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Working as a Civil Engineering Intern – Sabrina Harper

Join us for a Q&A session with Sabrina as she shares her experience working at the Department of Infrastructure and Transport (DIT).

What is your name, and what do you study?

I’m Sabrina Harper and I study Civil Engineering and have just completed a Diploma in German Studies.

What did you study in year 12, and how did this help you get where you are, in terms of how did this guide your choice for your degree, did it help you with your internship?

I was really lucky to know (roughly) what I wanted to study by the time I was in year 10 so I could look at all the subjects that would help me get into a STEM degree at uni.

I chose to do the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program (IBDP). That meant that I did the same subjects with the same teachers in year 11 and 12 and my year 12 exams tested me on the sum of what I had learnt in those two years. The IBDP is a bit different to SACE in a few ways but most of what I did can be done in SACE too.

I chose the IBDP specifically so that I could study all the ‘engineering prerequisite’ subjects and still have space for German. My subjects were Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Psychology, English and German.

When I went to uni I knew I wanted to do engineering, but I wasn’t sure which type. I started off with a flexible entry, which meant I did a few courses that were relevant to different types of engineering. After my first year I realised that my favourite subjects related best to civil engineering, so I chose to continue my degree with that.

Where did you do your internship? Tell us a bit about the company, and the projects you helped with.

In my second year I did a course that was related to transport and systems, and I really enjoyed the topic. I found an internship program with the Department of Infrastructure and Transport (DIT), and I applied. I applied for several other internships as well. I didn’t get accepted into any that year, which was disappointing at the time. A year later I filled out all those applications once more but this time I could see how much I had grown since the previous year. I had done a lot in that time, I knew I was ready for an internship, and I was confident I could bring value to a company. This time I got an interview with DIT and soon enough an offer for their internship program.

At DIT I was one of a dozen or so interns but I was the only one in the Roads and Marine Department. I worked with a couple of recent graduates for lots of the time and would shadow them on larger projects, but I took on my own smaller projects as well. I never worked completely alone and there was always someone nearby to help if I ran into problems or had any questions. We worked on big intersection upgrade projects in early stages, construction stages and finishing stages. I spent most of my time at or working on the Magill Road x Portrush Road intersection where the road had already been widened and “finishing works” were occurring. These finishing works included footpaths, medians and islands, landscaping and safety walkthroughs. I worked with contractors from early stages of receiving quotes through to checking the works after they had been completed.

What did a typical day at your internship look like? Bring us through a day in the life of an intern!

A typical day started somewhere between 8 and 10, usually 8:45am. I would arrive to work, pop my lunch in the fridge, say hello to those already in the office and check and respond to emails. Sometimes responding to emails would mean I needed to make some calls, so I would do that too.

Usually, I would have a small task to finish off in the morning while I ate some morning tea. If I finished a task and needed something to do, I would walk across to my boss to ask, sometimes my co-workers would see that look on my face and give me a task before I even got away from my desk – mind readers.

By mid-morning I’d be told we had to go to site for a meeting or to check on progress. Every site visit would require long sleeves, long pants, steel cap boots, a reflective vest, hard hat, glasses, and gloves. I got into the habit of wearing long layers to work every day because I would expect to have a site visit. I kept a duffle bag under my desk with the rest of my gear, including the boots – I can’t recommend running for the bus in steel caps.

Did you have any misconceptions about the industry you interned in? (roles, social dynamics, expectations etc.)

I had few preconceptions of the work that they conducted but I suppose I expected DIT to undertake more of the technical planning part of projects. They mostly outsourced. In my department, it was more like project management than anything else. They told me that this was a result of changes they had made to the Department some years earlier, in reducing in-house technical sectors. One of the pleasant surprises was how relaxed the dress code was. I never felt like I had to dress in a way that didn’t suit me and when I came in with fun new clothes or earrings, I would get compliments. I could focus on the practicality of the clothes and very importantly, matching my earrings to my outfit.

Did you face any major challenges?

I think my biggest challenge was keeping busy when the office was super quiet after the Christmas and New Year break. It was difficult to work with co-workers who weren’t around and contractors who were still taking holidays. Things picked up after a week and I could finally contact all the people I had been waiting for.

What is the most important thing you learned from this experience?

The most important thing I learned was to be curious. No one sat me down to lecture me so I would understand a topic before people started talking about it. I had to ask questions as they came up or write them down and get them answered later. I could have just listened and nodded my head but then I wouldn’t have gained as much from the experience. Instead, I asked about the rules and regulations and why they were doing it this way and not that way. Each time I asked, I got an answer and each answer strengthened my understanding of the type of engineering we were conducting.

Would you encourage younger students, in the beginning of their degrees, or in high school, to pursue work in this industry?

I think it’s pretty cool to work in a way that enables people to get places, quickly, safely and with minimal road-rage. I also spent hours thinking about traffic lights as a kid and, let’s be honest, as an adult too. I don’t think this industry will interest everyone but I love the theory and systems behind it as well as the tangible way of improving our communities and lives. Transport systems can make a huge difference and it’s especially easy to see that when you travel to somewhere with different infrastructure. For those wanting to serve the community and help manage the response to urbanisation, I think transport engineering is a great industry to work in.

About Sabrina: Sabrina is in their fourth year of a Bachelor of Civil Engineering and has just finished a Diploma of German Studies. They love to explore the ways that civil engineering can improve lives while working in harmony with our environment.