Log in

No account? Create an account

Previous Entry | Next Entry

Who should be an engineer

There's been a lot of talk in the engineering field lately about "remessaging" what we do.  Kids don't want to be engineers anymore, even though the field is growing, enrollement is dropping.  And more companies are having to look overseas to India and China just to get the numbers of engineers they need.  It's got less to do with labor savings and more to do with supply, that's just the fact of it.

The big mistake we make is that when kids ask us "so who should be an engineer?" we say "Well, you should be really good at math & science."

I was not "really good" at math and science.  I enjoyed science.  I was slow on my multiplication tables.  Algebra didn't even really click with me, until I was like 17.  I was not in any advanced math classes, I was just average.

I was good at some math, like geometry and proofs.  But I think it was just by chance.  It's a sad thing in our country that we think of math as this one big thing, when it's such a diverse field.  Saying you're bad at math is like saying you don't like pie.  Really, you don't like any pie?  Apple pie, pumpkin pie, chocolate pie, lemon meringue?  You really hate every kind of pie?

But despite not being a math wiz, I've done well as an engineer.  I'm enthusiastic, I like figuring out where to start, I like explaining things to people, I'm good at organizing things, I'm motivated by improving the world.  All of this is important.

Saying that you should be an engineer if you're good at math is like saying that you should be an artist if you like drawing lines, or you should be an accountant if you like balancing your checkbook.  There are plenty of people who like that stuff, there are plenty who don't.  It's especially hard when you say those things to a 12-year-old, because their view of the world of math is so limited, you risk having them associate "engineering" with those multiplication tables.  It's not that at all.

Of course you have to be smart enough to know what 6x4 is, but I think every well-paying field requires that level of intelligence.  What separates engineering is the problem solving, the environment, who you work with, the projects you work on... that's what makes it the career for you.


( 38 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 1st, 2011 11:00 pm (UTC)
I think that advice (about being good at math and science) stems more from what's required to get an engineering degree, not necessarily what engineers do on a daily basis. I don't use differential equations or electromagnetics on a daily basis, but I took those classes in college because they taught me the foundations of engineering principles. I COULD have gone into a field where I used that stuff all the time, but it turns out the majority of engineering jobs aren't that in depth when it comes to math and science. Mostly we're just using an engineering thought process to solve problems and create products, not solving for X or Y in a particular equation. I've found there are also a number of "engineering" jobs that usually have very few math and science responsibilities associated with them: vendor sales (not FAEs, just the sales folks), test engineers, project engineers, non-fab process engineers, etc. But to get to all those, you still have to pass the math and science classes in the degree plan.
Nov. 2nd, 2011 01:33 am (UTC)
Yup, yup, yup. I had a guy once ask me how much math I used on a daily basis and I responded very little. Some algebra, a but of trig here and there. His response? "HAH!" What? It was like he thought he uncovered some great conspiracy. You do need to be capable of understanding the math. That doesn't mean you need to do Laplace transforms in your head.
Nov. 2nd, 2011 01:50 am (UTC)
Good ol' Laplace...I haven't thought about that dude in yeeeears. ;)
Nov. 2nd, 2011 12:38 am (UTC)
Darnnit, now I wonder if I should have been an engineer...
Nov. 2nd, 2011 01:32 am (UTC)
In our outreach events we always tell the girls "What do engineers do? Engineers solve problems!" I think most people go the "math/science" answer because THEY DON'T KNOW WHAT ENGINEERS DO EITHER. So it's this old line that gets used over and over again.

Part of the remessaging campaign that I find odd/confusing is that they are trying to reach girls by rebranding engineering as a field where you can "help people" and "make a difference" since apparently that matters more to women than men. And sure you can do that but that is completely not what motivated me to the field. I suppose it might sway some of the people headed into medicine and law though, if engineering was viewed in the same way.
Nov. 2nd, 2011 02:51 am (UTC)
Yeah, I don't totally get the motivation there but I assume there's some research behind it. I guess the thinking is that girls are more social, and there's this myth that engineers are isolationist, people-hating trolls or something, so we're combating that?

