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Which engineering specialisation is right for me? Here are a few...

Ryan Matthews

No idea which type of engineering is the right fit? No worries. Check out this list of 14 engineering specialisations, to get a feel for the right area for your graduate career.

From Archimedes’ invention of the water screw to the construction of the first steam engine, the history of humanity’s technological progress is, in large part, the history of engineering breakthroughs. Even today, we tend to associate different cultures with their most visible feats of engineering, whether that’s the Colosseum in Rome, the Great Pyramids of Egypt, or the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Perhaps even more impressive are the numerous small miracles of engineering that we tend to overlook in our day-to-day lives: the irrigation networks that bring fresh water to our kitchen tap, the elevators that take us from one level to another at the local shopping mall, or the ‘designer’ medications we take to treat countless health problems.

Behind each of these accomplishments is a person (or team of people) who specialise in taking insights from mathematics, science, economics, and other disciplines, before applying them to the process of innovation. Such professionals are known as engineers, and their influence can be seen in fields as varied as computing, mechanics, civil construction, medicine, architecture, and more.

What is engineering?

It’s one thing to be able to come up with a revolutionary idea but it’s another to be able to put that idea into practice and make it a reality. In the broadest terms, engineers are the professionals who aim to bridge this gap between concept and execution. Their title – engineer – comes from the Latin ingenium, which, unsurprisingly, means ‘cleverness’.

Let’s take an example of an engineering feat: human flight. The idea is relatively straightforward: allow a person to leave the ground and soar through the heavens like a bird. However, the execution frustrated engineers for many hundreds of years. In the Ancient Greek myth, Daedalus attempted flight (and escape from a labyrinth he had himself created) by designing large wings to which feathers were affixed with wax. This did not end particularly well for his son Icarus, whose wings melted when he flew too close to the sun. This put an end to early experiments in human flight.

Much later, during the Renaissance, Leonardo Da Vinci drew upon his studies of bird flight to design an impressive, but ultimately impractical, flying machine called the ‘ornithopter’. He also sketched prototype gliders, hot air balloons, and parachutes.

Finally, in the 19th century, human flight, as it were, ‘took off’. Hot air balloons became commonplace across Europe. More importantly, the English engineer Sir George Cayley arrived at a coherent understanding of basic aviation principles, such as weight, lift, drag, and thrust. So, the field of modern aeronautical engineering was born.

However, Cayley – despite building the first glider to successfully carry a human – predicted correctly that sustained flight wouldn’t be possible until other engineers developed a lightweight engine. It took another hundred years and the invention of the gasoline engine – then, in 1903, the engineers Orville and Wilbur Wright, achieved the dream at last, flying their manned plane for twelve seconds at the thrilling altitude of three metres above the ground.

What does the history of flight tell us about engineering? First, engineers aim to solve a specific problem – they begin their work with a well-defined objective, whether that’s designing faster microchips or coming up with a more hygienic way for people to dry their hands in public restrooms.

Second, while engineers often dabble in science, they are not loyal to any one discipline. Instead, they borrow freely from them, taking whatever is necessary. Thus, the first manned flight relied on insights from maths, physics, mechanics, climatology, materials design, and so on.

Finally, the pursuit of one goal in engineering can often lead to, or draw upon, various complementary innovations. For example, the dream of human flight awaited the invention of the gasoline engine. A mere fifty years later, spaceflight – the next frontier – would drive breakthroughs in computing, food science, astronomy, robotics, and more.

In short, engineering is about a process rather than an outcome. It’s the process of using one’s technical skills – maths, programming aptitude, chemistry, or something else – to tackle a problem while keeping one’s mind open to game-changing insights that often come from unexpected places. This process can be applied to various categories of problem, and this has given rise to the specialities we most often talk about today – civil engineering, mechanical engineering, pharmaceutical engineering, chemical engineering, electrical engineering, etc.

If you’re looking for a challenging role that will allow you to apply your education and skills creatively to pursuits that grow and improve lives, engineering is a great place to start. Graduate opportunities can be found across a broad range of areas and industries, including telecoms, consumer goods manufacturing, energy, mining, the built environment, health, education, and pharmaceuticals. While most engineers are employed by private organisations, they are also indispensable in the public sector, providing guidance to defence, government, local councils, federal research bodies (like CSIRO), and other departments.

Engineering roles cover a wide expanse of duties, including research, product design and development, management and commercial responsibilities. Many graduates are attracted to the sector by opportunities for travel and the satisfaction that comes from seeing their designs turned into finished products.

The different types of engineering

Aerospace engineering

From the first hot air balloon in 1793 to the first manned airplane flight in 1903, people have long dreamed of using the principles of science to achieve the power of flight. Nowadays, those principles are applied by aerospace engineers, who lead the way in designing vehicles for use within, and beyond, the earth’s atmosphere.

