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Should I go into engineering?

by retirebyforty on June 24, 2013 · 40 comments

in career, corporate pet peeves

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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.

Should I go into engineering?

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

  1. 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.
  2. Engineering jobs pay well and are more stable than many other careers.
  3. If you like solving problems, then the right engineering job will keep you busily happy.
  4. The world will always get more technically advanced and we’ll need more engineers.

Cons of going into engineering

  1. 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.
  2. Not many women are in engineering programs. I guess this could be a pro if you are a woman…
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. You need to keep learning new stuff to stay current in your field.
  6. 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

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{ 40 comments… read them below or add one }

Liquid June 24, 2013 at 12:57 am

It’s sometimes hard for young adults coming out of high school to decide which career path to take in post secondary. I made the mistake of going into engineering right away when I didn’t have the aptitude for it. After one year I had to drop out of the program because my grades weren’t good enough. But at least it made me realize what I wanted to do, which is art. Some of my friends went on to get their EE degrees and those cool rings. But the workload wasn’t something I could see myself doing for 5 years (which is how long it takes to get an engineering degree,) and even after that engineers usually work longer than 40 hours a week like you mentioned, so that focused work ethic has to continue into one’s career. In the end I think the best job is one where you can have fun and get paid enough doing it :)

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nicoleandmaggie June 24, 2013 at 10:48 am

My husband recently stopped wearing his ring because people kept asking him if he was Canadian.

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retirebyforty June 24, 2013 at 10:44 pm

That’s lucky in a way because you found out earlier. Many of my friends changed major early on too. Thanks for sharing.

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Pretired Nick June 24, 2013 at 7:58 am

Thank goodness you said “you have to enjoy it”. I worry a lot about people that choose a career path for money reasons. They end up hating their lives in way too many cases.
But, certainly, like you said no career has to be forever. Looking back I think I would have been good at engineering but I didn’t enjoy math so became a writer. Oh well!

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retirebyforty June 24, 2013 at 10:45 pm

Many people also don’t realize that they can change their lives by changing career. It’s hard when you have more responsibilities though.

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Kurt @ Money Counselor June 24, 2013 at 8:31 am

It is difficult to know when you’re only 18 or 20 what career you’d like. I earned a B.S. in Chemical Engineering. The further I got into the Chem Eng program, the more I disliked chemical engineering! But I was stubborn (stupid?) and kept at it because I knew the degree would be valuable and I didn’t want to abandon the coursework I already had under my belt. But by the time I was a senior, I pretty much knew I didn’t want to work as a chemical engineer. My solution was to go directly to grad school and earn a MBA-Finance concentration. It’s a great degree combination and got me out of a career doing hardcore chemical engineering work.

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retirebyforty June 24, 2013 at 10:47 pm

That’s a great way to go. An B.S. in engineering can open many doors.

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Jeff September 20, 2013 at 10:23 am

I also got my BS in Chemical Engineering and near the end of the program wondered if I should have been a EE instead but in the end I feel that it paid off, even though I went into Process Control instead. That field combines my ChemE degree with my prior computer science and IT experience and I have an advantage as after ChemE it’s rather trivial for me to pick up the electrical stuff while on the other hand those who started as EEs continually struggle with concepts like chemistry and fluid mechanics.

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retirebyforty September 20, 2013 at 4:43 pm

That’s great. I think EE is much easier to pick up than ChemE. Chemistry and fluid dynamic are so mind boggling/numbing. :)

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steve June 24, 2013 at 9:01 am

Another con for engineering (more specifically, programming): You end up spending most of your working life sitting alone in an 8×10 cubicle staring at a screen. Very little human nteraction, and during the winter months you’ll barely see daylight except on the weekends.

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pia June 24, 2013 at 12:21 pm

Hmmm. I have to say that is probably common that is you’re a software engineer you are working like a lone wolf. That’s true in my first job but not all. A lot of programming jobs have embraced what they call agile development and pair programming where interactions in the team are prominent.

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Tommy June 24, 2013 at 12:26 pm

So true.

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retirebyforty June 24, 2013 at 10:49 pm

Yeah, I think that’s true for many engineering branches now. We work so much on the computer these days. I got tired of staring at the computer screen 10+ hours/day and that’s one of the reasons why I left that career.