I can't totally put into words what *did* get me into the field, so I probably shouldn't dwell much on that element :)
Nov. 3rd, 2011 01:59 am (UTC)
I can't totally put into words what *did* get me into the field, so I probably shouldn't dwell much on that element :)

For me it was part stubborn, part desire to do something seen as "hard", part love of the challenge, and part the thrill of seeing equations work out. I never once thought "I wish I could help people, I'll go be an engineer." But I think I'm just not of that stripe. Those who are are probably more drawn to things like Engineers without Borders and similar.
Nov. 2nd, 2011 02:30 am (UTC)
I suspect that while you don't have to necessarily be good in math, you need to at least not hate it or be afraid of it.

My husband, who has a math degree but works as an engineer, seems to think that engineers aren't interested in math at all. He's constantly frustrated about this.
Nov. 3rd, 2011 01:51 am (UTC)
My husband, who has a math degree but works as an engineer, seems to think that engineers aren't interested in math at all. He's constantly frustrated about this.

Word. Math is a very boring, somewhat necessary evil. People who enjoy math for math's sake are a special breed. Engineers are far more interested in making stuff DO things. To give an analogy--math people (and physicists, chemists, the pure theory people) they love nothing more than a beautiful, complex function, where the math perfectly describes the physical phenomenon. Then engineers come through, draw some straight lines through parts of it, dub it "linear approximations" and call it good enough. Drives them nuts.
Nov. 3rd, 2011 03:30 pm (UTC)
The math majors have a saying: "If you have to ask what it's *for*, you should major in engineering."
Nov. 3rd, 2011 06:59 pm (UTC)
This is awesome
Nov. 4th, 2011 01:33 am (UTC)
Lol! That sounds about right. : )
Nov. 2nd, 2011 03:46 am (UTC)
Agreed. Thanks for this.

Relatedly, being a doctor does not result from or require being good in science, nor should you major in biology to go to med school.
Nov. 2nd, 2011 05:20 pm (UTC)
Just curious- what should you major in?
Nov. 3rd, 2011 03:57 am (UTC)
Well, whatever you're interested in... But I really like psychology, sociology or anthropology as premed majors, because they teach you about human culture, decision making, cognition and behavior. Those are the things med school doesn't teach, which you need in order to be an effective, compassionate physician and healer.
Nov. 3rd, 2011 10:57 am (UTC)
I like that idea too, but I was under the impression that med schools only admitted students who'd take on "hard" majors in serious scientific stuff, like chemistry or biology. Interesting.
Nov. 4th, 2011 01:35 am (UTC)
I'd heard to take whatever you liked to get a high GPA (doctor's need to relate to people and a high GPA helps with admissions) and then prove you know your science by doing well on the MSAT. Most liberal arts majors leave plenty of room in the schedule for the pre-reqs for med school. : )
Nov. 2nd, 2011 09:33 am (UTC)
Another thing I like to point out is that engineering can be highly creative. There is this odd idea out there that technical careers are routine, while I've found things to be anything but.
Nov. 3rd, 2011 01:52 am (UTC)
I think people think that equations are boring so the work must be to. *shrugs* Design is highly creative, no equation is going to describe the art of good design.
Nov. 2nd, 2011 03:06 pm (UTC)
I agree with what you wrote.
I think the reason why many decide against engineering is that it's hard work (or too difficult) to pass university for what you get in the end. Recognition is not too good for engineering, and neither is the pay.
Nov. 2nd, 2011 05:19 pm (UTC)
Really? What pays better? I mean it looks great when you compare it to other jobs where only a BS is required, and look at the average not just the "shining stars" (like, I know a lot of actors make millions, but the vast majority are waiting tables, right?)
Nov. 2nd, 2011 05:38 pm (UTC)