Aerospace engineers draw on computer science, physics, earth sciences, and maths to design, build, and test flying machines. This profession includes aeronautical engineers, who focus on aircraft, and astronautical engineers, who focus on spacecraft.

Aerospace engineering students under supervision.

They are responsible for mastering the intricacies of topics such as propulsion, aerodynamics, thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, flight mechanics, and structural analysis. Due to the demanding nature of these disciplines, many aerospace engineers choose to specialise and often have specific job titles, such as design aerospace engineer, computational fluid dynamics engineer, and materials aerospace engineer.

If you’re planning a career in aerospace engineering, it’s important that you can demonstrate a high degree of aptitude in maths and the sciences. Indeed, this is necessary to enter and successfully graduate from the growing number of aerospace engineering degrees. Once you begin your career, it will be advantageous to possess curiosity, creative thinking skills, and the ability to work well within diverse teams. You may also benefit from continuing your education by completing a relevant masters program or pursuing professional accreditation.

Chemical engineering

Chemical engineering involves the development, manufacture, and practical application of chemical products, usually in industrial quantities. This often entails the assessment of the processes and equipment used to produce chemicals. It also involves supervising the use of those chemicals to generate secondary products, such as plastics, metals, pharmaceuticals, and food products.

Chemical engineers receive a broad education in the fundamentals of chemistry, physics, mathematics, and, of course, engineering itself. This prepares them for stimulating roles across a range of industries, from mining to manufacturing.

In addition to their technical skills – the importance of which can’t be overstated – chemical engineers also benefit from accuracy, meticulousness, a commitment to process-based thinking, and a strong sense of responsibility. Given the range of roles in which chemical engineers may find themselves, it’s also important that chemical engineers have strong interpersonal skills and the ability to thrive in diverse workplaces.

Civil engineering

The work of civil engineers (also known as structural engineers) is behind much of the built environment that surrounds you each day. Civil engineers draw on a strong understanding of physics, maths, hydraulics, geology, and various other principles. They then apply this knowledge to the safe construction of buildings, dams, roads, bridges, airstrips, water purification plants and more. Their overall goal is to modify the natural environment in ways that make it more conducive to human endeavours, while, increasingly, ensuring that such modifications are sustainable and low-impact.

Civil engineers are employed by a broad range of industries, including construction, consulting, mining, and transportation. They may have various responsibilities. For example, consultant engineers often assist in the development of blueprints for an entire project or advise on the practicality of existing designs. This can mean borrowing insights from fields such as economics, demography, and ecology.

Other civil engineers may focus on more specific building projects, such as the laying of pipes or the construction of railways. Hence the proliferation of specialist titles such as ‘transportation engineer’ and ‘water resources engineer’. To become a civil engineer, it helps to augment your technical skills with a strong work ethic, communication skills, and a penchant for working methodically through complex problems with great accuracy.

Electrical engineering

Electrical engineers oversee the design, development, and manufacturing of tools and equipment used in the production and distribution of electricity. This equipment commonly includes generators, transformers, electric motors, and electric ignition systems. Electrical engineers have been behind several transformative innovations, such as the development of modern audio encoding protocols (such as MP3), as well as new advances in virtual reality. For what it’s worth, Rowan Atkinson – whom you may know better as Mr Bean – also has a degree in electrical engineering.

To achieve their goals, electrical engineers apply concepts from physics, mathematics, computer science, and engineering. The omnipresence of electrical devices in modern life (and science, and technology) means that electrical engineers are highly sought after.

Many electrical engineers choose to specialise, which can result in slightly different titles. For example, an electronics engineer focuses on the components – including capacitors, transistors and microprocessors – that comprise larger electrical devices. While a high degree of technical aptitude is vital when dealing with electricity, attributes such as curiosity, perseverance, and a passion for science are also highly advantageous.

Environmental engineering

Environmental engineers tackle the challenges posed by waste management. In this context, ‘waste’ is a broad term that applies to solid waste, wastewater, toxic waste, hazardous materials, and air pollution. Every industry produces waste in some form or another, and, as a result, the field of environmental engineering is very broad. Generally, its practitioners focus on one of three ‘environments’: air, land, or water.

By drawing on a nuanced understanding of physics, mathematics, ecology, and chemistry, environmental engineers seek to understand the relationship between industry and its environmental impact before advising on ecologically sound and economically viable solutions.

In doing so, they also aim to prevent or mitigate the consequences of poor waste management practices, which can include air pollution, water contamination, and public health crises. For example, they may work with a chemical processing plant to develop ways to render dangerous substances inert before they are disposed of responsibly.