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Jeff September 20, 2013 at 10:25 am

Not all engineers work in cubicals: there’s always need for people in the field where you get a better understanding of how the plants and machinery work as well as spending time outdoors.

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Bill June 24, 2013 at 9:09 am

Engineering is a hot profession right now and should continue to be for the foreseeable future. I got my Bachelors in Mechanical Engineering and worked as a design engineering for six years while I got my MBA and moved into management where I was better suited. Engineering/business training is a highly versatile combination and you can do just about anything with it. Yes, a reputable engineering curriculum will be challenging. In college, the engineering students are the ones that stay home to study and work engineering problems while others are out having a good time – but the rewards can be great and lifelong. In whatever career you choose, you may find it is more important who you work with, than the work itself. Bad work situations can make your life unpleasant. Career choice is a very personal decision and my recommendation to young people considering a career is to first, “know thyself.”

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Savvy Financial Latina June 24, 2013 at 9:09 am

I think coursework is different from actual work, work. I did my background is supply chain (operations research). When I started working, I quickly found out the work and studies I had done in university did not match the work I was getting paid for.

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Sam June 24, 2013 at 9:23 am

I think in most degrees there will be a disconnect between the job you will be doing and the coursework. Certainly the coursework in my experience was much more abstract than the very practical problems I deal with as a software engineer. I feel like the abstract coursework has enabled me to do any math-centric career, though. (My degree was a long hard slog in electrical engineering but I soon found out circuits, ASICs and power grids weren’t for me and switched to software after 2 years. It was my only A, I should have known :)

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nicoleandmaggie June 24, 2013 at 10:47 am

“Not many women are in engineering programs. I guess this could be a pro if you are a woman…”
More likely a con. Still, there are undergraduate engineering programs that are supportive for women– something definitely to ask about when you’re looking at schools. There are some schools women should avoid like the plague and others that are fantastic.

My sister is hitting #4 right now. Another problem is that sometimes they expect you go to into management and a lot of engineers don’t like that.

I think engineers are awesome.

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retirebyforty June 24, 2013 at 10:53 pm

It’s really hard for women in engineering programs.
Taking on more leadership roles didn’t work out for me. I’m not good at it and I didn’t want to do it. It’s almost impossible to avoid leadership responsibilities once you made higher pay grades though. It’s tough for engineers who like doing the grunt work.

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jim June 24, 2013 at 11:12 am

I don’t think the #4 con is really a con of engieering. THe downsides of big companies are a con for anyone that works at a big company. Engineers can work at small companies or government too.

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Pension Retirement June 24, 2013 at 11:43 am

I think a degree in engineering (whichever type) is valuable because it lets you learn how to solve problems. As you mention, you career isn’t set in stone, and where ever you go, you’re going to have a leg up if you can solve problems. The mindset is transferrable even if the actual tasks learned in school aren’t so much.

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Jason June 24, 2013 at 11:51 am

Long-term SW engineer here. As RB40 has said, the first 5 years will be the most fun, but it tends to burn people out quickly. So, the main advice I’d give to someone that wants to start in this career is

*Have An Escape Plan*

When you begin, you may think you want to work forever, but it’s possible you won’t after 15 or more years. So, plan for it.

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retirebyforty June 24, 2013 at 10:54 pm

I wish someone told me that earlier in my career. That’s good advice.

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Jason June 25, 2013 at 10:19 am

Actually, I think this advice can be applied to ANY career choice. In this uncertain time, you always need to have an emergency bail-out plan for your career, even if you have retired.

Readers: What would YOU do if you had to bail on your career in the next year?

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Mom @ Three is Plenty June 24, 2013 at 12:22 pm

Another issue I’ve seen that nicoleandmaggie pointed out as well is that once you get to a certain pay bracket, you’re expected to go into management – and unfortunately, most engineers are not good managers, and they just don’t *want* to be managers, so they suck at it, and repeat until they’re miserable and everyone working for them is miserable. My husband is in this situation, but he switched jobs to a technical minded company, where they have a separate career advancement track for “technical staff”.

There are also several types of engineers, and which type you select will dictate your options and your coursework. There’s also the Professional Engineer (PE) route, vs non-PE route. I have rarely seen electrical or computer engineers go the PE route, I’ve seen that mostly in the mechanical and civil engineering areas. Computer engineers can work as programmers/developers (if they want) in addition to the hardware side. Depending on your school: a computer engineer could also do digital/ASIC design and testing (more like an electrical engineer).

