If you'd like a people-facing career that blends your scientific mind with engineering skills, consider becoming an acoustic consultant
Acoustic consultants provide acoustics, noise and vibrations services, such as noise surveys, noise assessments, acoustic design advice and building acoustics.
As an acoustic consultant, you could help mobile phone developers manipulate sound through digital signals, advise on the design of a concert hall or use ultrasound in the field of seismology. As this is a multidisciplinary profession, you could work in a wide array of disciplines including science, engineering and construction.
Types of consulting work
Acousticians have the option of specialising in a number of areas, including:
- architectural acoustics
- audio engineering
- environmental noise
- noise control and product sound
- musical acoustics
- speech and hearing
- underwater acoustics.
Tasks may vary from role to role, but generally you'll be expected to:
- undertake noise assessments, for example in buildings to make sure they meet building regulations
- complete acoustic modelling, with knowledge of how changes in design affect sound levels and quality
- design and research medical equipment, such as ultrasound
- work with recording studio and broadcast sound equipment
- support senior staff
- at a senior level, appear in court as an expert witness
- prepare and produce reports and tenders
- liaise with clients and local authorities
- operate independently and under guidance
- undertake project administration and management
- carry out surveys and testing
- use modelling software, which could include ODEON, SoundPlan, INSUL, CadnaA and/or CATT.
Salaries vary according to your location, level of experience and qualifications and the size of the company you work for.
- Suitably qualified graduate acoustic consultants can expect a starting salary of between £22,000 and £26,000.
- Unqualified graduates may earn upwards of £18,000 per year.
- Consultants typically earn between £25,000 and £39,000.
- Senior consultants could earn between £27,000 and £50,000, with principal acoustic consultants earning in excess of £45,000 per year.
A lot of organisations operate a bonus scheme and may offer a company car or use of a pool car.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
You'll usually work 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, or depending on the job you may work on a shift system.
When starting out in your career, it's possible that you could be working long and often unsociable hours including nights and weekends. This is because you need to work around others and for the duration of any noise being assessed. For example, often the last person standing at a music festival is the acoustic consultant in charge of the festival's noise management.
Your time is split between the office and being on site. On occasion, this may include travel within the UK or abroad.
What to expect
- Surveys are a common part of a consultant's role. Often, these are weather dependent so you could be asked to carry one out at quite short notice.
- There's no huge gender imbalance across the industry as a whole, but it isn't quite 50/50. While there tends to be more females within environmental consultancy, the engineering element of acoustics consultancy is more male dominated - but not to a significant degree.
- As there are very few university-level courses specialising in acoustics in Europe, there is quite often a need for UK-based acoustic consultants to work across Europe as well as further afield. Therefore, if you're competent in more than one language, this can be very useful.
- An element of the work is driven by government legislation and new developments, including the new Heathrow Airport runway, the HS2 project, as well as new legislation regarding sound insulation in buildings.
The majority of new entrants to acoustic consultancy will have a degree in maths, physics or engineering or a specialist degree in acoustical and/or audio engineering. Entry is possible after having studied subjects such as music technology or environmental science, but you'll also need to gain corporate membership of the Institute of Acoustics (IOA) via an accredited Diploma or MSc course.
You'll need to have:
- an aptitude for maths and science
- a logical and creative approach to problem solving
- excellent written and verbal skills
- a proactive outlook
- self motivation
- knowledge of codes of practice, policy and legislation
- technical report writing skills
- project management skills
- a clean UK driving license
- the ability to operate independently as well as under guidance
- the confidence to liaise with clients as well as local authorities
- noise modelling skills including familiarity with noise modelling software
- excellent IT skills including proficiency in Excel and Word as well as computer simulations
- commercial awareness
- the ability to collate and analyse data
- strong interpersonal skills
- budgeting and negotiating skills
- accuracy and quality control
- while not essential, knowledge of foreign languages is useful.
Work experience is vital, as graduate employers usually require trainee or assistant consultants to have up to two years' work experience. Consultants are expected to have at least two years' relevant work experience.
One good source of work experience is through music festivals in the summer. Acoustic consultancies may employ up to 20 students during this time to undertake sound measurements for the duration of festivals on a shift work basis.
Local councils are also a good source of work experience, often for night surveys.
The majority of acoustic consultant employers are based within the London and South East areas of the United Kingdom, with a smaller number in the Midlands and North West. Hubs for employment are centred in cities which include London, Bristol, Manchester, Southampton and Winchester with a particular density along the M3 corridor.
Approximately 50% (around 1500 in the UK) of IOA members are employed within the field of environmental noise.
Typical employers include:
- acoustic consultancies
- education providers
- local authorities
- technology and engineering firms
- environmental organisations
- vehicle manufacturers
- aerospace industry
- Ministry of Defence
- research departments at universities.
Look for job vacancies at:
- IOA - Jobs in Acoustics
- European Acoustics Association (EAA)
- Institute of Noise Control Engineering of the USA (INCE USA)
There are a small number of specialist recruitment agencies, including:
Specialist publications, such as Environmental Health News, will have job listings.
It's common for employers to contact university departments or academic staff directly as a source of new talent - especially for students seeking work experience opportunities.
Additionally, the IOA website includes a register of acoustic specialists and suppliers. This is a good source of contacts for your job search.
At the start of your career you could join the IOA as an associate member, applying to become a full member after three years of relevant work experience. With further experience and training, you could gain chartered engineer status through the IOA, allowing you to progress onto senior acoustics consultant or engineer roles.
To progress within your career you may wish to study towards a Masters degree or a diploma in acoustics and noise control. A number of employers will take on graduates and sponsor them to undertake these qualifications.
More senior acoustic consultants could be expected to spend a large amount of time in court as expert witnesses, relating to issues as diverse as hearing loss claims through to criminal forensics. The IOA runs continuing professional development (CPD) workshops in this and other relevant topics for its members.
Acoustic consultancy is a relatively small profession with, according to the IOA 2016 annual report, just 3,378 members across the UK. Despite its niche role, there is not too much competition for jobs. Employment rates for the industry are high.
Career progression tends to be by moving company. Many acoustic consultancies are SMEs, with one to five employees, therefore upward progression within them is hard. It's common for a new entrant to move companies up to three times within their first five years and then to settle in one place after that.
The ultimate goal of many acoustic consultants is to set up their own consultancy business.