Why Are You an Engineer?

Why Are You an Engineer?
Picture used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 courtesy of Kate Tomlison

Since the theme of the week is motivation, I was thinking about what motivated me to pursue engineering in the first place. Recently, the Huffington Post had an interesting post on how to inspire scientists, and the disconnect between policy makers and scientists. The author also talks about engineers, and indicates that “useful and cool” are enough motivation to convince students to push through four years of college to get an engineering degree before heading out into industry to get a decent paying job at 22 to 25. And yes, the STEM fields are doing better than their non-STEM counterparts in terms of employment, but as has been discussed on this blog before, the idea of a career is changing. The economy is more global and more volatile than ever. The idea of a secure, well-paying job can be a great motivator, but it’s becoming less realistic.

It seems to me that in all of these policy conversations, the conversation focuses on hypothetical students who might consider engineering or science, and how to convince them to pursue a career in STEM. But what about the real students who already made that choice? Every engineer was once a student who may have chosen a different career path, so why did we pick engineering?

For me, the thing that led me into materials science was actually music. As a brass player, I became interested in corrosion and in the acoustic properties of different materials. I had always been good at math and science, but an interest in metals gave me a sense of direction and purpose.

How did you decide to be an engineer?



If I could do it again, I would have chosen a different major. In the Netherlands, engineers get paid LESS than the people who clean trash cans.

YES we have job security, YES some of as do enjoy our job, but if I could do it all over again I would have listen to my parents and become a lawyer.

I had been teaching math for my long long stint on high school and felt somewhat compelled to follow that end and study math (for real) but was not driven, I’ve always felt the need to jump between fields and mechanical engineering seemed the overarching one , the one that would allow to be a jack of all trades, what I did not know back then was that getting a good paying job as a mechanical engineer was really hard and being a jack of all trades is not well viewed down here, they want specialist and are suckers for all that BS that comes and goes out of fashion like lean manufacturing, six sigma .

I love being an engineer, and trust me I’ve never ever felt secure in my job

Personally, my decision to be an engineer came about through resent to a completely different career path that I’d started. This decision only came to fruition last year, so in other words I’m not yet an engineer but I am due to start college/university in August of this year.

The career path that I had oh so much of a passion for was that of an Apprentice Electrician, which I have just recently completed. This was something I definitely fell into due to a lack of application at school and definitely fell short of my prior career ambitions.

I’ll keep things short and sweet as I’m sure not a single one of you will want to hear the full backstory, or the insider perspective of the UK construction industry at that.

After 3 years of hard unfulfilling manual labour I decided that I needed to up my game in a very serious and dramatic way, to fulfill my true academic potential and for any possible family I may have in the future. Engineering is a logical progression in my mind as it takes the academic parts of my apprenticeship and expands on them 100 fold, this presents the opportunity to learn (something that I relish) and use said knowledge in a much more useful and beneficial way. Also, being from Aberdeen (Scotland) its something of an oil hub, engineering positions are touted at a phenomenal level here, so it was a profession that I’ve been aware of from a very young age despite not knowing anyone (until now) who does it for a living. And my four years of working with electricity lead me to choose electrical engineering.

And thats pretty much it, I can’t wait to start!

My story is somewhat convoluted, but there seems to be a thread running through it.

As a child, I was always interested in how things worked and how things were made. I was always fixing and modifying things and taking things apart. My dad made sure that my brother and I had hand tools and workbenches. I had my very own electric drill (Sunbeam 1/4″ fixed speed-I still have it.) For my 11th birthday, my dad got me a Fentone VOM (they didn’t have DMM’s in those days).

If I couldn’t figure out something on my own, I went to the local library and took out books in what interested me to learn how to do or make something. I don’t remember the reason, but I wanted to do some glass blowing and the natural gas bunsen burner that I had made (we had gas in the house and my dad let me install a gas valve with a hose bibb on it!) just did not get hot enough. I found a book in the library about blow pipes (Enoch Pratt Free Library System) and built my own blow pipe to run from natural gas and oxygen. Since I did not have a source of oxygen, I made my own using electrolysis and vented the excess hydrogen to atmosphere (hydrogen just sounded too dangerous for me). I became interested in electronics when the first transistors came out (2N107 GE, CK722 Raytheon). I read all the popular ____ magazines that I could find. I bought all the parts that I could afford from mowing lawns, painting houses, fixing radio’s, HiFi’s, and TV’s. When I reached high school, I was fortunate enough to have a three year program of electronics that was taught by a teacher that was only a little older than us kids. He taught about the same material as we would have gotten in Junior college. When I went to college, I did not pick engineering as a major. I did not want to spend two years taking classes before I could touch my first resistor. I started out in Electronics Technology later on having the plan to transfer to secondary education so I could teach electronics – maybe even at the junior college level. I finished two years of tech school and did not have enough credits to graduate because my course selections were based on transferring to secondary education major. I transferred to secondary education and took a lot of courses that I really enjoyed, graphic arts, woodworking, photography, sheet metal work, machine shop, foundry, welding, blacksmith, architechtural drafting, machine drawing, and then education courses. By the time I reached my senior year, I realized that I loved building things, but that I was not suited to working with a classroom full of kids (Myers-Briggs INTJ) and I won the lottery (no not the $, the Selective Service in 1972) The Army taught me to type. I was married when I was in the Army, so when I got out, I found a job servicing medical equipment in the very first trauma unit. Eventually, I made my way to a company that was manufacturing physical therepy equipment. I eventually got promoted to Research Engineer after designing electronic physical therapy equipment-muscle stimulators, theraputic ultrasound, programmable traction, computerized rehabilitation equipment and diathermy. I did take classes here and there (with an Engineering Major), but I never did get my EE.

