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How I became a civil engineer

Published: Jan 22, 2020 9 min read

STEM learning

Mimi Isabella Nwosu

Mimi-Isabella Nwosu, describes herself as a 'concrete enthusiast' but it hasn't always been that way, almost dropping out of university because she had so little interest in the science course she was studying. Now an assistant materials engineer and STEM Ambassador, Mimi explains her journey to finding the area within STEM she really loves.

Ten years ago, I started my A levels with high hopes of becoming a medical professional. A levels were the hardest period of my education. Still hopeful, I completed my A levels in biology, chemistry, psychology and religious studies; however, I didn't meet the grade requirements to study the course I wanted. 

I went through the clearing process and was so desperate to go to university 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 a lecture by a friend, without asking what course he studied, I followed him. The course was male-dominated and had only two women.

"What course is this?"

Before I could ask, the lecture had started. The topic of the lecture was bridge design and construction methods. I made three 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 research (I like to take risks), 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 it 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. The lecturers have vast experiences and passion for the industry which transpires through their teaching. SCES also has a dedicated careers service for the students in the school.

"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. 

After the support and 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 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 skills and showed me the practical application of my degree. This experience later allowed me to complete my studies and prepare for my future career.

I successfully 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 entitled: 'Investigating the mechanical properties of Ultra-high-performance fibre reinforced concrete (UHPFRC) at elevated temperatures.' I achieved a first 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 four 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 five jobs before graduation, which gave me freedom to fully focus on my degree.

I got the job

I graduated from university in 2018 with a 2:1 and accepted a role as a graduate highways engineer for a global engineering consultancy. I worked at the consultancy for 11 months and 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.

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 three different working environments - a laboratory, onsite 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!

An engineer never stops learning​

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 one of the 'Top 500 most inspiring and influential people in the UK's construction industry' at The London Build Expo 2019 and was also awarded the role of a ‘Diversity in Construction ambassador'. Currently, I am a STEM Ambassador, a role model/mentor/volunteer 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.

I regularly go back to the University of Portsmouth to share my story and inspire the next generation of engineers. Studying Civil Engineering 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 really try to engross myself into the culture of the countries I visit.

I am a lover of learning and an engineer never stops learning. I start the new decade in a job I love and will continue to complete the steps to achieving the life I’ve always wanted and due to the great advancements within technology, I believe I’ve joined the industry at the best time! I am extremely determined to meet my goal of becoming a Chartered Engineer (CEng) within the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE).

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 own opportunities, a wise person once said to me “if you don’t ask, you don’t get”.
  • Set goals, but 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

I would like to thank my family and friends who have always been incredibly supportive, my friend who introduced me to civil engineering, Dr Lee Woods, the University of Portsmouth - School of Civil Engineering and Surveying, my previous employers and Sir Robert McAlpine.