Sarah Woolham-Jaffier

Sarah Woolham-Jaffier

Undergraduate site engineer

Country: UK

Specialisms: Project management

Career highlights

How I became a civil engineer

During my degree course I’ve had lots of work experience so as I approach graduation it’s really quite exciting as I finally know what path I want to take.

At the end of my first year I completed a three month design placement working for Yorkshire Water in Leeds. This was a design-build contract with JN Bentley and Mott McDonald. I worked in the reservoirs team on the project and when I returned to university I got a high mark in hydraulics… I’m certain the summer placement had a lot to do with it. Following my second year at university I secured site experience with Costain on a £111m link road project. This placement completely changed my view of civil engineering.

It was the first time I had worked around huge earthwork machinery and it really dawned on me how safety in construction is absolutely paramount. I loved being outdoors, I loved the physical aspects of the job and I really liked the pace, pressure and interaction of being onsite.

Later that summer I also joined the Vinci Construction sponsorship programme and the following summers I’ve worked on various Vinci and Taylor Woodrow projects including the construction of a private hospital in Didsbury, a teaching complex at the University of Cumbria and a rail project in Bristol.

This summer I worked using rope access along the top of an earthwork embankment and took part in the overnight demolition of a Victorian viaduct. Doing work placements I’ve learned endless amounts from many wise and inspiring people and getting out there in the world really helps you to put things into perspective.

I’d definitely recommend to use your time as a student to explore job options, meet people and figure out what you want from life and who you want to become.

I’ve always been an active person – I like running and live really close to the Yorkshire Three Peaks so climbing mountains has always been a big part of my free time.

You should not underestimate the physical demands of engineering on construction projects. I soon learned from my site experience in summer that it is not easy to train in the way I did at uni when you are so physically active for up to 50 hours a week on site.

When I’m working as a graduate engineer I plan to lead in promoting physical and mental wellbeing in the workplace.

Sarah doing the CN Tower Edgewalk in Toronto on her exchange year in Canada – just for fun!

Sarah doing the CN Tower Edgewalk in Toronto on her exchange year in Canada – just for fun!

My working day

A day in my university life or onsite are very different but also have some big similarities. Exercise and eating are big parts of my day and I like to try and wake up early and refuel with tasty and healthy food. This is really important for anyone’s concentration and energy throughout the day, particularly onsite when you are outside against the elements, juggling many tasks, constantly assessing safety and making judgements.

In just one day you can find yourself in all kinds of situations onsite: going down on an embankment using ropes, in a trench figuring out how to divert service pipes (electricity/water/gas/internet), up a tall building on scaffolding or on an incomplete bridge deck.

Studying at University is also about solving lots of problems in one day. In most civil engineering degrees you cover the core disciplines of hydraulics (water), geotechnics (soil/rocks/ground) and structures in the first two years and then spend the rest of your degree putting all this knowledge together and solving multi-disciplinary problems.

At uni the civil engineering students often come together with the urban planning, architectural and quantity surveying classes to do complete design projects – like you would in a real work situation.

Similarly onsite you interface with many different stakeholder groups who can at times have conflicting motives. You could be explaining to a local resident how the works are going and what effect this will have on the area. On the other hand you might be reporting to the client or asking for advice from a local authority.

Each stakeholder has a different level of understanding or area of expertise so clear communication is key to keeping up progress and delivering projects on time. You also get to learn so many things from talking to people.

When different trades come onsite they are always willing to explain their systems of work and as a young engineer you shouldn’t be afraid to ask. Understanding how everything on a project ‘fits together’ will help deliver the best outcome.


Civil engineers address some of the future’s toughest dilemmas such as how should our resources be managed? How can carbon outputs be reduced? And how can we transport people and goods faster?

Sarah Woolham-Jaffier

Undergraduate site engineer


I did A-Levels in maths, physics, art and German. I then enrolled onto the fiveyear Master’s programme at Heriot-Watt in Edinburgh.

Each summer between I have tried to get industry experience as it’s the best way to make connections for future jobs and discover what type of civil engineer you want to be.

I want to become a civil engineer.

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