My story is much like that of many other engineers. I spent a lot of time taking things apart when I was a kid, including things I wasn’t supposed to. But that didn’t deter me. My father is also an engineer (ATE) and used to repair stuff on the side when I was young, so I learned a great deal from him as well – including how to use an oscilloscope when I was 3. I was also fascinated by science, especially biology because it was so accessible. What young boy isn’t obsessed with snakes and insects? This was fostered by my grandfather, who once was an earth science teacher. When he retired from teaching, he had a brief stint running planetarium shows at the Buhl Science Center in Pittsburgh. When I was that age (~10), I’d spend two weeks in the summer with my grandparents, and he’d take me along to sit in the booth. Imagine my elation when he actually let me run the show a few times. This wasn’t your modern, computer controlled planetarium show, but a massive wrap-around console with hundreds of dials, switches, levers, and various other controls. They eventually replaced it with a computer-controlled projector and thus took the romance out of it, but I suppose it was expensive to maintain. Still, it drove me to love science and engineering even more, because I distinctly recall sitting there thinking about how challenging it must have been to design such a system and have it function seamlessly to the audience.

We also had various Tandy computers in the house, like the Color Computer III, so I taught myself BASIC, writing simple programs for cataloging my baseball cards, text-based adventure games, etc.

All of that history aside, I think there are certain personality traits and cognitive sensibilities that will point individuals in the direction of STEM studies. For engineering, especially the innate desire to see an object and immediately understand its flaws, and imagine how you might improve upon it. For me at least, I do it constantly and almost to a fault – especially when I’m driving. A lot of us on here I suspect took things apart. I believe that is a natural drive to understand how everything works, and a discontent until we figure it out. It makes for good motivation.

Musicianship also led me towards engineering, but on a slightly different path. From being a saxophonist and a drummer, I started to get into recording and recording technology, which then progressed to a degree in electrical engineering. I’m not doing anything too fancy with sound these days, but I am doing some fun stuff with it, though it’s as much (if not more) software development that electrical engineering.

Musicianship led me to engineering, too. My parents were both musically inclined (my mother was very talented and degreed) so I took piano lessons and later played trombone in band. But alas I didn’t inherit the talent and couldn’t play what I could hear it in my head. At the time, electronic synthesizers became popular and they intrigued me. I couldn’t afford a synthesizer, but I found magazine articles and books with circuits that I could build. I built several noise machines, but realized that I needed to learn more so I could make them better and troubleshoot the ones that didn’t work. So I went into electrical engineering.

Although the idea of a stable and decent paying career appealed to me too, it was not the driving factor. (Good thing, because that turned out to be a myth.) I had other engineer tendencies too, such as taking things apart and trying to modify them. But electronics engineering won out over other interests (mechanics, chemistry, programming) because those synthesizers were so neat.

I always hear that my story is not of the norm. I found my passion for engineering through Sales. I went to college right after high school and got a Marketing and Management degree in 2006. Got a sales job for a plumbing wholesaler that was trying to break into the lighting market. So of course, as new blood, I got put on the lighting track. After numerous training sessions, I decided that I liked designing the lighting rather than selling it. Well the company wasn’t going in that direction. After looking a new job in that field, everyone told me I needed a degree. I knew EE wasn’t for me, since I wanted to work on buildings. Enter Architectural Engineering. It is a perfect fit and I finish my degree next year. The program I am in has 100% job placement, for those looking and not taking a significant amount of time off after graduation. I got very lucky with my program and the growing popularity of this degree. I’m very happy I learned my life’s passion at the age of 26, rather than when I’m 40. 🙂

Comments are closed.