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Civil or Mechanical (also Patent Law)

  1. Apr 27, 2012 #1
    I'm a freshman in civil engineering currently and I am thinking about mechanical as a possibility. This is going to be a long post, but stick with me and I’d really appreciate it. (If not, skip down and read the last two paragraphs.)

    The reason I chose civil in the first place was that I originally wanted to be in architecture, but decided to apply to college in civil because I thought it would be a less “artsy” version of architecture. For the first semester I hated it, I've grown to like the idea of engineering and it seems that it will provide a more vivid (i.e. constantly changing and entertaining) future work-wise and earn more money and job security. It also seems like civil will be a fair background for architecture if I ever choose to study architecture in the future for a masters. Is this reasonable?

    So far, civil hasn't really resonated that strongly with me and I don't feel like I identify with the title of being a civil engineer much. Also civil seems boring to me on the small scale in both public and private sector work from my limited knowledge of it. I do not like the idea of a job where the most exciting thing I get to talk about is how the new guys at my work use a different line type than I do to draw drainage profiles.

    However, structural engineering appeals to me more although I feel that in any project they work on, all of the credit goes to the architect if it goes well and all the blame goes to the structural engineer if it fails. So in the eyes of the public, you get no recognition for doing something great and that annoys me a bit because every other form of engineer gets credit for what they do.

    One thing that appeals to me about civil engineering, however, is that while the job can get mundane, I see that there is a possibility working abroad in growing countries like Brazil or South Africa to improve their infrastructure as they develop. I feel like it would be immensely rewarding to work on designing new infrastructure for countries that are up and coming and need booming to grow right now like. However, that’s not a permanent lifestyle plan in my opinion because I like the idea of improving another country as an experience, but I would like to do work here in the US also, and I’m not sure how enjoyable I would find seemingly repetitive beam placement and drainage profile work every day in a normal town.
    So I have been thinking of switching to mechanical engineering. Mechanical seems very cool and rewarding because you constantly design and innovate. The thing is, mechanical is straying a lot from my original planned career path (architecture, civil) and I don’t know if this is just a brief fad and I’m abandoning my passion.

    Haha I know it must seem like I have too many career paths already BUT I was recently also thinking about going to law school for patent law. I’m not dead set on it as my goal, but I’ve heard some people mention it and I’ve become interested on reading up on it. Actually, this also relates to one reason I may switch to mechanical engineering. I have heard from two people now who are well into their 30s that they wish they knew they could have gone into patent law with a their bachelors in civil, but they would have needed mechanical or electrical instead. However, I have recently read that although not the ideal choice for patent law, civil engineering allows you to take the specific test to practice it. Does anyone know if this is true? Also does anyone know what you must to become a patent lawyer other than take the bar?
    So in summary, I like civil because it is similar to architecture and allows me to get a masters in architecture down the road more easily if I choose to (still unsure) since they are closely related. I also like the idea of improving developing countries overseas as a civil engineer, but without a big purpose like that, I find most of the work (at least what I’ve seen so far ) rather dull.
    Mechanical seems like a cool field to switch into, but it’s completely different from what I’ve always wanted to do (architecture) and I’m not sure if switching is just a phase or a fad decision and I’d regret switching into it later on since its completely off track from what I’ve had planned.

    This was a long post, thanks for sticking with me. Any advice or info is greatly appreciated. :)
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 27, 2012 #2


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    I think Mechanical engineering will provide you with more flexible career-wise. Just my two cents...
  4. Apr 28, 2012 #3
    These are very important questions to ask yourself, so I will try my best to give you some advice. I have studied for a degree in civil engineering myself and worked as a structural engineer for a bit.

    Firstly, I really don’t know how easy it is to get a Master’s in architecture with an undergrad degree in civil. The two subjects may seem similar at first glance, but they are actually quite far apart.

    However, if you find civil engineering dull now, then let me warn you: it may only get worse. Structural engineering may be related to buildings, but the job isn’t anything like architecture. The entire design process is fundamentally different. Essentially, the entire job for a structural engineer involves estimating the loads on the different storeys (often from the architect’s drawings), then calculating how thick beams, columns and slabs have to be. That’s basically the whole job. When you get into engineering school, many people will tell you things like “innovative,” “no two days are the same,” etc. That is not quite correct. Most days are exactly the same. Designing the structure can actually be a very tedious process. You usually don’t do “normal” calculations as you would do in your freshman year. A lot of the time you will look things up in codes, in some jobs that’s pretty much all you do, codes, codes, codes. If you haven’t heard of codes yet, look them up and you’ll know what I mean by “boring” by the time you finished reading three sentences within those codes. So you spend weeks reading these dry documents, designing beams over and over again, only to hear from the architect last minute that they’ve changed the design completely and you have to start all over again. The structural engineer’s job is, unfortunately, often quite boring, and to be very honest with you, I don’t know many structural engineers who really like their job. But here’s the important part: some people do enjoy the job, it just depends on your personality. From my experience, there are some character traits that most civil engineers share who enjoy the job, and thus some questions you have to ask yourself. Do you, in general, enjoy learning new things, like the theory, innovation? Do you enjoy the mathematics, mechanics; do you enjoy being a university student? If so, then civil engineering may not be for you. The job may not be intellectually challenging enough. On the other hand, do you just want to go out, get a job as fast as possible, like practical things without wanting to understand all the theory behind it? Then civil engineering may be suited to you. It is quite different from the other engineering disciplines and, actually, not really engineering in the strict sense. In many ways it’s more of a bureaucratic science. But these are only some initial guiding questions because the job is so vast, and civil engineering incorporates many different areas. I can only talk about my background in structural engineering. Water management, transport planning, waste management, and all the other branches are quite different.

