Kim Dalton Linder, PhD
Honeywell FM&T, Albuquerque, NM
(modified from articles by Donna Cowell Senft, Sandia National Laboratories, and Delores Etter)
What is engineering?
Most people do not even know what an engineer does!?!? And it is difficult to sum up the field of engineering in just a few words. In a broad sense, engineering is the application of math and science to create something of value. An engineer is not the same as a scientist. While both have a background in math and science, an engineer applies these basic principles to practical problems. A scientist is not as application oriented, and is dedicated to the understanding of basic principles. Engineers are also very creative people. They create new things and make old things better. People in the arts are creative people also; but their creativity deals with thoughts or emotions. Engineering creativity deals with things. Things? A great example of this is the design of roller coasters! This incorporates a wide range of engineering specialties to create a combination of fun and safety. Some of these specialties might include electronic controls, computer aided design (CAD), aerodynamics, mechanical systems, incorporation of modern materials, and structural innovations.
Some of the most popular disciplines of engineering are also some of the oldest. The core list includes: civil, chemical, electrical, and mechanical. There are a variety of specialties within any single discipline, and there is also a lot of overlap between the different disciplines. Most engineers specialize in an area based on their individual interests. The field of civil engineering [asce.org] is concerned with development and improvement. It involves the conception, planning, design, construction, and operation of facilities essential to modern life. This may range from transit systems to offshore structures to space satellites. Civil engineers are problem solvers, meeting the challenges of pollution, traffic congestion, drinking water and energy needs, urban redevelopment, and community planning. Chemical engineers [aiche.org] work in the areas of manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, food processing, polymers, and biotechnology. They strive to make the world better by looking for hardier strains of wheat, rice, and corn that will survive drought, insects, and disease. A chemical engineer might design high strength plastic composites, or join the war against cancer and other deadly diseases. Electrical engineers [ieee.org] get to design things like cell phones, computers, integrated circuits, stereo systems, and space vehicles. An electrical engineer may work on ways to improve the transmission of messages by laser, or ways to automatically detect cancer cells. They have even worked with medical doctors to invent things like pacemakers, sonograms, and x-ray machines. Mechanical engineers [asme.org] play a key role in the invention and improvements of the automobile, airplane, air conditioning, space exploration, power generation, computer aided design, and bioengineering. A mechanical engineer works with areas such as heat transfer, fluid dynamics, thermodynamics and numerical modeling, and simulations. Other specialties include, but are not limited to, aerospace, environmental, safety, fire protection, agricultural, manufacturing, computer, materials, ceramic, nuclear, geological, industrial, textile, petroleum, geothermal, naval, optical, robotics, transportation, metallurgy, and mining engineering.
An engineering education will open many doors to technical and creative challenges. Because engineers typically provide services that relate directly to producing a product or service that can be sold, they are usually in high demand in the job market. Engineers can normally find employment directly in the field for which they have studied.
What makes a good engineer?
Potential engineers usually demonstrate a number of problem solving traits. They tend to enjoy science and mathematics (try not to equate enjoyment of a subject matter to the individual teacher or grade). Engineers must keep up-to-date with the latest techniques and information. Another important trait is the ability to present results, both in writing and orally. Additional qualities include being logical, wanting to make things work better, and enjoying working in the laboratory and working in groups. A commitment to lifelong learning is a necessity to be a successful engineer. If you have any or all of these characteristics, then engineering may be the field for you!
What is life as an engineer like?
Most engineers work weekdays, Monday through Friday. Typically they work from eight to ten hours per day. The type of work environment for an engineer depends upon the specialty that she selects. Most engineers work in offices; others may work outdoors part of the time. Engineers may travel, depending mainly upon the company they work for and the work they are performing for them. Many opportunities exist for engineers who wish to work in foreign countries. Engineers have a great deal of responsibility in their jobs. Some make a transition to management later in their careers. When additional learning is necessary, employers usually subsidize or reimburse engineering education and training expenses.
Engineers generally earn a nice salary. An engineer will typically make more than most salaried professionals, but not as much as some of other professionals such as doctors or lawyers. An entrepreneurial engineer can go into private practice, or create her own company, and do quite well.
How do I become an engineer?
Engineering is a difficult major. It requires a considerable amount of time and energy, but the rewards are well worth it! You can begin your engineering career right now!! Take as many math and science courses as you can and gain experience with computers. However, do not neglect your english classes, as engineers are expected to be able to write technical papers about their work and present their work to other engineers, and even their customer. Additionally, get involved in extracurricular activities—you do not have to be a nerd to be an engineer! A well-rounded engineer is a highly desired commodity.
A bachelor’s degree in engineering is necessary (for most jobs). A bachelor’s degree in engineering is available through a four- or five-year accredited college or university program. An engineering student will take classes in two categories, humanities and engineering. The humanities will probably have an equal ratio of men to women. The engineering (including math and science) classes will have more men than women.
After obtaining a bachelor’s degree, you can either find a job, or attend graduate school and obtain a master’s degree (1 1/2 years to 2 1/2 years) or a Ph.D. (approximately 5 years). These are referred to as advanced degrees. They may earn a promotion or simply help keep up with new technologies. A Ph.D. is needed for most teaching and research positions. Because of the demand for engineers, many companies offer funding and financial assistance to employees seeking additional education.
It is possible to combine an undergraduate engineering degree with advanced degrees in other fields. Many executives began their careers as engineers and later earned a master’s degree in business administration (MBA). Other engineers obtain law degrees and specialize in areas of law relating to technology and patents. Obtaining a chemical engineering degree has historically been a great way to get into medical school.
College engineering programs for the bachelor’s degree are solidly founded in mathematics and science. In a typical four-year curriculum, the first two years are spent studying basic sciences—math, chemistry, physics, introductory engineering, and the humanities. The last two years are spent studying one or more of the engineering specialties. Often students find that it takes five years to complete their bachelor’s degree. Many colleges and universities offer five- or six-year cooperative education programs that provide experience and allow the student to earn a substantial part of her educational expenses. In such a program, a semester of full-time academic study alternates with a semester of full-time engineering-related work (and pay!).
What/where are the jobs?
Engineers are in demand in the job market, and the outlook for jobs in the future is good. Engineers work wherever problems need to be solved, whether at a construction site, at a desk in an office, or in a research laboratory. Nearly half of all engineering jobs are in manufacturing industries, including microelectronics. Nonmanufacturing jobs are in research and testing services, construction, and utilities. Other engineers work for government, mainly the federal government in the Departments of Defense, Transportation, Agriculture, Interior, and Energy and in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Some engineers are self-employed consultants, and others are entrepreneurs who start their own companies. Engineers work in large and small cities and in rural areas, and employment can be found in every state.