How easy is it to get into renewables with a Civil Engineering Degree?
January 13, 2017 9:00 PM   Subscribe

I'm studying Civil Engineering and Marine Science (Dual Degree) and considering changing to Renewable Energy Engineering as I want to get into renewables, but it requires me changing universities, losing my scholarship and moving interstate. Worth it?

Hi All,
I’m a student in Australia, currently studying Civil Engineering on scholarship, and have just completed my second year. I have never enjoyed any aspect of Civil Engineering and can honestly never see myself working a 9-5 job as a Civil Engineer in a firm somewhere.

I am thinking of transferring to UNSW (University of New South Wales) to study Renewable Energy Engineering. I am really passionate about renewables and find them super interesting and satisfying.

If I transfer I will most likely graduate a year later than if I didn’t transfer (depending on how much of my study I can be given credit for), I will have to find accommodation, a job, will be away from my family, and will not have a scholarship at my new university.

Should I stick with Civil at my current uni in order to use my scholarship and then hope I can get into renewables somehow with my Civil degree (or do a masters in Renewable Energy somewhere)? Or should I move to UNSW to do a degree in something I can actually see myself working in in the future?

Below I’ve listed pros and cons, as well as the three possible pathways I have to choose from.

Pros and cons

If I move, I have to find accommodation, a job, friends, set myself up in a new city.
If I move, I graduate with a degree in something I am actually passionate about and can see myself working in.
If I move, I lose my scholarship which I am currently on.
If I move, it may take me an extra year to complete my degree.

Three possible pathways:
1. Remain in my current degree on scholarship. Graduate with Civil Engineering / Marine Science and try find a job in renewables using my civil degree.
2. Change to UNSW to renewable energy engineering / marine science. No scholarship. Graduate with Renewable Energy Engineering / Marine Science. Potentially a year longer than if I stick with what I'm doing.
3. Remain at current uni on scholarship, graduate then do a masters in Renewable Energy Engineering.

Does anyone know how hard it is to get into a Renewable Energy Engineering job with a straight Civil Engineering degree?
posted by johnz to Work & Money (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
In the United States, many civil engineering graduates go on to renewable energy careers.

-There is hydroelectric / dambuilding, but that usually projects outside of the United States

-Renewable Energy plants require foundations, high power distribution systems, roads, structural steel to hold up PV / Windmills / racks for batteries. I would talk to your professors, the society of civil engineers, or call up companies that you might want to work for, and ask them to be sure.
posted by nickggully at 9:16 PM on January 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

No, I would not advise moving state and losing scholarships in the middle of college only to change majors to something fairly related to and accessible from the current major.
posted by SaltySalticid at 9:46 PM on January 13, 2017 [13 favorites]

I work with lots of people who work on renewables. All of them have very standard specialties, like civil engineering, biology, etc. Whatever the barriers to getting into the field might be, i don't think it is specialization.
posted by Dip Flash at 10:15 PM on January 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

No. "Renewable energy" is not yet a recognized field of engineering and you will find in my experience a much easier time getting a job if you have a familiar and recognized background. I worked in renewables R&D for several years and it was all people with degrees in physics, EE, ME, chemistry, etc - because "renewables" isn't a skill set, it's a topic area that you apply the skills to. The common path - the one that most people who would be hiring you will be looking for and expecting - would be to get the foundational skill set in school and then you can go and apply it to a range of topics, renewables will be one of them. And they'll usually be looking to hire someone with one (or more) of those skill sets.

Now, if you hate Civil Engineering, that's its own issue - maybe you can take some classes in areas you're interested in and see if a change of application affect your interest in the baseline tasks of the job. Fluid mechanics is useful, or 'environmental engineering' or a course on environmental policy (working in the field of renewable energy you brush regularly against questions of whether some new tax subsidy is going to make it worthwhile to expand into a related field or going to mean the business will go up or down next year). At least read some books about it, or find a related major at your current school that you could change to without losing your scholarship and degree. Figure out whether it's *civil* engineering you don't like or whether you don't really care for engineering at all, for example.

Most of the jobs working at, say, building a solar power array are going to look a lot like jobs building electrical grid connected to a coal power plant; pipes carrying coolant around the plant will be pretty similar regardless of what they're cooling; etc. The reward of working on renewables is that you get to feel a bit better about yourself and your job in the big picture, but the day-to-day grind is pretty similar.

