How I Became a Civil Engineer

woman wearing hi vis vest and hard hat sitting in field next to digger

I had high hopes of becoming a medical professional when I started studying for my A-levels, which I found to be the hardest period of my education. However, upon completion of my studies, I found that I didn't meet the grade requirements to study the course I wanted. 

I was desperate to go to university, so I studied a science course I had ZERO interest in. After a few months, I knew the course wasn't for me and started looking at other alternatives, I even considered dropping out completely.

Through a chance encounter, I found myself in a lecture that changed my outlook of the university experience. I was invited to the lecture by a friend, without asking what course he studied, I followed him. 

"What course is this and where are the women?"

I couldn’t help but think, but before I could ask the lecture had started. The topic of the lecture was bridge design and construction methods. I made 3 pages of notes and started to raise my hand to ask questions. The lecturer asked to speak to me after the lecture. He asked me if I had knowledge of Civil Engineering and what course I came from.

If you asked me in 2012, I would have said an engineer was someone who fixed cars.

After 15 minutes of conversation with the lecturer and little (I like to take risks) research, I decided to transfer to the University of Portsmouth and study Civil Engineering. I was worried, as I didn’t have the prerequisite A-level subjects to study Civil Engineering, but I was very determined to achieve the best results and challenge myself. I appreciate the university’s faith in me.

I decided to cover all the foundations of Civil Engineering; geotechnical, structural, environmental engineering and construction management modules. The School of Civil Engineering and Surveying (SCES) show true dedication to their students.

“You don’t know your industry unless you have worked in it.”

A lecturer who always inspired and motivated me whilst at university was Dr Lee Woods. During my degree, I went through some tough times, Dr Woods always made time to speak to me, advised me, exposed me to various university services and post-graduation has kept in contact with me. I will always be grateful for his kind words and support. 

With the advice of Dr Woods, I decided it was important for me to take a placement year. I completed a 16-month placement with a global construction management firm in central London. My title was Undergraduate Engineer. I worked in a multidisciplinary team of 50 and over 100 subcontractors onsite. My role included design management, ensuring all works met deadlines and to were budget. I never thought of the processes within construction because I only saw the finished product.

I loved being "behind-the-scenes" of constructing some of the most iconic structures in London.

I enjoyed working with various personnel and having variety in my tasks. The pressure of meeting deadlines and changing my mindset from a student to a working professional kept me on my toes, allowed me to develop on skills and showed me the practical application of my degree. This experience will later allow me to complete my studies and prepare for my future career.

I completed my placement year and felt more than prepared to finish my degree. My favourite module at university was 'Soils and Materials' I have always been interested in sustainable development and wanted to design and build for a better future - I knew material science would pioneer this!

For my final year project, I explored concrete technology and fire engineering. I completed a 15,000-word dissertation and a laboratory experiment titled: 

"Investigating the mechanical properties of Ultra-high-performance fibre reinforced concrete (UHPFRC) at elevated temperatures"

I achieved a first-class for my project and in the overall module. I fell in love with concrete technology and its complexities and decided I wanted to become a Concrete Engineer.

During my final year, I started to apply for graduate roles. I enjoyed the application process. I felt that my placement year had put me at a great advantage as I had relevant experience in the industry as well as 4-years’ experience in the retail environment. I was invited to numerous interviews and assessment centres; I was able to confidently talk about my experiences. I was offered 5 jobs before graduation; this gave me freedom as I could fully focus on my degree.

I graduated from university in 2018 with an upper second class (2:1) and accepted a role as a Graduate Highways Engineer for a global engineering consultancy. I worked at the consultancy for 11 months. I was able to improve upon my communication, technical, AutoCAD, and leadership skills. I worked on various highway projects which meant I was able to liaise with different people, attend site visits and work with individuals across the globe.

However, I knew that I wanted a career in Concrete Engineering. After some research, I found the role I had been looking for.

woman wearing a graduation cap and gown

Currently, I am an Assistant Materials Engineer at Sir Robert McAlpine.

In my role, I assist projects in the UK by reviewing their concrete specifications, managing materials testing, site investigations and liaising with various departments. My role allows me to see the whole project lifecycle and communicate with people at all levels of the organisation. I’ve worked in a variety of sectors, highways, bridges, buildings, tunnels and airports. In my day-to-day role, I can be in 3 different working environments a laboratory, on-site or at my office, truly no day is the same. I actively use my degree in my role especially the knowledge from the modules I enjoyed the most. 

Not many people are aware of Materials Engineering and I am dedicated to bringing the spotlight to the profession. To further my knowledge of material properties and performance I have accepted an offer to study for my master’s degree part-time in “Advanced Materials for Sustainable Infrastructure” in 2020 at Imperial College London, which will be sponsored by Sir Robert McAlpine!

I love using my voice and experiences to encourage the younger generation to consider a career in construction.

The construction industry has allowed me to explore various avenues and speak openly about my experiences! I have been nominated as 'Top 500 most inspiring and influential people in the UK's construction industry' at The London Build Expo 2019, second runner up in the Women in Construction awards by Design and Build UK for February 2020, a finalist in the Engineering Graduate of the Year awards 2020 hosted by Equal Engineers and finally shortlisted for a Rising Star and STEM Ambassador of the year award hosted by the Institution of Civil Engineers 2020. 

Currently, I am a STEM Ambassador, a role model/mentor/volunteer I have spoken to over 2000 students and graduates, and have recently started collaborating with various organisations, using my platform on Instagram to share posts/stories/videos about my day-to-day in the construction industry, I have received great feedback from individuals from a variety of industries.

My advice to individuals wanting to join the industry:

  • Do your research (degree, apprenticeship, degree apprenticeship)
  • Know your industry (current affairs, new technology)
  • Expand your network (LinkedIn, networking events)
  • Grasp all opportunities - Also create your opportunities, a wise person once said to me “if you don’t ask, you don’t get”.
  • Set goals, however, don’t be too hard on yourself.
  • Gain experience within your field (placement years, internships, work experience)
  • Attend external conferences and lecturers on topics that interest you
  • Keep your CV and cover letter updated (all experiences are valid)
  • Be bold, be brave!
  • It is ok to fail; failure could be the start of a new adventure

Working in the construction industry is a decision that I will NEVER regret. It has changed my whole life, my mindset, the way I view the world and it has made me want to explore the beautiful world we live in. I've started solo travelling and it has taken me to all corners of the earth. I love how diverse the world is, diversity is what makes us all unique. I love learning about architecture, languages, dabbling in photography and try to engross myself into the culture of the countries I visit.

About the Author

headshot of woman

Mimi-Isabella is a Civil Engineering graduate from the University of Portsmouth and a Concrete Materials Engineer at Sir Robert McAlpine with a strong interest in sustainable construction materials.

Alongside her role as an engineer she thoroughly enjoys inspiring the youth and volunteers her time with the organisation to promote engineering and the construction industry to girls and young women.

Mimi-Isabella is also a keen traveller, she has recently started to solo travel which has taken her to all corners of the earth. She hopes to inspire women into construction through her journey and stories of solo travelling. 

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