In 1958, Nils Bohlin was recruited as an engineer for Volvo. At the time, over 100,000 people were dying in road accidents every year.1

Bohlin came up with one very simple invention: the modern seat belt.

Within a year, Volvo began equipping their cars with seat belts as standard, and — as a result of its importance to safety — opened up the patent so that other manufacturers could do the same. Volvo claims that Bohlin’s invention has saved over a million lives. That would make Bohlin one of the highest-impact people in history, alongside David Nalin, the inventor of oral rehydration therapy for diarrhoea.

We’d guess Bohlin’s impact wasn’t quite that large. For one thing, seat belts already existed: in 1951, a Y-shaped three-point seat belt was patented that avoided the risks of internal injuries from simple lap belts. Bohlin’s innovation was doing this with just one strap, making it simple and convenient to use. For another thing, it seems likely that someone else would have come up with Bohlin’s design eventually.

Nevertheless, a simple estimate suggests that Bohlin saved hundreds of lives at the very least2 — incredible for such a simple piece of engineering.

In a nutshell:
Engineering can be used to speed up the development and use of technological solutions to global problems. There are three main engineering routes: academia, industry, or startups. After spending some time building your skills, you might be able to apply them to help solve pressing problems: we’re particularly excited about biomedical, electrical and electronic, and chemical engineering. (We discuss software engineering separately).

Key facts on fit

You’ll probably need an undergraduate degree in engineering (or a highly related subject). If you’re considering studying engineering, you’ll need to be fairly quantitatively minded, happy working on scientific subjects, and maybe enjoy fixing or building things, for example around your home.

Thanks to Jessica Wen and Sean Lawrence at High Impact Engineers for their help with this article. Much of the content is based on their website.

Why are engineering skills valuable?

Bohlin’s story shows that engineering — by which we mean all kinds of engineering other than software engineering, which we cover separately — can clearly be hugely valuable for the world. But we think it’s most valuable when:

  • You can really speed up development. This might be because you’re working on something that’s relatively neglected by others, or because you’re working in an area where you have high personal fit, so you can make particularly helpful contributions (or, ideally, both).
  • You’re producing something which will practically be used to help people. One reason Bohlin had such a large impact — and Griswold, the inventor of the Y-shaped three-point seat belt didn’t — is that Volvo opened up the patent for use by other manufacturers.
  • You’re working on a particularly pressing problem. For example, vaccines for common and deadly diseases — like malaria — are much more useful for the world than vaccines for rare diseases.

Ultimately, many of the potential solutions to the top problems we recommend working on include developing and deploying technology — and this often requires engineers.

Below, we look more closely at how engineering could be used to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems.

Nils Bohlin wearing his seatbelt.
Because nothing says ‘I trust my driving’ like inventing a device to survive it.

Jobs in engineering are often highly paid and in-demand. So learning engineering skills can give you great back-up options, and — depending on the specific discipline — can be a decent choice for earning to give.

Good pay combined with intellectually rewarding work means that engineers often have high job satisfaction (although we’d expect job satisfaction to be lower in academia than in industry).

Finally, it’s worth noting that it’s possible to accidentally cause harm through engineering. While we’re generally hugely in favour of technological development, many of the risks we’re most concerned about arise directly from the development of future technologies. Many technologies are dual use and could have both positive and negative applications. So it’s worth thinking carefully about the work you’re doing and whether it could be used to cause harm. (For an example of how you might think about this, see this article on whether it’s good to work on advancing AI capabilities. This example primarily applies to software engineers, but could also apply more broadly — to computer hardware engineers for instance.)

What specific discipline of engineering is most valuable?

There are many different types of engineering. Typically, you’ll eventually specialise in one (often during an undergraduate degree).

There are ways of using any engineering discipline to have an impact.

That said, we’re most excited about:

  • Biomedical engineering
  • Chemical engineering
  • Electrical and electronic engineering.

That’s because these areas are most relevant to some of our top problems, in particular preventing catastrophic pandemics and reducing the risk of an AI-related catastrophe.

Some engineering disciplines also pay much better than others. In particular, nuclear, aerospace, petroleum and computer hardware engineers are paid best (although we wouldn’t generally recommend becoming a petroleum engineer, as we’d worry it causes harm), while agricultural and civil engineers are paid least.

Nils Bohlin wearing his seatbelt.
Median US pay in 2022, across many different disciplines of engineering. Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics

What does using an engineering skill set typically involve?

An engineering skill set usually involves developing technologies faster and deploying existing technologies in novel ways. (This is in contrast with research skills, which focus on finding answers to unanswered questions, although there’s a fair bit of overlap between the two.)

