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Engineers seem very serious

  1. Mar 24, 2013 #1
    I have spent the past three years conducting doctoral research within a university for a large gas turbine company. I have worked amongst many other Ph.D.'s in the same circumstance and have found the company employees to be, in general, *very* serious. I understand that the nature of the industry involves safety and cost issues, however, I believe it is also related to the inherent difference between engineering and science, where business plays a large role in the 'seriousness' of engineers. I work on a futuristic project and I am passionate about physics, however, a lot of my ideas get dismayed and the industry seems to be painfully slow moving and orthodox.

    Is this the unfortunate truth about large companies? Does anyone else feel this commercial/business pressure from their seniors when conducting engineering research? Are more physics based companies less like this i.e. those related to solid state physics? I thought gas turbines were pretty advanced, where fluid dynamics is at the heart of the physics research.

    My university is relaxed (to a normal extent), but the company is not. The company seems to outsource all the interesting work to universities and the in-house work seems really boring i.e. well defined methods and limited physics problems. I would like a postdoc position after, although this is unlikely to materialise for obvious reasons, therefore I am sad to think my life will turn out to be a concoction of formal business acumen and a miniscule dose of physics. Any thoughts are much appreciated.
    Last edited: Mar 24, 2013
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  3. Mar 24, 2013 #2
    Given my gas bill, I would think gas turbine companies make plenty of money using the tried and trusted methods. So I'm not surprised at your situation!

    Google employees get to spend a certain percentage of time working on personal projects, could you not ask to spend, say, a day a week working on interesting problems that you choose?
  4. Mar 24, 2013 #3
    Google sounds like a very considerate company! The company I work with does allow me some flexibility, although I am more concerned with my life after my Ph.D. when I need to consider working for them. I just value science and engineering far more than business, and I take my work more seriously than I do myself; therefore I feel I may not fit with this *serious* company culture. In contrast, my partner's biology research industry is much more relaxed. It's a shame I happen to like engines! Has anyone noticed this about engineering?
    Last edited: Mar 24, 2013
  5. Mar 24, 2013 #4


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    I don't believe taking one's work 'seriously' is necessarily unfortunate or a 'bad thing'. I take my work quite seriously, and most good/competent engineers and scientists take their work seriously. The not-so-good engineers don't take their work seriously.

    In the nuclear and aerospace industries, there are strong regulations with significant legal (criminal and civil) penalties for being sloppy, or reckless/careless.

    The regulatory systems and QC/QA practices grew out of the military (MIL standards) with the idea of preventing failure through a thoughtful and deliberate process that preclude errors and defects. The systems have been remarkably successful.

    The failure of a turbine or a set of turbines, or various safety-related systems, in an aircraft can have catastrophic consequences leading to injury or death of those depending on a no-fail system. Similar, in a nuclear plant, failure of the system can have dramatic/significant and adverse consequences to the health and safety of the general public. Hence - those of us involved in the practice take our work very seriously.

    I have seen sloppiness and poor judgement, and I've seen the consequences thereof such as costing $millions, or exposing workers to unnecessary exposure to risk. In some of the worst cases, those responsible have gone to prison.
  6. Mar 24, 2013 #5


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    If you step back and look at other factors, I think you will appreciate why engineers and other employers at an engine manufacturer are so serious.

    For one thing, designing and developing new engines takes a long time and requires quite a large investment of capital to accomplish. Very often, management has 'bet the company', so to speak, on the ultimate success of this investment. If the new engine is successful in the marketplace, the company gets to remain in business and the employees keep their jobs. If the new engine is not successful, and the company is able to remain in business, it could mean that employee layoffs might occur.

    Universities have for some time been trying to position themselves as centers for research and development, in partnership with either private industry, the government, or both. Why would a company want to divert scarce capital to duplicate the facilities which are already available from private or public institutions?

    As an engineer, I too prefer science and engineering to business, but at the end of the day, attention to business is often what determines if you are able to have a place to live and a meal to eat.

    In sum, when universities face the same risk of going out of business and being closed as private companies do, then you might see a different attitude develop on campus.
  7. Mar 24, 2013 #6


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    Since leaving university I've worked for/with both big companies and small ones in more than one country. Now retired. My background is in electronics and electronic project management/product development. I found the two big companies I worked for stiffling.

    In a smaller company you might find yourself responsible for everything. One day you're drawing up a circuit, the next you're off site getting the product CE certified, the next arranging for somone to design artwork for the box. If there is a problem it's generally upto you to solve it.

    In the larger companies I worked for there was invariably someone who had to be consulted over every detail. For example if you discovered a missing label you couldn't just knock up some artwork in 5 mins using MS Word. Instead you had to go see someone in the "artwork department" and they would put your job in the queue where it would get done eventually.

    Some people like the support you get from a bigger company but I preferred the variety of work and greater responsibility in a small one.

    Lot depends on what you want to do in life. I doubt I spent 1% of my career actually using my electronics degree. In the companies I worked for there were people who had specialist skills like computer programming. In general they were well paid but there was little chance of promotion. Their technical skills were too valuable to have them spend time managing people or running projects/budgets. The ones that got promoted were the people who could and would turn their hand to anything to get the job done.
  8. Mar 24, 2013 #7


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    What you are describing is the basic difference between "pure scientists" and "engineers". Labelling one as more "interesting" than the other is just your value judgment.

    Remember those "business oriented" engineers are the same people who are sponsoring you do spend three years doing "futuristic" research - and with a reasonable expectation that 90% of futuristic research won't even work, and 90% of what's left will never make anybody any money. But they also know the best way to try their luck in that lottery is to ring-fence people (like you) to work on something full time, without "boring" distractions like actually shipping products that work to customers, and making a profit from doing so.

    If you really want to carry on doing blue sky research, being employed by an engineering company probably isn't the best way to do that. On the other hand, if you want to turn your research into something useful on a large scale, a big engineering company is more likely to have the $millions (or even $billions) of funding that it takes to achieve that, compared with a new start-up company.

    There is plenty of job satisfaction available which ever way you go - but only if your mind-set matches up with the reality of the situation you are in.
  9. Mar 24, 2013 #8
    I agree that treating work seriously is an important matter as it is provides our means to living, safety and satisfies our human interests. I personally have dedicated all my efforts to my work, which is why I feel I am able to question this issue in such a way. I also believe it is important to be responsible and accurate, and provide scrutiny to others work for the greater good. However, this can be done without the imposing attitude and brisk remarks that in my experience have often been given (it seems that being serious is coupled with other characteristics). I understand that the employees' lives have been dedicated to the area, but how can life be taken more seriously than is necessary! My understanding is that high-end technology industries require more dedication and therefore the employees treat life in such a way. If others can relate to these experiences in any way then I am willing to accept this human nature.
  10. Mar 24, 2013 #9
    Just to add, I am very much appreciative of the research I have been able to do, although I never mentioned that I was being funded. But the key issue is not at present, but if I work for this large company. It's a shame that smaller companies tend not to have sufficient funds for the scientific high-end research that I desire.
  11. Mar 25, 2013 #10


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    To have a meal and a place to live doesn't necessarily entail you should be working at an engineering firm. I believe they pay a lot more than this basic need.
  12. Mar 25, 2013 #11
    I believe his intent is to emphasize that he/she has steady paycheck that allows him the opportunity to live and save money for future expenses. I assume this from the context although he/she might clarify it.
  13. Mar 25, 2013 #12


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    I guess you are right, though this figure of speech is quite old, cause I believe we are quite beyond only survival needs.
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