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Work vs study: how does civil engineering change from university to site?

02 April 2024

ICE QUEST scholar Lewis Acott shares what it’s like to study civil engineering and how it’s different from site work.

Work vs study: how does civil engineering change from university to site?
Lewis Acott has been on a professional placement with his QUEST sponsor company, Galliford Try. Image credit: Lewis Acott

The best thing about a degree in civil engineering is that it can open the door to many different career opportunities.

Sure, many university courses are theoretically focussed, but it translates to the practical, contracting side of civil engineering.

Thanks to the ICE QUEST scholarship, I’ve been able to learn this first hand, as I’ve embarked on a 12-month professional placement with my QUEST sponsor company, Galliford Try.

ICE QUEST Undergraduate scholarship

Are you planning to start a civil engineering degree in autumn 2024 in the UK? Is your course accredited by ICE?

If so, you're eligible for an ICE QUEST Undergraduate scholarship.

You could receive up to £8,000 over the course of your study, paid work placements every summer and potentially, a full-time job when you graduate!

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What’s it like to study civil engineering at university?

At university, you truly reap what you sow.

Unlike school, there’s no one there to hold your hand, so learning effective time management is absolutely crucial.

It’s also so important that university isn’t all about work.

It’s a special opportunity to make friends, try something new and find out more about who you are.

Achieving that balance between academic work and extra-curricular or social activities is about as easy as walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls… in a hurricane.

I haven’t mastered it by any means, but it’s something I always consider when planning out my weeks.

A day in the life

Before my first lecture of the day, I generally spend around half an hour going over the materials for the day and making sure that I’ve done all the problem sheets.

I then start the cycle up to campus. It would be a very pleasant 5-mile ride if the university founders hadn’t decided to place it at the top of the highest hill for miles around.

By the time I’m halfway up I’ve already convinced myself this is harder than the Tour de France!

Keeping things varied

Depending on the day, I have anything from two hours to a full 9-5 and beyond on campus.

There’s a mix of different forms of teaching, which is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the course.

Typically, this is how it goes:

  • the engineering theory is introduced in lectures;
  • the technical application of this theory is tested in tutorials;
  • the real-word application of the theory is used in the labs; and
  • the theory is combined with imagination and problem solving in the design studios.

I’ve studied a wide range of modules from engineering mathematics and surveying to geology and hydrology. My favourite module is structural mechanics.

The huge variety in what you learn combined with the ability to specialise in areas of interest in later years is really good.

Managing the workload

I often try and fit in at least a couple of hours of work before dinner. This will usually be completing problem sets or preparing for lectures later in the week.

Often if I have a big assignment due, I will focus on that.

The workload can be a struggle especially when multiple units have clashing deadlines.

But one of the best things you can do for your mental health when you’re stressed about work, I find, is exercise.

The ‘feel good’ buzz is hard to beat.

It’s freeing to push hard on a run and focus on every breath, step and heartbeat instead of the quasi-permanent load case on a steel tie!

How is working onsite different?

One of the things that became clear to me as soon as I started my placement was the realities of having a fixed schedule.

The sudden reduction in flexibility took me a fair amount of time to get used to.

However, this means that once you finish work, that’s it – all your time is your own.

This is especially nice on the weekends when there are no nagging assignments or other bits of university work.

A day in the life working onsite

I usually start my weekdays at the gym. I find that a quick 45-minute session sets me off on the right foot for the day.

I tend to arrive at site around 7.30. This gives me time to get changed into my work gear, write dynamic risk assessments, review risk assessment method statements (RAMS) and look over the operatives’ work for the day.

Bringing drawings to life

I find that between 8-10 is the busiest time for setting out onsite, when we transfer the design drawings onto the actual site so we know where to build.

I like to think of setting out as the process of making drawings come to life – it's one of my favourite parts of my job as a site civil engineer.

What I’m setting out and how I do it depends entirely on the area of works for the day.

The works also determine the accuracy of the setting out required: bulk earthworks doesn’t require the same accuracy as distribution pipework, for example.

Keeping on top of things

Once the initial round of setting out for the day is complete, I try and take a quick break to gather my thoughts and plan ahead for the rest of the day.

I find this is a good opportunity to complete smaller tasks on my to-do list. These can include:

  • cubing up (calculating the volume needed) and ordering concrete for a future pour;
  • planning out future setting out requirements in line with the project schedule; or
  • liaising with the design team on anything they need from site investigations.

Apart from setting out, I run the settlement management strategy. This involves creating a system to monitor how much the existing structures onsite move due to our construction activities.

It then just needs about an hour’s attention every day, inputting the latest data and checking for any concerning results.

Other tasks can include environmental monitoring and planning the construction sequence for the coming weeks.

Wrapping up for the day

At the end of the day, I try to take about half an hour to write up my diary from the day’s activities.

This details everything I’ve witnessed our operatives and sub-contractors carry out, as well as any engineering tasks I’ve been involved in.

It’s an invaluable resource for professional development and it’s also important in providing evidence in dispute resolution scenarios.

By 17.00, I’m ready to go home, have dinner and watch something on TV to relax.

Then it’s an early night and get ready to do it all again tomorrow!

Apply to become an ICE QUEST undergraduate scholar!

Were you inspired by Lewis’ experience?

If you meet the requirements, you too can apply for an ICE QUEST Undergraduate scholarship.

Applications close on 12 April.

Apply now!
  • Lewis Acott, third year MEng civil and architectural engineering student at the University of Bath