Engineers typically do one of the following:

  • Work in academia
  • Work in industry
  • Work at small startups (or found them)

Work in academia

Work in academia tends to focus on more speculative, early-stage technology (e.g. using ultraviolet light to sterilise rooms). This work is much more similar to research, so if you’re interested we’d suggest looking at our articles on research skills and working in academia. This route almost always involves getting a PhD in a subfield of engineering.

Academic research can be difficult for many people. It often involves long deadlines, self-driven work, and very little structure. Beyond engineering, academic work is also likely to include grant applications, teaching courses, publishing papers, mentoring students, and other responsibilities.

(We’ll look more at what to consider when choosing to do a PhD below.)

Work in industry or startups

As the technology becomes more viable, businesses tend to get involved — either startups or large engineering firms, or both. There are also some nonprofits focused on high-impact technology.

When working on engineering in industry, you can choose to become a subject matter expert (more similar to research) or instead become a manager, increasing the scope of your responsibilities. Either way, you can try learning faster by getting temporary placements in other parts of a company, taking part in engineering competitions, or working towards professional registration (which can be a helpful credential for engineering careers).

Generally, the work you focus on will be dictated by the business needs of the company, and, compared to academia, you’re more likely to have a standard 9-5 workday (rather than more flexible hours). Deadlines are often much shorter than in academia.

If you choose to become a manager or work for a small startup, you’ll be using organisation-building skills alongside your engineering skill set.

How to evaluate your fit

How to predict your fit in advance

You’ll need a quantitative background, and ideally you’ll have studied (or plan to study) engineering or a highly related subject at undergraduate level.

If you’re considering doing an engineering degree (or otherwise moving your career into engineering), signs you’d be a great fit could include:

  • You’re comfortable working on scientific subjects.
  • You’re good at practical, hands-on work: in many areas of engineering, you’ll end up working with physical objects in a lab.
  • You enjoy understanding how and why physical things work.
  • You enjoy fixing or building things, for example, around your home.
  • You are good at “systems thinking”: for example, you’d notice when people ask you similar questions multiple times and then think about how to prevent the issue from coming up again.
  • You might also be good at learning quickly and have high attention to detail.

With academic engineering, you’ll need to be comfortable with the academic research environment and generally happy to be self-motivated while working on things with few clear deadlines. If you’re doing a degree, you could try doing some sort of academic research (like a summer research project) and think about how that goes. (Read more about evaluating your fit for research.)

If you want to become a manager or work for a startup, you’ll probably need more social skills (including things like clear communication and people management skills).

Assessing your fit for different disciplines of engineering

One way to start is to think about which of the natural sciences you most enjoy learning about. Some examples:

Area of scienceArea of engineering
Circuits, electromagnetismElectrical engineering
How computers workComputer (hardware) engineering
BiologyBio or biomedical engineering
Arduinos, Raspberry PiElectrical engineering, automation engineering, robotics, mechatronics
Space, rockets, planesMechanical or aerospace engineering
Quantum physicsMaterials science/engineering
Bridges, dams, and other big thingsCivil engineering
Mechanics/physics in generalMechanical engineering
Chemistry (maybe specifically yield calculations combined with heat transfer and fluid dynamics from physics)Chemical engineering

Another way to determine what kind of engineering you might be good at is to figure out where you lie on the spectrum from scientist to engineer. If you enjoy the more theoretical, abstract, or precise side of physics or mathematics, then something like materials science or electrical engineering could be a better fit. If you lean more towards optimisation, application of knowledge, or practicalities, then civil or chemical engineering might be more interesting. If you are somewhere in the middle, then mechanical engineering could be for you.

However, don’t place too much weight on these crude tests — all these areas involve design testing and innovation, as well as research and studying new phenomena.

Your discipline also may not matter that much when it comes to getting a job. For example, many larger companies will hire graduate engineers from a range of different disciplines for the same role, relying on on-the-job training for specialisation.

How to tell if you’re on track

Within industry, the stages here look like an organisation-building career, and you can also assess your fit by looking at your rate of progression through the organisation.

Within academia, there’s generally very defined progression (e.g. completing a PhD, getting a postdoc, etc.).

In both cases, it’s worth trying to find some engineers whose work you respect, and who you trust to be honest with you, to give you feedback on how you’re getting along.

How to get started building engineering skills

Getting an engineering degree

The main way to get started is to do an undergraduate degree in engineering — although if you have a different quantitative degree, you may well be able to get an engineering job. (Read our advice on how to spend your time while at college.)

