What did I get myself into?

What did I get myself into?

We’ve decided to occasionally focus a series of posts on themes.  You probably noticed that we did this a couple weeks ago when discussing engineering salaries.  This week, we’re going to discuss how we each got into engineering.

I am guessing that, unlike my fellow bloggers, I got into engineering by accident.  That is, I never had any intent to become an engineer, but things worked out that way.

I did my undergraduate studies in physics with minors in math and geology, intending to go into computational geophysics after I finished.  While I was going to school, I met my husband, who was doing his PhD in electrical engineering.  All was well and good until I finished my bachelor’s degree, and he was just starting on his dissertation.

Things might have worked out fine, except the closest school with a geophysics doctoral program is four hours away, and I was homeschooling my (then only) son.

I looked at several possibilities for master’s program.  I thought something geology-related might be appropriate but found that the program I was looking at wouldn’t be as math-intensive as I wanted.  Physics was a possibility, but I really had no desire to put myself through upper-level quantum mechanics unnecessarily.  It also turned out that there wasn’t anyone who was really doing research that I was interested in.  And finally, there was the issue that I wanted to do my masters part-time, since I planned to continue homeschooling my son.

As it turned out, the program that met this criteria was electrical engineering.  I had taken a grad-level class in undergrad on computational methods in electromagnetics from a professor in EE.  I went to talk with him, and he was fine with me working part-time.  (I have noticed that engineering is much more accepting of this practice than science, although usually people are going part-time because they are working a day job.)  We also set up a research project I was interested in, working with a professor at another college.  Finally, I was going to be able to put my upper-level math classes to use.

Engineering was a lot different than I anticipated.  I had the illusion that it should be easy because I had a degree in physics.  As part of my program, I had to take four lower-level undergrad courses (core classes that the program required) and found them to be more difficult than the upper-level classes.  I was very used to learning how to do problems through logical thinking, and many lower-level engineering classes focus much more on process, not worrying about the ‘trivial’ and other solutions that we spent so much time discussing in physics.  I also found I was lacking a lot of very discipline-specific knowledge.  Trying to pick that up while also learning things from upper-level courses was challenging.  All in all, I found the grad-level courses easier to handle than undergrad courses, but that may have been because I was more interested in the topics covered in the grad-level courses.

I didn’t end up doing the project I’d originally planned.  In the middle of my program, I was asked by my advisor to work on a project.  I wasn’t crazy about it, but they needed someone and I was a warm body with a particular knowledge set they were seeking.  So I spent a year learning a lot about electrostatic discharge.  The following year, another project needed a person, so I spent a year learning about antennas and electromagnetic modeling.  The final year, I worked for several months on metamaterials.  It was probably lucky because the project I originally planned to do never panned out.  Additionally, I got a significantly more diverse background than I anticipated.  This enabled me to get the job I have now, which is supporting me while I finish my PhD in geophysics.

I am definitely not your typical electrical engineer as I don’t spend a lot of time working with circuits and soldering irons.  I spend a lot more time with commercial software, generating models and data, and maybe a little time doing some programming in Matlab.  I spend more time working with a network analyzer than oscilloscope.  I was initially very surprised to learn that there are engineers who do this kind of work, although I imagine you’ll see them more often in a research setting than industry.  That seems to work for me, but sometimes I am still surprised to call myself an engineer.


Several reasons why I became an engineer.
1. It was the profession of choice for a son of a Chinese family in the ’60s & 70s.
2. All my cousins had engineering majors when they went to college.
3. I liked my drafting classes in high school.
4. Remember that aplitude exam you took in high school? It said that I should be an engineer.

To tell you the truth, I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I was in high school. All I knew was that if I didn’t go to college, I stood the chance of getting drafted into the military. That meant getting sucked into that historical disaster called the Vietnam War. I didn’t have my draft number yet, but I wasn’t willing to bet my life on a bunch of ping pong balls in a box.

So I went into engineering. My father gave me the choice of University of New Mexico (I was born in NM) or going to San Francisco State College. Well, after living in Roswell, NM for 10 years, I was definitely ready for a chance. UNM was hot, dusty, and dull. SFSU was new, exciting (especially after the student riots in ’69), and so very cool. I was in San Francisco a week after I graduated from high school.

