From an English degree to signalling design engineering: Sofia’s story

There are several routes into an engineering career. English graduate Sofia found a different way to become a signalling design engineer and is now a Chairperson for Young Rail Professionals too.

How do you get into engineering after studying English at uni? Here’s how Sofia went from unemployed to starting a career in the rail industry.

After gaining an MA in English Literature, Sofia was offered a month’s work placement in a rail recruitment office. The Rail Manager was so impressed they put Sofia forward for more work in the rail industry where she developed new skills and abilities. She went on to become a rail signalling design engineer, working for big projects like Crossrail and Network Rail. Plotr investigated her interesting career path to find out more!

Tell us about your job…

I’m a Signalling Design Engineer in Rail. For the last two years I’ve been working in WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff, a private multinational infrastructure consultancy based in Manchester office. I mainly produce scheme plans or detailed designs for Rail infrastructure projects generated by Network Rail, Crossrail and other clients.

I need to have good knowledge of the Network Rail and Railway Group standards which guide me in order to produce an accurate, safe design that’s up to date with regulations. I work closely with my team and design manager, and before I issue my completed design to the client I apply a self-check to make sure it’s perfect. Attention to detail, multi-tasking and strong communication with each other are some of the key factors for success in the field.

In order to reach the level of Designer I first had to pass through a licensing scheme held by the Institution of Railway Signal Engineers, which includes assessments and submission of evidence to prove I’m competent for the job. I rarely work on site and my job is office-based where I have to operate my PC’s Microstation V8 software to produce my drawings. Correctly printing and folding the drawings is a crucial part of my job, and it’s important to do this before carrying out accurate self/independent checks and issuing the designs to the client. Finally, e-mails need to be checked on a constant basis so that there’s up to date communication between the design team and client.

As for my second role as a Chairperson for the North Western committee of Young Rail Professionals, it all started with my application for the YRP award last year. That’s what led me into this route. Following my success in being one of the four shortlisted nominees, I managed to become the Networking and Development Manager for the NW committee, committing to organising events related to Rail.

This year, after being recommended by the previous Chairman and following the YRP internal elections, I was elected as the new Chairperson for the NW committee, a post I’ll hold till next April. This involvement with YRP helped me a lot in my actual job and I totally recommend you to do the same.

Interested in becoming a signalling design engineer? There are many organisations you could work for as well as many different routes into the role:

  • Apprentice Signalling Design Engineer
  • Signalling Design Engineer at Network Rail

What are the best bits about your job?

I really love working in Rail Signalling design as it makes me feel very useful and important. Our type of job is critical and Rail safety depends on it. I believe such a job makes me an even more ambitious and hard-working person, as there are always new skills to learn and ways to expand my knowledge and experience in the sector.

Networking and learning from senior designers or/and employees from different disciplines and companies helps me think outside the box and have a perspective of how my discipline fits into the whole system of Railways. My job gave me the opportunity to get involved with Young Rail Professionals (YRP) where I apply my passion for Rail and help others experience it too.

What 3 top skills or qualities are important in your job?

  1. Ambition – because it will make you a more hard-working, skilled and recognised engineer.
  2. Communication – it will help you avoid errors, be ahead of deadlines and be inspired.
  3. Multi-tasking – there will be occasions where you’ll need to pause one task and start another and organise your time to meet any deadlines.

What did you want to be when you were younger?

Surprisingly I studied Greek and English literature so I always thought I was going to be a teacher, or perhaps an academic if I had done a PhD after my Master’s degree back in 2013.

However, things developed quite unexpectedly. Open-minded as I am, I decided to grasp the opportunity in front of me and follow a completely different career path, one into Rail. I never regretted a single thing from this decision.

I feel so lucky that this kind of opportunity showed up. So never close any doors that could lead you to something amazing. Be open-minded and follow new challenges and you’ll never forget it.

How did you get into doing this as your job?

After I achieved my MA in English Literature from the University of York I was unemployed for around six months. I thought it would be a good start to get some advice from the job centre and look for a job while applying for a PhD in Comparative Literature. The job centre offered me a work placement in a Rail recruitment office for a month, where I worked part-time to gain work experience for my CV.

This is where things started getting interesting and the Rail Manager promoted my CV to the first consultancy for a job opportunity - which I got. It was only a temporary three-month contract but after the new skills I’d learned and the new professional contacts I’d made, it wasn’t difficult at all to keep it up and become what I’ve become now. You just need to be open-minded, social, hard-working, and ambitious and take risks in life decisions.

What training or courses did you do to get to where you are today?

Most of the courses I went on took place internally in my office, and they lasted one week at most. Most of the material was covered during seminars so I didn’t need to do much studying in my free time.

There were some cases where the course had to be done in an external training centre - which was all paid for by my employer, including my travel/accommodation costs.

I’ve taken the Personal Track Safety course in order to be able to work on site if needed. Also, I achieved some more technical courses, like the one for Basic and Intermediate Signalling Technology.

Generally speaking you need to read as many articles you can, and keep yourself up to date with the latest news related to your specialisation. It also really helps if you attend networking events where you can learn from others working in the field about any training courses out there.

Explore more career ideas by visiting the better connected future world

Back to article list
Back to top