Environmental engineers require a strong command of the physical sciences, and also benefit from excellent written and verbal communication skills.

Manufacturing engineering

Manufacturing engineers oversee a broad range of processes related to the research and design of new products, as well as the tools, processes, and equipment required to produce them. In this context, the manufacturing process encompasses all of the steps involved in efficiently turning a raw material (or variety of raw materials) into a finished product.

Because manufacturing often involves, for example, chemical, mechanical, or robotic challenges, ‘manufacturing engineer’ is a label sometimes applied to other engineering specialists (such as chemical engineers) who choose to focus on the manufacturing process. However, a specialist manufacturing engineer is distinguished by his or her holistic focus on manufacturing, which often involves dealing with overarching concepts such as fabrication and automation, as well as methodologies including ‘agile’ or ‘lean’ manufacturing.

To improve efficiency and cost-effectiveness, manufacturing engineers draw on principles from various sciences, such as statics, mechatronics, circuit analysis, and fluid mechanics. They may also implement principles from project management and business studies.

Thanks to their adaptability, manufacturing engineers are employed in various industries, from IT to defence, that rely on the consistent output of high-quality products. Successful manufacturing engineers possess a keen eye for detail, the ability to focus on the big picture, and highly developed interpersonal skills.

Marine engineering

The ocean is this planet’s final frontier, with the American National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimating that only five per cent of the world’s oceans have been explored.

Marine engineers are at the forefront of efforts to finish the task, taking responsibility for the design, construction, and maintenance of water vessels and structures, as well as equipment used in ocean research. They also work in industry, designing such things as oil rigs and the systems that control steering, propulsion and other critical functions on a range of vessels.

A marine engineer at work.

Marine engineering is a broad field and its practitioners come from a range of backgrounds, including mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and environmental engineering. This reflects the complexity of marine vessels and oceanic research equipment, the development and maintenance of which involves innumerable tasks from creating drawings and technical schematics to calculating price estimates and construction schedules. Marine engineers must also conduct environmental and performance tests and manage other personnel throughout the manufacturing or repair process.

In addition to a recognised degree in engineering, marine engineers are generally expected to have a strong grasp of maths and highly developed computer skills (the ability to generate predictive models is highly valued). You will also need strong communication skills and a willingness to travel at short notice.

Mechanical engineering

The broadest of the engineering specialisations, mechanical engineering involves the application of concepts from physics, engineering and other hard sciences to the development, construction, and maintenance of mechanical systems or machinery.

In Australia, mechanical engineers must study for four years. Their coursework often covers various topics from engineering, maths, and science, including calculus, thermodynamics, product design, fluid mechanics, and mechatronics. This means that graduate mechanical engineers can be found in a range of industries, such as construction, petroleum and manufacturing.

The field of mechanical engineering changes frequently as its practitioners take advantage of new innovations and technologies. For this reason, continuing education is an important part of a mechanical engineering career. In addition to keeping their technical skills up to date, mechanical engineers benefit from strong analytical thinking skills, advanced computer literacy, and the ability to communicate complex ideas in a readily comprehensible way.

Metallurgical engineering

Metallurgical engineering involves blending existing metals to create new alloys that meet industry requirements for strength, flexibility, conductivity, and numerous other variables. This is an old craft, dating back to the first prehistoric smelting of bronze. Nowadays, of course, metallurgical engineering is a more precise science, with its practitioners able to meet specific performance objectives by drawing on an in-depth knowledge of various materials and their physical properties.

There are three main steps in the process whereby raw materials are made ready for use. These steps correspond to three sub-specialities of metallurgical engineering.

First, extractive metallurgists focus on developing techniques for the separation of one material from another. For example, they might design ways to sort different metals in a waste processing plant or more efficiently extract valuable minerals from ore. Second, physical metallurgists work with the extracted metal, often altering it to reinforce desirable properties (such as strength) and mitigate weaknesses (such as brittleness). Finally, process metallurgical engineers convert the refined alloys into end products by smelting, casting, and processing them in controlled environments.

The training of metallurgical engineers emphasises physics, maths, and, above all, chemistry. You will be expected to understand the properties of various materials when exposed to a range of external factors. To do so successfully, it’s important that you have an eye for detail, a passion for science, and a willingness to approach unfamiliar challenges with patience and curiosity.

Mining engineering

Mining is one of Australia’s primary industries, employing some 188,000 people and contributing about $30 billion to the economy each year. Mining engineering is central to the industry, and encompasses the processes involved in the location, extraction, and refinement of mineral deposits. These processes include designing and building mines, devising ways to bring minerals to the surface, and evaluating the cost-effectiveness of new potential mining sites.

