How physics can lead to careers in civil engineering

  • Hannah Russell
  • Mar 06 2024

Have you ever wondered who designs and manages the construction of the infrastructure around us? From the buildings and systems we need to get around – roads, train networks, bridges, airports – to our hospitals, schools, sport stadiums and even sewage pipelines, this is the work of civil engineers.


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UCAS describe civil engineers as “the scientific minds behind the way our modern towns and cities work”. They have played a role in almost everything you see when you step out the door – imagine how proud they must feel to see their work benefiting our lives every day!

Physics opens the door to civil engineering

If you look at the UCAS page for civil engineering, you’ll see that universities are looking for students with good grades in physics.

Civil engineers need to understand and predict how different materials will work and behave; rail tracks need to bear the force of trains, bridges need to be strong enough to support vehicles, large buildings need to withstand extreme weather, sewage pipes need to not leak (!) – all of this knowledge and more comes from an understanding of physics.

Adapting to the climate crisis

As the climate crisis intensifies, it’s important that civil engineers become more aware of, not just how materials behave, but how sustainable they are to use, and how building new structures impacts the landscape. 

They must use their physics knowledge to adapt to the needs of the environment. Construction can cause high levels of pollution, dangerous emissions and use of unsustainable materials. This needs to change and you can lead that change!

Civil engineering graduate Kaye Pollard wrote a blog on this topic for the Institution of Civil Engineers. She said:

“For so long, civil engineers have been rightly proud of our positive contribution to society and the millions of lives we have improved. With urgent action today we can stay on the right side of history during the climate crisis and continue to make a positive impact to society.”

Read Kaye’s full blog here

Diversity equals progress

For an industry to make real, innovative change it needs to be diverse – studies prove it. Diverse workplaces have people from different backgrounds and walks of life who can bring their different perspectives and ideas to the table – which helps progress to happen.

The current engineering workforce (which includes lots of types of engineering, including civil engineering) is not as diverse as it needs to be. Women make up 47.7% of the whole UK workforce, which includes every type of job, but currently just 15.2% of the engineering workforce. People from ethnic minority backgrounds make up 13.4% of the whole workforce, but 11.9% of the engineering workforce – and even within this, some ethnic groups are less well represented than others. And only 10% of people working in engineering have a declared disability, compared to 14% of the UK working population as a whole.

We need to change this, and that is what this year’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science (11 February) was all about - the theme was Women in Science Leadership: A New Era for Sustainability. Read more about International Day of Women and Girls in Science

Stereotypes need not hold us back

You might also have noticed this sort of underrepresentation at school and college. For example, A level physics classrooms are often dominated by boys too.

Of the male students who took physics GCSE in England in 2021, 31.2% earned an A level in physics in 2023. Only 8.9% of female students who took physics GCSE in 2021 chose to continue to A level.  

These types of difference are often due to stereotypes about the sorts of subjects boys and girls study, and the sorts of jobs they should have, which have been around for a long time and can affect students’ subject choices from a young age. Girls are just as capable of continuing to study physics at and beyond GCSE level as boys, as the following results reflect:

  • In 2021, 54.8% of girls who took GCSE physics in England earned a 7 or higher. This is only slightly below the figure for boys - 56.1%.
  • Of the girls across the UK who took A level physics in 2023, the exact same percentage as boys earned a B or higher – 51.4%.

Future equality benefits us all

Civil engineering, and indeed all physics-based workforces, need to be more inclusive and welcoming to foster a more diverse cohort that will be best be able to adapt to the climate crisis. That means we need people from all backgrounds and walks of life. Everyone who enjoys physics and thinks they might like to use it in their career should feel empowered to pursue that.

The first step to being able to study civil engineering at university, or indeed any kind of engineering, is to study physics at school. And of course university isn’t the only path into a physics-based career. Apprenticeships, which allow you to learn skills on the job and give you a strong start in your career, are on the rise and can be a great option if university isn’t for you. 

Find out more about apprenticeships here

Smashing Stereotypes

At the British Science Association we run the Smashing Stereotypes campaign - we love to highlight people who are underrepresented in their field, including women in civil engineering. Read all about Mimi Nwosu, a civil engineer working at Heathrow Airport! Mimi said:

“I can be working on bridges, tunnels, and terminal buildings all in the same week. But whatever project I’m working on, there’s always one thing in common – the opportunity for me to be creative…

“Perhaps the biggest stereotype about being an engineer is that you must be incredibly smart to become one. I think that if you have an interest in how the world works, from our roads, railways, bridges, or even flood defenses – then engineering is for you.” 

Read Mimi’s full profile here

If you have thought about applying to an engineering course at university or an apprenticeship, check out our interview with Toby Hill. Toby earned a Gold CREST Award for his engineering-themed project over the summer between Year 12 and Year 13, and talked about his achievement at university interviews. He went on to study engineering at the University of Cambridge, and is now a patent attorney at a law firm, Mewburn Ellis – studying engineering can lead to all sorts of jobs! 

During his interview with us, he shared lots of useful tips for anyone with an interest in engineering.

Studying physics at school can open so many exciting doors, working in civil engineering is just one of them. Everyone with an interest in physics can and should explore these options. As International Day of Women and Girls in Science encourages us to discuss - the world depends on it!

Hannah Russell is Chief Executive at the British Science Association, a national charity that aims to ensure all of society is included in science.