I picked the career path I liked – computer science with a minor in EE (I had more flexibility than straight computer engineering). But I’m not doing anything related to either of those for work – I got into computer security. The schooling has helped provide background information and theory, but I rarely use it in my day-to-day job.

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retirebyforty June 24, 2013 at 10:57 pm

Thanks for your input. I think the career track is much better laid out now than when I first started. Even with the technical route, the company still want you to take on quite a bit of leadership role. It’s hard. Everyone has to figure out what’s right for them.

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Mike@WeOnlyDoThisOnce June 24, 2013 at 2:44 pm

Definitely a worthwhile investment, if you’re inclined to pursue those studies. Also, lots of flexibility of what field eventually to work in afterward.

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krantcents June 24, 2013 at 4:39 pm

As a teacher, I always tell my students to pick a career that they are interested in and have the skills. There is plenty of time to investigate a lot of things in college. Not everyone is college material. In Los Angeles, the electrician union is begging for people who are good in math. An electrical contractor has a good future too! I wish young people would spend more time figuring out what they like and what they are good at rather than what might be lucrative.

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Daisy @ Young Finances June 24, 2013 at 8:00 pm

I used to consider engineering, but I don’t think I would want to do that for very long, knowing me. I went for business and it turned out to be a good decision. My partner was thinking of engineering at one point too. He still may decide to go back to school.

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[email protected] June 25, 2013 at 2:05 am

After high school, I started into college as an Electrical Engineer at a decent school – Cal Poly.
Within two years I was wanting to go to a trade school to be a welder, and was two semesters on probation.

As RB40 mentioned, at 18, you really don’t understand these things.
Maybe they do better now, but I didn’t at the time.
When I graduated from high school in 1981, I loved doing electrical kinds of things.
We’re talking auto shop electrical things – starters and gauges, and such.
So, Electrical Engineer – yeah, that makes sense.

The chemistry was overwhelming.
The physics lecture was understandable, the lab way beyond what I was grasping.
The 101 elecronics class and lab – one female in the class, no females in the lab.
In those first two years, I saw most students working together, and living in the dorms.
I was living at home, bartending on weekends.

While I’m intriqued by circuit board design, and would love to understand it, and would love to find somebody that can design me some wireless sprinkler valves in the US like those at the Remconix site, I realize it’s more than I can handle.

After two years at Cal Poly, I switched to a Business Admin Major with a focus on Computer Information Services. Focus was on programming, with an overall understanding of business.

Mom and dad were right – it was better than the welding trade school.

One of these days, I’m going to again try to re-take that physics lab. Maybe when I’m old enough to confuse them more than they confused me.

For now, I’ll stick to http://www.sparkfun.com and the Make magazine and just consider myself to be a hobbyist wannable engineer – I’m good with that.

Greg
Greg

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Nathan June 25, 2013 at 2:08 am

I think you’ll know if you are right for an engineering degree, you’ll already have an interest in fiddling, fixing and creating ‘things’.

While there is scope to change within the field during your education, I can’t think of any thing more painful than forcing yourself to rote learn incredibly abstract stuff you don’t care about.

Seriously what kind of working life would you be setting yourself up for?

I just followed my interests from EE to CS and later to HCI, didn’t ever lose interest in the subject matter, just lost interest in permanent work ;)

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Paul @ The Frugal Toad June 25, 2013 at 7:49 am

You are right to be hesitant before giving advice on a career Joe. An 18 year old has a much different perspective and my biggest fear would be to discourage them from pursuing a potential career because I said I spend most of my time in meetings or something similar! Having said that, I would encourage the 18 year to ask as many questions as they can and sign-up for an internship while in college.

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Kevin @ RewardBoost June 25, 2013 at 9:31 am

In my opinion there are very few acceptable majors for someone looking at college as an investment. Nursing, pre-med, pre-law, computer programming, accounting, and engineering are those that come to mind. If you don’t acquire a skill in college then you’re not going to be very marketable when looking for a job.

If you can learn something by experience (pretty much anything in a “business” degree) then you should do that over going to college in my opinion. An entry level job where you work your way up is going to give better experience and you can actually make money instead of spending it.

Those are my 2 cents on college.

