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So You Want to Be an Engineer? How to Tell if This Is (or Is Not) a Good Idea

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Because there is such a hullaballoo around the engineering profession these days, parents, teachers, counselors, business people, and even the government are touting the profession for just about anybody. As a result, more and more students are declaring, "I want to be an engineer!" When I hear those words, I usually say something like, "That's great! Why do you think you want to do that?"

To that question, a few students immediately describe how they started building things -- model airplanes, Lego constructions, primitive robots and computers, etc. -- when they were as young as three years old. One boy announced that he wired his family home with a sound system when he was twelve. A Dakota farm girl told me how her big brother taught her to build a fort, including gathering sticks from a near-by orchard, then weaving them into walls and a roof, building a door and even a skylight. These students revealed an enthusiasm for becoming an engineer based on several first-hand engineer-like experiences from their youth.

On the other hand, most students don't really know why they want to be an engineer, let alone what type of engineer. They say things like, "My parents told me that I would earn a lot of money if I became an engineer, even with just a bachelor's degree" or "My physics teacher said I would never be out of a job during good or bad economic times" or "I like telling people that I want to be an engineer."

WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT ENGINEERING AS A PROFESSION
Doing a Little Research
If you think you might want to be an engineer, it's useful to begin finding out about the field and gaining some exposure to real, live, practicing engineers. According to College Board, there are more than 30 college engineering majors, including the following:

  • Aeronautical/aerospace
  • Agricultural
  • Architectural
  • Bioengineering
  • Chemical
  • Civil
  • Computer
  • Construction
  • Electrical
  • Environmental
  • Industrial
  • Manufacturing
  • Marine, navel and ocean
  • Materials
  • Mechanical
  • Metallurgical and mining
  • Nuclear engineering

Do any of these sound interesting to you?

One very useful resource for finding out about the different specialty areas is TryEngineering, an excellent website for students and parents. College Board's yearly publication, Book of Majors offers a section on what different engineering majors are, what the training teaches students to do, what high school courses are good preparation, and what the academic programs are like. The book also identifies colleges and universities in the US that offer the different engineering specialties, and at what levels, AA, BS, MA or Ph.D. BigFuture Major and Career Search is also a good source of information.

Talking to Practicing Engineers
Most high school students have very little experience in actually talking with people in professions such as engineering, let alone seeing what engineers do. While personal exposure is useful for any career, it is especially important for students who want to become engineering majors.

Whether mechanical, electrical, or another area, undergraduate engineering programs are very structured from the moment you start college. You should also know that engineering majors have the reputation for being very demanding, sometimes taking five years to complete. While it is usually easy to leave an engineering major to go into something else, it's almost impossible to move from a non-engineering major and transfer to an engineering one. Therefore, before you apply to college it's critical to know something about engineering as a field, what an engineer does and that you want to go into that major.

What to Say and Do in an Information Interview
Once you have identified a few engineering areas that look interesting, the next step is to meet people who do that kind of work. This is called an information interview. Unlike a job interview, what this is all about is gathering information. Most people are happy to talk with students about their jobs and professions.

Here's what to do:

1. Keep your eyes open for Career Days at your own school, a library or a local science festival. Let your science teachers and counselor know that you are looking for such events.

2. Ask your teachers if they know any engineers in the city in which you live.

3. Get the names, email addresses and phone numbers for as many engineers as you can. Ask your parents, relatives, friends' parents and anyone else they can think of.

4. If nothing else, you can also do a Google search for your hometown, e.g., "Bioengineers in San Diego," and see what emerges. Often college departments will offer listings of different professors who teach there, including bios, photos and email addresses.

5. After having a look at the bios and the photos, pull out the names of a few professors and send them an email. This what to say to a potential contact:

Hi, my name is Mary Jones. I am a sophomore at Torrey Pines High School who is very interested in engineering. I saw on the University of San Diego engineering website that you teach mechanical engineering. I'm trying to find out something about this field before I start applying to colleges. Would it be possible for me to spend 15 minutes with you sometime to hear about your field?

If the professor says yes, three cheers for you! Set up a day and time right then and there. Get this information:

  • Name of interviewee
  • Address
  • Phone number
  • Email address
  • Day/time of appointment

Say thank you and put the name of the person, date and time on your calendar.

If he/she says no, then find another name and then another until you find someone who says yes. (If the person says no, but you seem to connect, you might ask for other people you might contact).

6. The day before an information interview, either email or call the person with whom you have an appointment to confirm the meeting. Ask for directions, if you need them.

7. It's useful to be prepared for an information interview by dressing in nice clothes (shirt and slacks for guys; nice skirt and blouse for girls). Also, come prepared with some questions. Here is a list that usually gets what you need to know:

  • What led you to choose engineering as your career?
  • What do you like about your job? What do you dislike?
  • What kind of training do you have?
  • What is your day like from the time you get up in the morning until you go to bed at night?
  • What kinds of interests did you have as a child/teen?
  • Where did you go to college? Was it a good choice? Why?
  • If you could choose a career all over again, what would it be?
  • What advice do you have for me?
  • What classes or books or experiences do you recommend that I have before I go off to college?
  • Are there other people in your field that you think I should talk to?

Don't forget to take notes on what you hear and learn during or right after the information interview.

8. Be sure to get the person's business card and as soon as you get home, send them a thank you note. It might say something such as:

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today. I learned so much that will be useful in deciding whether I want to become a mechanical engineer. I loved hearing about _____________ and also _____________. I hope our paths cross again soon.

Sincerely,

9. Keep on talking with engineers until you have a real sense about whether this is a good field for you.

10. Begin looking for the engineering schools that best fit you.

My next blog will be how to identify and prepare for engineering schools that match your academic background, personality and interests.