I have a MSc in Electrical Engineering, and I do know many who have a BSc in Economics who earn (some way) more than I do.
General speaking most who studied economics or law get better paid here. And together with Medicine, they count as something "serious".
Nov. 2nd, 2011 05:58 pm (UTC)

Well, you might know a few but on average, that doesn't seem to be the case:

And law/medicine both require a lot more school just to get started than engineering.
Nov. 2nd, 2011 06:39 pm (UTC)
Well.. I live on a different continent....
We do have strong banks here (or had, we'll see what the future brings). Banks I could have chosen to go working for with my engineering degree, and there I would have earned more.

Here, to study law, it takes exactly as long as for engineering.

Medicine is a different topic, especially stress wise. That's why I took that only as an example for a profession that has a better reputation compared to engineering, and not that it is easier.
Nov. 2nd, 2011 06:49 pm (UTC)
But anyway, I never heard before that somebody chose engineering because the pay is good. But I heard from others that they did not even think about engineering because of the limtations in pay (may they be true or not).
Nov. 3rd, 2011 01:56 am (UTC)
In the US, engineering is considered very good pay. We don't make as much as doctors and lawyers but here we need only a 4 year degree to work as an engineer. Law requires 2 years of law school plus passing the Bar Exam. Medicine requires 2 (or 3?) years of med school plus a (at least) year long residency. As a rough guide, someone with a liberal arts degree might get a starting salary of $25,000-$35,000. An engineer will start at more like $50,000 (depending on the exact discipline). Lawyers and doctors can make over $100,000, some medical specialties get up to $300,000-$400,000. (All figures on an annual basis and are totally off the cuff estimates : )

It was common in my courses to meet people who didn't actually like engineering but were majoring in it for the money and the perceived stability.
Nov. 3rd, 2011 03:36 pm (UTC)
My husband's an engineer too* and he was required to take an eingeering economics course ni which the prof had them calculate at what age the average doctor caught up with the average engineer, in terms of earnings vs debt. It turned out to be somewhere in your 50s. (This is the US.)

I have worked in Europe and Asia as well as the US, but it's hard for me to compare because my company is *extremely* bleeding-edge high-tech and we do have a lot of people with advanced degrees. In general, our design engineers have MSs or PHDs, but our field engineers can have only a BS.

*I kind of hate to write this because it sounds like I'm not one and am only borrowing his experience! But my school just didn't make us take any sort of economics.
Nov. 4th, 2011 01:40 am (UTC)
That's really interesting! I knew the loans would be killer, but I had no idea it would take that long to even out!
Nov. 4th, 2011 01:46 am (UTC)
Also, I just added you because I am also an engineer married to an engineer and your entries look thought provoking and awesome. : )
(Deleted comment)
Nov. 3rd, 2011 03:38 pm (UTC)
What constitutes a fabulous life? Because I'm pretty sure I can point out examples of people I know (including me) getting most parameters I can think of that qualify, except for the fame and adulation. (A rare few even get that, but I admit it isn't exactly the lot of a normal engineer.)
(Deleted comment)
Nov. 5th, 2011 03:49 pm (UTC)
Ah. And there's a degree that guarantees all that?

Silly me then, for choosing engineering. I just get to do interesting work, travel all over the world, live in a fancy apartment that someone else pays for (because we're expats), and own a beautiful house (which we bought with the money saved from not having any car, rental or mortgage payments for a few years. Next week I'm off to Japan; my husband and I just got back from a US trip that was on our own dime - but on which we got upgraded both ways because we have high frequent flyer status.
Nov. 4th, 2011 01:39 am (UTC)
I think it's part of a larger trend.

People don't just want to get married, they want "soul mates" who will give them those infatuation butterflies 24/7.

People don't just want to have a steady job that pays the bills, they want a job that they adore 100% of the time with no bits they don't like and no overtime.