What I found out when I started college was that I was totally unprepared for a college education. I didn’t know how to study, etc. If it wasn’t for a bunch of older military vets in college on the GI bill, my butt would have been tossed out of college for being too stupid and dumb. They took me under their wings like a bunch of older brothers and we all worked together to get everyone through the classes. It took a couple of years to get straighten out, but eventually I figured out how to work the system to get my classes., study for classes, etc.

Then in ’73, my family had the crazy idea that I apply for transfer to UC-Berkeley. Just to keep my family happy, I did, thinking that UC-B would never take in an average student already in a 4-year college program. When I got the letter saying that I was accepted, I didn’t know what to do.

Well, all of friends who I had spent 3 years with at SFSU told me to transfer. For them, it was a no brainer to transfer from a fledging engineering school to one of the best in the country. Even my professors all told me to go.

UC-B was entirely different than SFSU, everyone was really smart, the work load was twice what I was used to. I managed to survive and finally graduate in Decemeber 1974 with my BSME. I knew that I would never make it through graduate school, so I went to full time work at the place where I was interning at.

Eventually, I got my PE.

I’m curious if you are glad you went into engineering or if you think you should’ve tried something else.

Personally, I’m very glad. I really enjoy science, but I like knowing that I’ve got a backup if that doesn’t work out. 🙂

Yes and no. I’m more of a hands on engineer than a number cruncher. What they don’t require you to take in engineering school are courses in pyschology, socialogy, and business.

The hardest part of my career has been dealing with the people in it. If I could just do my job and not have to deal with people and their own agendas, I’d be a happy camper.

Poor upper management, the lack of support manpower (“lean and mean”), insufficient budgets, lack of equipment, etc. are parts of my career that make me tell young college engineering students to “run away” from this profession.

I think the worst thing I ever did was to survive taking over a project that was overbudget, understaffed, and overdue and making it all work well enough to suit our client. All it did was tell management that I was the ideal person to take over “problem” projects and save other people asses when they screw up big time. Hence, I was never the one to get promoted. Why take the guy who gets things done and move him/her into a higher position?

As to what other career I might have gone into if I didn’t become an engineer, that’s a hard question to answer. I was a bit of a introvert when I was younger, I didn’t go out and do enough “exploring”.

If you think about it, the one thing about engineering is that you start out at a higher salary level than most other college majors. Being able to support yourself without having to scrimp for every nickel and penny is great. It allows you the privilege of putting a roof over your head and food on the table while allowing you time to look at other things in life.

You may end up not really enjoying your engineering career, but it does offer you the ability to look for what really makes you happy. Take my advice, go “exploring”.

If it helps, I’d say it’s not any better in science. The most difficult part of the job can be dealing with people. The biggest difference I see between the two is that competent engineers often don’t get promoted while competent scientists are forced to leave their jobs because there’s just too much competition.

Competent engineers aren’t usually promoted because they often do not make competent managers. Managers are all about dealing with people. Engineers on the whole are on the introverted side of the scale. They like inanimate objects.

Commercial modeling software is definitely used more in industry than university research. Else, the companies making those software will never turn a profit as unversities typically receive heavy discounts on such products. Our company here has an entire team of people dedicated to modeling silicon devices — caps, resistors, inductors, diodes, varactors, etc. Another team dedicated to modeling packages, bondwires, and board traces. And another team dedicated to testing real life components to see if they match the virtual models. I’m still amazed by the number of people necessary just to get a chip out the door. Circuit designers are only part of the story.

I would agree that commercial software is used more in industry. Aside from the cost issue, part of this is due to the fact that a lot of research groups will generate their own code.

The majority of the engineers I know are still the types that are messing with soldering irons or designing boards. That may be a result of where I live, but I am inclined to think that a lot of it also has to do with the fact that some of this requires more education than just an undergrad degree. (In fact, you’ve said that yourself.) Most people simply aren’t willing to go beyond undergrad.

I guess it depends a lot on the type of work you do which then determines the co-workers you associate with. None of the digital IC guys at work have grad degrees and most of the specialty layout guys don’t either. All the modeling people do, and most of them, managers included, have Ph.D.s. Half of the test guys have grad degrees and these are the ones messing around the most with boards and equipment. They’re also the ones with real world knowledge, unlike me, who lives in the virtual simulation world.

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