Engineering degrees are usually in a particular discipline of engineering. However, it can often be fairly easy to switch between engineering courses at university if you find that you’re not enjoying one kind of engineering.

Some universities may offer a ‘general first year’ for engineering in which you can take classes from different engineering disciplines to get a feel for what you enjoy.

Universities may have a range of student clubs or teams that work together to design, fabricate, test, and operate a complex vehicle or device in a national or worldwide competition with other universities. Examples include Formula SAE, the University Rover Challenge, UAS challenge, rocketry competitions (e.g. Australian Universities Rocket Competition), and human-powered vehicle challenges.

These sorts of competitions teach important skills that are invaluable in an engineering career — but they do typically require a large time commitment. Employers often view participation in these sorts of student teams very favourably, so it can give you a leg up in getting a job after graduating.

If you can, do internships in industry. Most large engineering companies run summer internships, and they are a good opportunity to see how industry works and gain some career capital. You could also do an engineering research project over the summer with a research group or join a startup. If all else fails, using the summer to create something also gives you valuable skills and experience — plus it lets you test out how much you like it.

Going into academia

If you want to do engineering in academia, you probably need to do a PhD.

Many people find PhDs very difficult. They can be isolating and frustrating, and take a very long time (4–6 years). What’s more, both your quality of life and the amount you’ll learn will depend on your supervisor — and it can be really difficult to figure out in advance whether you’re making a good choice.

So, if you’re considering doing a PhD, here are some things to consider:

  • The topic of your research: It’s easy to let yourself be tied down to a PhD topic you’re not confident in. If the PhD you’re considering would let you work on something that seems relevant to a pressing problem you want to work on, it’s probably — all else equal — better for your career, and the research itself might have a positive impact as well.
  • Mentorship: What are the supervisors or managers like at the opportunities open to you? You might be able to find engineering roles in industry where you could learn much more than you would in a PhD — or vice versa. When picking a supervisor, try reaching out to the current or former students of a prospective supervisor to ask them some frank questions. You can also use your final year undergraduate research project to evaluate your fit with a supervisor. (Also, see this article on how to choose a PhD supervisor.)
    Your fit for the work environment: Doing a PhD could mean working on your own with very little supervision or feedback for long periods of time. Some people thrive in these conditions! But some people really don’t and find PhDs extremely difficult.

PhD competitiveness varies by field. To get into any PhD, you’ll probably need high undergraduate grades and some research experience — including a reference from one or more professors. More competitive PhDs might require you to have published papers or extremely strong references. To get those, you might need to spend 1–3 years as a research assistant before applying for PhDs.

Entering industry

You can likely use an undergraduate degree to get an entry-level position in anything ranging from large engineering companies to startups.

In some countries (like the UK), large engineering companies offer graduate programs where you do rotations in different teams in the company. These allow you to build up lots of different skills and knowledge quickly (your ability to choose your rotation depends on the company, the department, and your manager).

Large companies are also likely to have a structured professional development scheme with training, assigned mentors, and regular check-ins to set you up for professional registration as an engineer.

Joining a startup generally means that you have a lot of responsibilities very quickly and less structure around you. This might mean more freedom with what you can do and lots of variety. You might learn a ton, but you won’t get much feedback or mentorship, and there will also be more stress and uncertainty.

Find jobs that use engineering

If you think you might be a good fit for this skill and you’re ready to start looking at job opportunities that are currently accepting applications, see our curated list of opportunities:

    View all opportunities

    Once you have an engineering skill set, how can you best apply it to have an impact?

    Having a big impact as an engineer means finding a particularly pressing global issue and finding a way to use engineering to develop solutions.

    Below is a list of pressing global problems and how engineers can help with each.

    If you’re already an engineer, you can read through to see if any of these issues appeal to you — and then aim to speak to some people in each area about how your skills could be applied and what the current opportunities are.

    You could also apply to speak to our team or get in touch with High Impact Engineers.

    Preventing catastrophic pandemics

    A future pandemic that is much worse than COVID-19 could pose a significant risk to society.

    There’s a key role for bioengineers and chemical engineers to play in mitigating these risks, including:

    • Developing vaccine platform technologies to help us rapidly produce new vaccines in response to novel threats
    • Developing and implementing metagenomic sequencing to improve our ability to detect new pandemics

    Other engineering disciplines are also needed. For example, engineers could:

    • Help design better pathogen containment systems for labs and systems to reduce pathogen spread in buildings or vehicles. (There are roles here for materials, civil, industrial, aerospace, and HVAC engineers, among others.)
    • Help improve stockpiling and management of PPE (personal protective equipment), such as gloves and masks. (There are possibly roles here for industrial engineers.)
    • Help improve technologies for monitoring pathogens, like systems for sampling environments and processes for managing and examining samples. (There are roles here for industrial, mechanical, and automation engineers, among others.)

