Recently, I received a few emails asking whether getting a degree in engineering is a good idea. Okay, I have to say I am not comfortable giving career advice to students. I’m afraid I would steer them wrong and mess up their future! I’d rather give advice to people in their 20’s and 30’s who have a bit more life experience and can make their own decisions.
Career choice at 18
It seems a little ridiculous to expect an 18 year old student choose what they would like to do for the rest of their life. At that age, I didn’t know much about different careers. My parents had a restaurant and I knew that was a difficult business to be in. I knew that I’d prefer a white collar job rather than a blue collar job. My parents encouraged me to get into engineering and I thought why not. I was fairly good at math and science so I was able to get into a computer engineering program.
Back in 1989, computers weren’t ubiquitous like they are today. They were ridiculously expensive for what they could do, too. I think we paid over $1,500 for a 386 desktop. I liked learning about the computer and fooling around on it, but I didn’t know much about the career side of it. I don’t even remember why I picked electrical engineering over computer science. Anyway, it would have been nice to know more about what people really do in different engineering jobs before deciding on a major.
Talk to some engineers
For prospective engineers, I think the best thing you can do is to talk to someone who is already in the career that you’re thinking about. Ask them what kind of things they do in their job and what they did to prepare for it. See if it might align with what you’d like to do. I didn’t know many engineers when I was in school and I was afraid to reach out. Actually, the things I ended up doing (designing and validating computer chips) probably sounded quite appealing to my high school self.
Let’s make a pros-and-cons list of getting an engineering degree to help our young readers out.
Pros of getting an engineering degree
- Engineering degrees usually dominate the “best college degrees” lists. It’s a bit easier to get a job with an engineering degree than with a humanities degree.
- Engineering jobs pay well and are more stable than many other careers.
- If you like solving problems, then the right engineering job will keep you busily happy.
- The world will always get more technically advanced and we’ll need more engineers.
Cons of going into engineering
- The engineering coursework can be quite difficult. If you don’t have the aptitude for it, then you might not be able to get through it.
- Not many women are in engineering programs. I guess this could be a pro if you are a woman…
- Long work hours. Many engineers I know spend a ton of time at work. I probably spent 60+ hours per week when I first started my career. It’s hard to maintain a good work/life balance with that kind of demand.
- This is just my experience – Working for big corporations can be a big letdown. There is just so much overhead as you progress in your career. I spent a ton of time dealing with useless meetings, political maneuvering, tight deadlines, and BS training. It’s probably better in a smaller company.
- You need to keep learning new stuff to stay current in your field.
- You’ll spend a ton of time staring at a computer screen. I guess that’s true for most office jobs these days, but I must have spent 10+ hours/day on the computer for 16 years.
Engineers, please add your comment below and I’ll update the article with your input.
Your career is not set in stone
One thing to remember is that you don’t have to be an engineer forever. Many engineers I know got tired of the job and transitioned to a different career. I know people who changed to patent law, middle management, entrepreneur, marketing, and many other fields. For me, being a junior engineer was the most fun part of the career. I got to work on interesting stuff and didn’t have to deal with much BS. Once I got more senior, there were just too many non engineering tasks to deal with.
The bottom line is, you have to enjoy it. If you like tinkering with electronics, writing computer programs, building Lego robotics, or taking apart engines, then you might enjoy being an engineer. The money is nice, but I’m pretty sure there are many easier ways to make more money. I know it’s a tough decision to make when you’re young, but reach out and try to talk to some engineers if you’re thinking about a career in engineering. It is much easier now with social media to contact people.
Good luck, engineer prospects! Life goes on whichever you decide. Just try to find a job that you have fun with and you’ll be fine.
photo credit: flickr frankjuarez