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nicoleandmaggie June 26, 2013 at 5:36 am

We disagree… in fact, we think there are class differences in this view on college. The upper class and upper middle class who see college as a coming of age experience also take their humanities etc. majors and get great jobs in business. Because being a mathematician teaches you to think logically and is a signal that you’re really smart.

Pre-med is a lousy major unless you go to med school, and even then you’re in for a load of debt. Pre-law is not a major most places (they prefer people with “real” majors) and many people graduating from law school are graduating with debt and no jobs because the recession made a glut in new lawyers. Computer programming is currently a good major, but not so long ago there were too many programmers (because of the dot com boom) for the number of jobs (because of the bust)– that’s evened out again. Accounting is generally pretty safe, as is engineering, though it depends a lot on the kind of engineering and what the market demands are– for a while you couldn’t get a job as a petroleum engineer, and now demand far outstrips supply. Even nursing– some parts of the country RNs are having difficulty finding jobs, other parts of the country there’s huge demand.

It’s difficult to time markets for these things since education takes 4+ years. The best we can ask of college is that it teaches us how to learn and how to be flexible in an ever changing market. And plenty of majors can do that.

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Ryan July 3, 2013 at 9:02 am

I do not recommend pertroleum engineering. Just go with general mechanical and take some classes geared towards petroleum industry. Petroleum engineers expect to get paid big bucks based on their degree, but companies can find similar candidates with mechanical degrees that don’t feel so entitled.

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thepotatohead June 26, 2013 at 6:33 pm

I loved playing with and building Legos when I was younger, so I always figured I’d be an engineer when I was all grown up. I found out though that I really didn’t like math, so that pretty much killed that career path. A few of my family members are/were engineers though, and I think for the most part they like it…except for some of the same things you hated…there are certainly a lot of meetings and BS in all companies, especially larger ones.

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Chris June 26, 2013 at 7:09 pm

As a Sr Software Eng, never stop learning or trying to expand on the work that you are doing or have done. That also causes the burnout to be more difficult. As you learn new tips, try and share them with members of the staff that you work with … remember, what goes around, comes around.
If you like electronics and/or programming, pick up a Raspberry Pi or Axon MCU to simply fool around and see what you can create. Open up your creative mind as much as you can.

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Financial Samurai June 27, 2013 at 1:28 pm

The ones with the highest GMAT scores and GPAs were engineers in my b-school class, but ALL of them wanted to get out of engineering and get into management. They were sick of being the $120,000-$180,000 a year blue collar worker at tech firms when managers were making double to triple.

Some perspective!

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Ryan July 3, 2013 at 8:57 am

Engineer here. My advice, go with a general engineering degree like Mechnical. As you progress through college you can focus on a specific area within Mechnical that you like. Try to do summer internships. Get a job in a city/area that has a lot of options. The best way to see pay increases is moving to different companies. Sure you have to learn a new system, maybe move (hence the find an area with options comment), but if you can bank a lot of money early on, you can start to branch out to things you actually like to do that pay less. Also you’ll build your network if you move around the industry versus staying at the same company.

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JohnC October 4, 2013 at 6:55 am

Engineering can be a lot of fun but it’s up to each person to find a situation that suits him. I got a couple degrees, a BS in Engineering Technology (practical, applications oriented) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (more theoretical). I started as a design engineer and didn’t like it, moved into mechanical system simulation which was a lot more interesting, and a few years after that I migrated into finite element analysis which has been a huge amount of fun for the last 28 years. So, it took some time to figure out the right place for me within the engineering world. The final piece of the puzzle was after 8 years I bailed out of the usual employer-employee relationship and got into contract employment. I call around and make my own deals with various temporary employment companies, choosing where I work and how much I earn. It’s 100% technical work which I enjoy very much, I make about 50-100% more than regular employees. If a job doesn’t work out the way I had hoped I look around for something else and move on. By making more money I have financial control of my life and that’s a key factor as well. The moral to the story, at least in my case, is that the education process is only the first step. Once you get into industry you look around and find a scenario that suits you. One “bad” thing about the education process is that you always looked to the instructor to tell you what to do. This is a bad habit to develop because the real world is nothing like this. Companies have little if any interest in finding the right situation for you. You need to be self guiding and street smart. Look within yourself and understand the environment that will be most enjoyable and beneficial to you, and then find or create a situation like that in industry. This approach works for your career as well as life in general.

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