    To learn more, take a look at Biosecurity needs engineers by Will Bradshaw and this overview of using engineering in biosecurity from High Impact Engineers.

    AI alignment

    We expect AI hardware to be a crucial component of the development of AI. Given the importance of positively shaping the development of AI, experts in AI hardware could be in a position to have a substantive positive impact.

    Useful disciplines include:

    • Electrical, electronic, and computer engineering (probably the most relevant discipline for AI hardware)
    • Materials engineering with a focus on semiconductors
    • Industrial engineering with a focus on the semiconductor supply chain

    To learn more, read our full career review on becoming an expert in AI hardware.

    If you have hardware expertise, you might also consider moving into AI policy. Read our career review of AI governance and coordination to learn more.

    Improving civilisational resilience

    One very neglected potential way to reduce existential threats is through generally increasing the resilience of our society to catastrophes.

    All kinds of engineers can play a big role in this issue — for example by developing alternative foods, refuges, and knowledge stores that will be able to survive a near-apocalypse.

    For instance, David Denkenberger is an engineer developing alternative foods that could be rapidly scaled up in the event of a global famine, perhaps caused by nuclear winter or a major volcanic eruption. We have two podcasts with him:

    To learn more about refuges, see this review by Open Philanthropy. Or learn about how to increase the chance of recovery from a catastrophic event in two of our podcast episodes:

    Fight climate change

    We think further developing and rolling out green energy is one of the best ways to tackle climate change, and engineers have a major role to play in this. This includes not just generating more green electricity, but also things like ensuring that there is enough electricity to meet seasonal changes in electricity demand and trying to find ways to make other forms of energy greener (like replacing fossil fuel use in blast furnaces or transportation).

    You can further increase your impact by focusing on technology that’s either not widely known (e.g. hot rock geothermal) or unsexy (e.g. decarbonising cement rather than developing electric cars).

    We have more notes on how to most effectively tackle climate change. We’d also recommend What can a technologist do about climate change? by Bret Victor.

    Other problem areas that need engineers

    In addition to the top problems mentioned above, there are many other pressing areas where engineers are needed. For example, you could:

    Options outside engineering that can use engineering aptitude

    Engineers often have a systems mindset that can make them a particularly good fit for operations management or entrepreneurship. If that work interests you, it’s worth considering whether to spend some time building the skills you’d need to make the transition.

    Some engineers may also excel at other options that require good quantitative abilities, such as:

    Engineers may be able to easily develop skills in translating technically complex topics to less technical audiences, such as policymakers, which means you could also consider building a policy skill set. For example, TechCongress aims to get engineers, and other technologists, involved as technical advisors for policymakers.

    Career paths we’ve reviewed that use engineering skills

    Learn more about engineering

    Read next:  Explore other useful skills

    Want to learn more about the most useful skills for solving global problems, according to our research? See our list.

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    Join our newsletter and we’ll send you a free copy of The Precipice — a book by philosopher Toby Ord about how to tackle the greatest threats facing humanity. T&Cs here.

    Notes and references

    1. According to the National Safety Council, there were 36,981 road deaths in the US in 1958. There were 5,526 road deaths in the UK in 1955, and 6,970 in 1960, according to the UK Department for Transport. So it seems reasonable to estimate that there were at least 100,000 road deaths in the entire world.

    2. Let’s assume that 1% of cars in the 1960s were produced by Volvo (it was, for example, the fourth largest importer of cars in the US.

      Let’s also assume that seat belt usage in Volvo cars rose by 10 percentage points as a result. (Why not more? Because the first seat belt laws were only introduced in the mid-1960s, so many people would still have chosen not to wear them.)

      Seat belts reduce fatalities by around 45%.

      Overall, this suggests that an additional 0.1% of car journeys used seat belts in 1960. So, out of the 100,000 people who were dying each year, an additional 100 people used seat belts. With a reduction in fatalities of 45%, this saved around 55 lives a year.

      Assuming Bohlin brought forward the invention of the convenient modern seat belt by five years, he saved around 300 lives overall.

      This could be an overestimate if previous belts (like lap belts or the Y-shaped three-point belt) were similarly useful. However, we’d guess that this is an underestimate, mainly because the open patent allowed other companies to introduce these seat belts (and this may have contributed to seat belt laws being introduced later in the decade).