    About going abroad, yes, civil engineering may enable you to go abroad, but as you say, it might still be the same repetitive work every day. Then you have to decide whether it would be worth it for you. Also, many engineers who design works for overseas are still based in their home country without ever going to the country in which their designs get to be built.

    In terms of innovation and patent law, that is definitely a thing to consider. You don’t get much innovation in construction. That’s just the nature of civil engineering. Innovation is mostly in technology, engines, electronic devices, not in buildings or infrastructure. There are some new methods of construction or some materials developed from time to time, but it’s nothing like the innovation in the other engineering sciences. So I would imagine a patent lawyer having somewhat more difficulty finding a job for civil engineering purposes. You’ve strayed a bit away from architecture and buildings by considering mechanical, but that’s ok. That’s how things work when you gain experience and some insight into different academic fields. Maybe you’ll find mechanical engineering is more suited to you than architecture. But for that it would be good to gain some insight into the actual job of an architect. Try to get to see the work within an architectural practice if you can. As is the case for structural engineering, the real job often turns out less glamorous than what people imagine it to be.

    It may sound like I am advising you not to do civil engineering. I am not trying to do that. Some jobs can be good, some bad, but above I tried to show you some of the more negative sides of the job, as most people tend to emphasize the positive sides, thus skewing the picture somewhat. Civil engineering is a very broad field, but many branches are more like managing, planning, bureaucracy, and have little in common with engineering. Try to get some clarity on what things you like about architecture or mechanical engineering, the more basic things, such as innovation, creativity, problem solving, etc. Then look into the different fields and see which ones can give you that. Also, advice from people in other branches of engineering that my own would be good, as what I’ve just said is heavily influenced by structural engineering. To be fair, most jobs tend to be a bit boring, even mechanical or architecture jobs, from what I’ve heard.

    Was that helpful? I hope at least a bit.
  5. Apr 28, 2012 #4
    One more thing, I have to say that while studying for a degree you may find you like some fields within it that you previously never knew about. A degree in civil engineering doesn't have to mean you become a civil engineer. Other careers in research, in consultancy, etc. can be open to you with an engineering degree. It is very early to know now whether you want to do any of that, but it's just something to keep in the back of your mind.
  6. Apr 28, 2012 #5
    Well, the civil engineering people are certainly the most polite :)
  7. Apr 28, 2012 #6
    That was a great reply, really helpful. When you put it that way, you basically summed up what I disliked about civil engineering. It doesn't seem as innovative and fresh design oriented as I'd like (more like rehashing workable and sensible methods over and over again). Mechanical isn't exactly up my alley, but I like how its designing small individual parts and modeling them (that's what I actually enjoyed doing in AutoCAD in high school, not the boring profile drawing I'm doing now). I'm not big on management or all that (at the moment, maybe in the future I will be when I NEED more money to have a good living) and I would like to do design more. I also like the sense of ownership you have over your designs as a mechanical engineer.

    Really, thank you. Your post was very helpful and I think I'm more confident in switching majors now. Mechanical seems to have more interesting and fun opportunities and although its not close to Architecture (if I do decide to fall back if the industry gets better), neither is Civil like you said and I'd still be in a similar situation for pre-requisites. Also it would be better for patent law and would keep more doors open for me while I find out what is best.
  8. Apr 28, 2012 #7
    The thing is though I don't have a natural knack for physics, but I feel like I'd rather be challenged and power through them then to do basic geometry every day.
  9. Apr 29, 2012 #8
    No problem, I'm glad I could help. Don't worry too much about physics, many mechanical engineers aren't naturally talented in that field, but still manage to get a degree. It's mostly a matter of hard work, I think. Good luck for your future career!
  10. May 3, 2012 #9
    I'm also trying to decide which branch of engineering i want to go for.
  11. Jun 26, 2013 #10
    Mechanical engineering is a very general type of engineering that allows one to specialize in multiple areas (materials, electrical, heat transfer, thermodynamics, fluids, design, etc.) I just graduated from mechanical engineering and I loved my program. I am the type of student that enjoys learning about everything so mechanical engineering was an excellent program for me. There are always going to be come topics in your degree that are not very exciting to you, but I think it important that you see the 'real world' benefit of each class and try to learn as much as possible. If you have already invested a significant amount of time in civil engineering, I would maintain the course and finish your degree. Civil engineering is a general degree that will not limit your job possibilities.
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