What is The Best Way to Become a Professional Engineer? Apprenticeships vs Degrees

There are many different pathways that you can take to become a professional engineer. At the end of the day, engineering is the application of fundamental first principles of science and mathematics to understand, create, maintain and manage physical products, so what is the best method to understanding this extremely broad subject.

The most common pathway is to complete school and focusing on technical subjects, such as mathematics, physics and chemistry, then moving onto an undergraduate degree at university majoring in engineering. However, upon completion of around 6 years in education, what practical experience have you really gained in applying these fundamental principles to real world problems and understanding the processes that have defined engineering for over 100 years. Maybe throughout university, you have been able to experience manufacturing processes, material and component testing, design for manufacturing or issues with suppliers but these skills take many years and many different applications to fully comprehend and understand in full to effectively solve engineering problems.

One alternative to this and a way in which you can gain this industry experience is through completing an apprenticeship or undertaking practical training before commencing an undergraduate degree in engineering. Going down this route allows you to understand the real world issues that occur whilst solving engineering problems. In an idealistic scenario such as a CAD environment, mathematical calculation on paper or some finite element analysis of a component, engineering products can be easily created and simple solutions to problems can be found. The problem with this method is that engineering scenarios are not always ideal and there many other factors that need to be taken into consideration. Through understanding the issues that prevent an ideal solution from being implemented, an engineer can be more comprehensive in their problem solving methodologies. However, it is also very important to understand the underlying principles of mathematics and science that make up engineering. So the real question is, how do you gain both of these skill sets without being an experienced engineering professional with 20 - 30 years experience?

There are multiple ways in which you can make yourself stand out from the crowd and gain as much experience as possible alongside spending time understanding basic engineering philosophies. If you follow the degree route, you can spend time during your summer vacations working for engineering companies and applying the skills you have learnt. We have previously written a blog dedicated to this. If you follow an apprenticeship route it is important to up-skill your technical capabilities and not fall into the category of becoming a lifelong practical technician (Assuming becoming a professional engineer is your end goal in your professional life).

Both of these paths can make you a very competent engineer and it is more important to select the path that is most suitable for you. This is not as simple as it sounds, however, as it important to challenge yourself in the areas that you may not be as good at. If you are more “hands-on” focused, maybe it more suitable for you to go down the degree route and work on the technical aspects of engineering to then apply your newly learned skills on your summer vacations or on your non-study days. If you are more technical focused and highly proficient in mathematics and science, an apprenticeship route may be more suitable to recognise the applications of mathematics and science in engineering. By following this path, you can “learn whilst you earn” and complete engineering qualifications alongside your everyday job.

The key point is, each pathway has its merits. It is down to the individual to understand which is the most appropriate for them and which they will get the most out of. An important aspect of learning is identifying what you don’t know and how you are going to learn and apply it. Each discipline of engineering has a set number of skills that are required to show a competence to be recognised as a professional engineer. In the UK, these are defined by the engineering council and professional institutions which we have discussed in a previous blog.

Personally, I find the best method of learning through application of fundamental principles. For me this is really about understanding the subject in detail, not just to a point where I can pass an exam but to a point where I am an “expert” in that subject and see how it interacts with other engineering applications and principles. This is why the path I have chosen is to work as a full-time engineer alongside working to gain engineering chartership. This allows me to learn a principle and then go and find an application of this within my job role.

As a design engineer, not only is it important for me to understand how to use CAD software, but also the requirements and specifications of a part, based on the manufacturing process and feasibility of implementation or assemblies where multiple parts are interacting with each other and the implications of how they interact with each other. I am then able to go and visually see the products I design and learn from any issues that a part may have in terms of quality or functionality.

In the coming weeks, Engineering First Principles, are going to delve into every discipline of engineering in detail, defining what the key skills required are to be a competent professional engineer and how fields interlink with each other. We are also passionate about developing the forum to allow students and professionals to demonstrate examples of engineering principles in the real world. If you wish to interact with others in this aspect, please join the forum with the link below:

Additionally, if you wish to voice your personal experiences in becoming an engineer, please leave your comments below or explain it within the Engineering First Principles forum.

Luke T Seal Engineering