I’ve probably mentioned before how I never intended to get a degree in engineering. I started college with the notion of being a research scientist, but initially decided I wasn’t scientist material. I spent a couple years switching through various majors and ended up in journalism for a while. I managed to even bag a couple awards for my writing. Fortunately, I ended up being second in line for a journalism position, and when I didn’t get it, decided that I missed physics and should go back to school.
One unexpected side effect of this detour in my education is that I got a lot of very valuable experience writing. I didn’t realize it until much later, but a lot of science and engineering revolves around writing, and that background, as useless as it seemed at the time, has come in very handy.
As an undergrad back in physics, I decided I was interested in academia. Someone mentioned that I might be interested in the McNair Scholars Program, so I checked it out. Fortunately, I was qualified (neither of my parents have bachelor degrees), and ended up spending three years in the program. I worked on three separate research projects during that time, and it gave me the opportunity to realize that I really enjoyed research. I also got to see how different people run different research programs and was able to travel to present some of the work I’d done. Although my schooling was very important, I really felt like this experience did more to get me interested in the career path of an academic than anything else I did in school.
After I got my degree in physics, I had family matters to consider, so I opted to go do a masters in electrical engineering. I had two reasons for this. One was that I was really interested in the area, and it was the only way I could reasonably pursue that interest with my family constraints. The other is that I’d heard from a couple of my research mentors how difficult it was to get an academic job (something that I know now is actually not commonly discussed with students). I thought that by getting a degree in engineering, I would be considerably more marketable than a physics student. I had tried going to career fairs as an undergrad and was told more often than not that they weren’t interested in me unless I’d had a few engineering classes.
Despite the fact that my education has taken a few twists and turns, I actually think it’s been a great way to prepare for my future career simply because there are so many careers to choose from now. I could go into writing (science journalism!), academia, teaching, working in industry, etc. This diverse background has made me very flexible, which is something incredibly valuable in today’s market. I also discovered that I have both diverse interests and the ability to do well in several fields.
One thing I’ve mentioned to students and even my own kids is to consider doing a double major in college. Pursue multiple interests. My own background has shown me how valuable experience in other areas may be in a career you find interesting, and, more importantly, doing this can prevent you from getting bored. I know that some people are very driven and focused, but I think that for most of us, keeping an open mind and exploring our interests will serve us well in the long run…even if it can feel like we’re juggling in the short term.
The photo of Daniel Hochsteiner juggling is courtesy of Wikipedia.