia or go into industry

Deciding whether to move into industry or stay in academia is a dilemma for many engineering students. Joel Thai, an engineer at AECOM who spent ten years in academia before moving into industry, says: ‘I suggest that you thoroughly investigate opportunities in industry first, as you will already have a sense of what academia involves and you can always go back to school later. Try doing as many internships as possible. Go to open days and careers fairs and speak to employees: ask what projects they are working on, the challenges they face in their work and about their career path.’

Frances Elwell’s advice is similar: ‘If you are deciding between going into industry and staying in academia, I recommend talking to people who are doing both: see what they actually do and whether it would suit you.’ Ask your university department to put you in touch with doctoral students. If you have already graduated, get in touch with universities’ admissions offices and use LinkedIn to contact professionals within industry.

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