Case study

Graduate structural engineer — Will Lavelle

Will studied for a MEng in General (Civil) Engineering at Durham University. He now works for Atkins as a structural engineer

How did you get your job?

I applied to the Atkins Graduate Scheme through their website, and then undertook an online test and a face-to-face interview. It was a very stress-free process.

What's a typical day like as a structural engineer?

I'm currently working on Thames Tideway - London's solution to cleaning up the Thames. Working on-site in the Fulham area, I'm leading the structural design at three of the seven Tideway West sites, designing large concrete chambers to intercept the existing sewer where it currently overflows into the river.

Admittedly, it's not the glamorous 'Shard' project I always dreamed of; but it's really interesting, and amazing to think it will change the face of London for the next 120 years.

What do you enjoy about your job?

As an engineer, most of my job revolves around working in teams, solving problems and coordinating with other disciplines, so I'm fortunate to have worked with a number of fascinating people and I have a brilliant group of colleagues around me - good working relationships are crucial to learning while you work, but enjoying it at the same time.

When I got the job, I was hoping to design tall buildings and skyscrapers but I'm really pleased that I've ended up going down the heavy infrastructure route as I've found it much more rewarding.

I've been lucky enough to play a role in a number of Britain's major infrastructure projects including Crossrail and Thames Tideway, so having the opportunity to make a genuine difference to the world around me has been brilliant.

What are the challenges?

As with most new graduates, moving to a new city and starting my first job was not easy - it's a very different way of life to university and it did take a while for me to adjust. At university I was part of a huge number of clubs and societies, and even started a couple, but life as a professional in London doesn't work like that.

Thankfully, three years down the line, my evenings are now busy with various hobbies and past-times, and its great working in an industry where you're able to have such a good work-life balance. It makes you appreciate it even more when the rest of your friends are stuck in their law firms and banks until past bedtime.

In what way is your degree relevant?

I've probably used more of my degree than I realise. Sometimes it feels like I'm learning something new every day, but naturally there are some parts of my course that I've used a lot more than others.

As a structural engineer, the structures and geotechnics modules were key, but aside from that even the more mundane parts of the course like construction contracts have come in handy.

It all depends on what projects you end up working on, but I've certainly made the most of the work-ethic and communication skills I learnt over the course of my degree.

How has your role developed?

My role has developed a lot over the past three years, and I have enjoyed working on a number of projects of different sizes and complexities. Recently, I was also selected as one of the Future Leaders to the President of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), where I have been working closely with the Institution's Policy Team on one of their flagship projects, Project 13. This has shown me a whole different side to civil engineering, but has also allowed me to work with some of the leaders in our industry, which has been fascinating as well as inspiring.

In the short-term I'm hoping to pass my professional review and get chartered with the ICE. I haven't got a long-term plan, but I'm particularly interested in improving efficiency in the industry and getting teams to work to their full potential, so will probably end up going down the project management route.

That's what I like about this industry, there's opportunity everywhere. I can play it by ear to a certain degree and see what exciting projects and opportunities come up.

How do I get into structural engineering?

  • Have an appreciation for the world around you. Look at built environments and ask 'how did they design that?', 'how did they build that?' and 'how would I have designed it differently?' Asking questions leads to solutions, and that's what the job of an engineer is - a problem solver.
  • Master the interview process. Interviews are a daunting experience, but of all the interviews I've done I've found the majority to be informal and relaxed. One of the key questions employers are trying to answer is 'would I want to work with this person?' If the answer is 'no' you're not going to get the job. Be interested, be interesting and be yourself. As an engineer you'll work in teams daily, so you've got to be a team-player and willing to cooperate and coordinate with a range of people from across the industry and across the world.
  • Apply. I applied to well over a dozen firms when I was looking for my first job because I wasn't sure what I was looking for. I had interviews at lots of different companies and I quickly built up an idea of what I was looking for, even if the company wasn't right for me I was getting good interview practice.

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