There’s a phrase: jack of all trades master of none. I was thinking of one’s progression as an engineer. When you graduate college you are in many ways like a Swiss army knife (drawing from rowland jones). You have a wide variety of basic tools but are probably not particularly good at any one thing. In many ways college teaches one the ability to learn engineering. And then you spend the rest of your career learning engineering.
But at some point you have to start narrowing it down. Especially if you are, like me, a mechanical engineer or as one of my classmates put it a mercenary engineer. My degree qualified me to work in any number of disciplines: mechanical systems, fluids and heat transfer, structural analysis, flight and aerospace technologies, and manufacturing. The first job you take can often lead you down the path of a particular discipline within your degree. A specialization in a master’s program could also lay down that path for you.
But it’s not necessarily a linear path. Many people work in one industry for many years and decide to start all over again as an engineer in another industry. Or many branch off into a different but similar and related technology. But even if you’re at the same company and the same department it’s often possible to start to move into a systems level engineering job, into a management job, or into a very product specific role or even a theoretical analysis based position. Specializing too soon could lock down the rest of your career. But failing to specialize enough could leave you lacking many of the necessary skills to excel as an engineer.
What do you think? What is the appropriate balance between being a generalist and being a specialist? What is your personal level of comfort and what are your own career plans?