If you graduate with a civil engineering degree you can almost certainly find a job somewhere doing a different type of engineering or different type of tasks, especially if you have some additional background in that other type of engineering or other tasks. You could pretty simply go into technical sales, for example, if you realize you don't like the routine work of engineering full time after all. Or work as an applications engineer designing custom solutions to meet specific customers' needs, that kind of thing. It's not all "just like school forever" even if you have a degree in Civil Engineering, but for your current happiness you might think about what it is that you enjoy about renewables and how to get some of that in your current situation.

Well, that got long. Sorry! Hope it's useful.
posted by Lady Li at 11:20 PM on January 13, 2017 [10 favorites]

Students generally worry too much about discipline or even subdiscipline in school. Out in the workforce, exactly what flavour of degree you have frequently doen't matter.

I recommend staying in your existing program but looking hard for work terms in areas you want to focus on. In Canada at least those, and not the exact degree, are much more likely to be important to future jobs.

A Masters isn't a bad idea (but does delay for a couple of years). There you want to pick an advisor with good contacts, academic and industrial, in the field you are interested in.
posted by bonehead at 5:49 AM on January 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

Also, in my view, graduate degrees are a way to change disciplines w/o the disruption and penalties of doing so during during under grad. If it's going to take an extra year to switch, that's the better part of doing a masters any way. A masters far outweighs any marginal benefit from switching unis: you will get paid for doing it and you will have better qualifications than many of your peers.
posted by bonehead at 5:55 AM on January 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

I have been involved with running specialist UG RE Engineering programmes in the UK for 12 years. I would characterise an UG RE degree as combining elements of civil engineering, mechanical engineering and design engineering. Historically there have not been enough specific graduates specialising in RE to cover all of the jobs that are becoming available globally, even with Masters level programmes. This has meant that there have been vacancies are filled by people with straight engineering degrees in mech eng (common), civil eng (less common but I think there are way more mech engs about) and other disciplines. I even know geography grads who get jobs in RE! I'd stick where you are, select for optional modules which relate to energy where possible (look at the UNSW syllabus or other UG RE progammes to get a better idea of what these are) and do any project work on RE topics. Start applying for RE jobs in your final year and if its not looking positive then apply for M-level programmes in RE. These are also available all over the world if you have the yen to study overseas.

I agree with Lady Li that if its the syllabus and work you're not enjoying then it may still be an issue if you move over to RE specifically. Being on site building a wind turbine or putting in place a gas generator at an AD site isn't going to be super different than being on site for other civil engineering projects. There are other kinds of jobs of course that still make use of your degree, consultancy is a common role for my grads - this is basically setting up the project but not doing the actual build, you may find you enjoy that. Operating the built generator is another. Sales can require technical expertise if you fancy that.
posted by biffa at 6:11 AM on January 14, 2017 [3 favorites]

Not an engineer, but both my parents are. They both trained as electrical engineers, and then both immediately got jobs in the brand-new computer engineering field. Over the years, my dad parlayed his formerly-hobbyist interest in economics into a CFA qualification and a job managing the company's pension fund, while my mom focused on writing code and creating massive Excel spreadsheets. Basically, neither of their jobs directly used their background in resistors and capacitors, although I'm sure the logical thinking they learned as engineers served them well.

For my own part, I was a dual major in chemistry and comparative literature with a plan to go to medical school, but liked my comp lit studies so much I almost withdrew my med school applications during my last year of college in order to apply to comp lit PhD programs (!) I ultimately did go to medical school which I supplemented with a humanities-oriented Master's, and plan to spend my career teaching medical humanities in addition to seeing patients. In particular, my Master's qualification was a big topic of interest during interviews, and showed that I was serious about this still-in-its-infancy subfield, much as you are (presumably) serious about renewable energy.

tl;dr: you want option 3.
posted by basalganglia at 6:20 AM on January 14, 2017

I mean is it possible to go for options 1 and 3? I don't think there's anything preventing you from applying to master's degree programs and jobs at the same time. School and work at the same time is quite difficult, so that may not be a good choice, but if you get a job offer and also get into a master's program, then at least you have more concrete options to choose between, with much less guesswork.
posted by Zalzidrax at 6:58 AM on January 14, 2017

I would also point out that offshore wind energy has started to grow again in the last year, including the US getting its first offshore farm. Tidal stream and wave energy are both still moving out of the R&D and into the pilot testing stage and that offshore floating wind is seen a shaving a lot of potential and is likely to see increased testing in the near term. These are all sectors that will be more easily made accessible for employment as result of your Marine Science degree component.
posted by biffa at 7:22 AM on January 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

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