I LOVE my job. I adore my boss, enjoy working with my team, get to learn new things constantly and work on a huge variety of things. But I also have to deal with angry clients, schedule set backs, design issues, and incompetent upper management. That's why they pay me. If I never had to do anything I didn't like, it wouldn't be work.
(Deleted comment)
Nov. 4th, 2011 02:03 am (UTC)
Don't get me wrong, I don't think people should settle. I think they should have work (and SOs) that they are passionate about. But I think people need to realize that just because you love something doesn't mean its rainbows and sunshine 100% of the time. And you need to be willing to work through the shitty stuff and not just decide that (a) it's someone else's job or (b) it means you picked the wrong job/so.

The 'soul-mate' syndrome is just an experience thing. No one starts out experienced, so they don't really know what they want and they go after what sounds good on paper.

I think this applies to jobs too.
(Deleted comment)
Nov. 4th, 2011 02:25 am (UTC)
For me, my job is not something I am willing to do for free. I love engineering, but given infinite funds and time? I'd rather make things in other ways--baking, sewing, other crafts, photography, blogging. BUT, a paycheck is just the motivation I need to do something bigger and harder than what I would pursue just for the heck of it. Part of this is tied into what skills I personally have--I can do things within a team that I can't do on my own.

I remember talking to a police officer once who said he spent something like 90% of his time writing reports and filing paperwork. Somehow I don't think that's what he went into the field for... : /
(Deleted comment)
Nov. 4th, 2011 03:02 am (UTC)
Ugh. I took one of those "What should you do with your life?" exams in highschool. My result? Do anything you want, except be an auto mechanic. So I'm a mechanical engineer. There's irony there.

I didn't join a company looking for a team but it's an undeniable bonus. Aside from the obvious (it takes more than one person to design and build a jet, for example) there's also the breadth. By being on a team, I get to take advantage of the experience of my more seasoned coworkers, leverage the capabilities of our machinist and casting job, pick the brains of our production guys, etc. If I were to decide to do something totally on my own starting tomorrow, it would definitely take longer, cost more, and teach me a lot. : )

Some of that may be gender based though, in general women gravitate toward a more collaborative way of doing things and that is very true for me.

And some of that is probably because I work in a 5 person department with only 2 other engineers (one of whom is our Director). I have a lot of autonomy within my team. : )
(Deleted comment)
Nov. 4th, 2011 03:28 am (UTC)
I've found that my more collaborative nature does cause things to be more collaborative--sometimes because I mediate between alphas, sometimes because people are often softer with me than with others (I'm rather quiet, so people tend to treat me more gently). However, never having worked in an all male environment (for obvious reasons ; ), I can't really say how different it is.

There is this sort of alpha-male nerd thing where everyone is under the impression that their way is the best way of doing things. It grows weary at times...

I have limited patience for that sort of thing, mostly because I find all the bickering and posturing exhausting. Let's just all decide and move forward! I'm fine with rational discussions, but when it gets into "my way" vs "their way", I'm happy to flip a coin.
Nov. 4th, 2011 11:19 am (UTC)
So random story... I totally had the "alpha nerd" problem (minus the male part) and didn't know I had it, and a guy straight out called me out on it once and I've been really conscious of it ever since. In a good way, I hope! We were troubleshooting something together, he asked if I'd checked a ground pin or something, I rattled off some answer about why that couldn't be it. He just looked me dead in the face and said, "You mean you just didn't check it because it wasn't your idea." I had no good answer. da-am.

We also tend to complain about engineers who's "first answer is always no"... I have that bad habit too.
Nov. 4th, 2011 11:50 pm (UTC)
I definitely battle the "first answer is always no" problem. I mean, I'll think about it. But if the facts point to no, my answer tends to be "can't be done". I'm trying to learn from my boss, whose instinct is to say "There has to be a way.". It's amazing how much further that gets you. : )
( 38 comments — Leave a comment )

Latest Month

July 2017
Powered by LiveJournal.com
Designed by Tiffany Chow