Mining engineers focus on several stages of the mining process. First, they review geological data to determine the potential productivity of a new mining operation and produce reports on the operation’s projected costs, environmental impact, and overall viability. They then select mining methods and use complex models to predict the quantity of resources they can expect to extract. If they’re designing an underground mine, they will determine the location and number of mine shafts, and oversee their construction. Once the mine is operational, mining engineers perform safety reviews, oversee maintenance, and monitor air quality, efficiency, and the mine’s environmental impact.

Mining engineers are generally expected to supplement their technical skills with a strong work ethic, the ability to focus on both broad patterns and minor details, and exceptional communication skills.

Petroleum engineering

Petroleum is used to manufacture a wide range of materials, including gasoline, asphalt, plastics, and some pharmaceuticals. In other words, it’s a ubiquitous resource, which makes petroleum engineering – the application of engineering principles to the recovery, processing and use of petroleum – a profession that’s vital to the global economy.

The process whereby petroleum is extracted and converted into a consumer product involves multiple stages and, as a result, petroleum engineers often end up in one of several specialty areas. For example, reservoir engineers collaborate with geoscientists to calculate how much oil is available from a new reservoir and determine the best way to extract it. Similarly, drilling engineers oversee the creation of new oil wells, drawing on a sound knowledge of geological principles to select equipment and advise on drilling methods.

The high average pay offered within the petroleum industry means that vacancies for engineers are often very competitive. As a result, applicants are expected to have exceptional marks and a high aptitude in maths, physics, engineering, and the other hard sciences. In addition, petroleum engineers should be creative, hard-working, and open to the idea of travelling (often to remote or regional areas) for work.

Production engineering

Production engineering is a hybrid discipline that combines manufacturing engineering with principles from management science, which is the study of how best to solve problems and increase efficiency within human organisations.

A production engineer smiling.

Production engineers focus on the conversion of raw materials into products that are fit for sale, secondary industrial usage, or consumption. This means creating production models, managing the use of resources to optimise efficiency, and implementing new technologies to streamline production. To perform such tasks, production engineers apply ideas from management science, such as data mining, game theory, and decision analysis.

Production engineers require high scientific and mathematical aptitude, as well as strong interpersonal skills, and attention to detail. They should be adept at approaching new problems in a systematic and meticulous way, and enjoy mathematics and science.

Software engineering

Software engineering involves the development or refinement of new and existing software programs to meet a range of objectives. It is through software that raw computational power can be harnessed and directed towards the achievement of various goals, be it the creation of an immersive gaming experience or the improvement of an accounting tool.

Generally, software engineers fall into two camps. Those that work as systems software engineers are responsible for software ecosystems in which various programs are linked together to meet an organisation’s requirements. By contrast, applications software engineers design, create and modify specific computer applications.

The best software engineers in both categories tend to produce programs in which their efforts are concealed behind a smooth, intuitive, and effective user interface. However, this doesn’t mean they receive no reward for their work – in fact, they’re often highly paid professionals, and it’s not unusual for outstanding achievers to find themselves ‘headhunted’ by well-known organisations. Regardless of how you specialise as a software engineer, it’s probable that you’ll need strong problem-solving skills and a broad, but deep, understanding of both the fundamentals of computer science and various coding languages.

Sports engineering

When you hear the phrase ‘doping in sports’, you probably think of illicit substances used to give athletes an unfair advantage. However, advances in nanotechnology, 3D printing, and biomimicry have given rise to another controversial issue: technology doping, or, in other words, the use of carefully engineered devices to augment natural human abilities and maximise athletic performance.

Of course, sports engineering isn’t responsible only for controversy. It’s also been behind a range of lauded technologies, such as the carbon fibre blades that allow Paralympians to run and the skin-tight, aerodynamic sportswear that Cathy Freeman wore when she won the gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Sports engineers also design equipment and sports venues, improve performance measurement, and use concepts from biomechanics to help sportspeople achieve their best.

To become a sports engineer, it’s advisable that you choose a broad undergraduate engineering degree that will allow you to further specialise as a graduate. For example, a double degree in mechanical engineering and science (majoring in biology or physiology) will stand you in good stead as you pursue career opportunities in the sports sector. There are also a growing number of postgraduate qualifications that may help you to specialise. For example, RMIT now offers the southern hemisphere’s first masters program focusing on sports technology.

If you decide to pursue a career in engineering, you’ll be able to apply your creativity and technical expertise to various challenges faced by businesses, governments, and individuals. Whether that means dedicating yourself to a focused problem – for example, designing artificial organs for use in medicine – or a large-scale issue – such as climate change, and humanity’s response to it – one thing is certain: in our fast-paced world, engineers have a unique ability to make a positive impact while also being well-remunerated for their valuable skills. For more industry insights, visit GradAustralia's engineering advice page.