A degree in mechanical engineering might not necessarily spring to mind when you consider the ways into your ideal career. But a report by the Higher Education Careers Service Unit suggests that the 2,500 who do graduate in the subject each year are nothing like the socially inept stereotype.

The report, entitled "What Do Graduates Do?", shows that graduates who studied the subject at university now command an average starting salary of £20,513 – a figure 15 per cent higher than the national average. But this fact has not been enough to shake off the popular image associated with technical degrees.

"There's no question that engineering is suffering from a lack of glamour," says Charlie Ball, the editor of the report. "It's still associated with the manufacturing industries."

It is true that mechanical engineering is still dominated by men – only 10 per cent of graduates are women – and that it doesn't always lead to immediate employment, with one in 15 finding themselves jobless at the end of the four year Masters degree. But speak to a few recent graduates, and a very different picture emerges.

Manu Bhardwaj, 23, graduated from the Nottingham University last year. After spending time in the US on an entrepreneurial training programme, he intends to launch his own company.

"Mechanical engineering is one of the best degree programmes you can do, " he says. "We just need to educate people as to what it actually involves. In Germany, being an engineer is respectable, like being a doctor. Here, people think we fix cars. I could design you a car, but I couldn't fix one."

Another shining example is 24-year-old Aaron Mannis, who did his degree at Queens University Belfast, and also graduated last year. He now works for an aerospace company based in Northern Ireland, drawing up designs for fuel-efficient aircraft.

"From a young age I was always taking things apart and putting them back together, and design was always my favourite subject at school," he says. "Mechanical engineering was a natural progression. You just have to be interested in how things work."

Aaron is also working on his own product, an instant user recognition system for handguns, which he hopes will interest the Ministry of Defence. The design is top secret, but the idea is that only the registered user of the gun can fire it, so it will cease to function if it gets into the wrong hands.

You don't have to embrace the high-risk, high-reward world of the entrepreneur. Many graduates go on to more conventional engineering jobs at big companies after impressing them during work placements – a key part of most courses. Richard Miller, 25, who graduated in automotive engineering from Oxford Brookes, now works at the Mini car plant in the city, after spending his sandwich year there.

"I've been extremely lucky to end up in an area I've always wanted to work in," he says. "It's all about having the right thought processes, as well as a passion for cars. Mini is an international brand, and we're producing products the world wants to buy."

But not all mechanical engineering graduates become high-flyers in their trade – many are equally successful at turning their hand to business or management. Manu says that about 80 per cent of the people on his course chose management over design.

"So much of the degree is learning how to do business plans and presentations, or about selling your ideas," he says. "You have to prove you have all of those skills before you can design anything."

A Masters in mechanical engineering is also a qualification that is well-regarded overseas, so it's great if you fancy going abroad and seeing the world. But whereas in the US you'll face stiff competition from all sides, in the UK there looks like being a healthy demand for bright young engineers for some time to come.

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