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Engineering Fearing possible disillusionment with Engineering jobs, question for engineers.

  1. Aug 2, 2012 #1
    Hi, I'm fairly new to the forum, I am an Electrical Engineering major. Sophomore in college, but this will be my first year as an Engineering major, just declared. I love math and science but I try to keep myself grounded in the realities of what people really do in life. We really glorify scientists and engineers, but I fear the reality may not be as existentially rewarding as it is made out to be on TV.

    I feel like when I watch specials on PBS or Discovery or whatever happens to be airing something about engineering that it probably is unrealistically portraying what these people actually do. It will be like, look at this woman! She is an engineer working for Nasa! Look at this robot she worked on, now she's on a motorcycle, the robot is in some sand and she is doing math, look at her in a lab coat, now the robot is on Mars! AWESOME!

    I feel like the reality of the situation is that she probably spent four years of her life working on some very minor component of the robot, some random box with a few circuit boards with a specific purpose. That in reality there were a hundred engineers, and mathematicians, and physicists, as well as management and business types, and her individual contribution to that robot was incredibly small. And alot of her time she spent waiting for other people to get done with something so she could redesign some aspect of her little box for the fifth time, and she's just playing "Doom" for a week and browsing youtube because her part of the project is stalled. And then we just see that it is a robot, and it goes to mars, and she has a motorcycle.

    And that is the best case scenario. More realistically the average engineer works on that small box, but instead of seeing a interplanetary robot at the end, they see an industrial air conditioner that will keep the factory floor cool for people that are sorting through bolts that will be used in a specific kind of lawn mower that is assembled in a different factory in china. And that I will have the looming threat that they may just export my engineering job to china and let them design my small box for the industrial air conditioner.

    I fear that after all the excitement and promise of math and science and physics and the schooling in all these different esoteric theories, ultimately it just leads to another soul crushing (but well paying) "job."

    So I ask the people here that actually work as engineers, do you actually enjoy your job and the work you do? Or is it just better than working retail, and the money is nice? Do you feel that all of the science and physics and math was necessary, and you get to use your knowledge base? Or do you feel like a well motivated monkey with a good calculator and some job training could do it just as well? I'm asking because I want to assess realistically what being an engineer is like.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 2, 2012 #2
    An impossible question to answer, since every position is Different and each person is different. I have seen that those who treat their job as soul-crushing are the ones that end up w/ crushed souls. If you arrive at work and announce each morning 'this place sux' well then pretty soon it will suck, for you. Me, I have been happy through > 30 years. I learn new stuff every day and I'm still having fun. Just lucky? (I am still waiting for the part where I get to drive a train, though.)
  4. Aug 2, 2012 #3


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    I think it depends a bit on how well you do in school. In my experience (as both an EE who has been hired for a few different jobs, and as a person who interviews EEs for potential employment), the better you do in school, the more likely you will get an interesting and fullfilling job in engineering.

    Doing well in school means that 1) you can learn how to learn, 2) you are reasonably smart, 3) you have a good grounding in the fundamentals of EE. It is also very good to get some engineering related work experience, like in an internship or even in designing and building your own engineering projects. The more you do that, the more you will be able to tell if you like what you are doing, and the more potential employers will value you as a candidate (so you can apply for the more intersting and better positions).

    Certainly some engineers move on to other technical and non-technical jobs during their lifetimes, either for better opportunities or because they are not enjoying what they are doing. But in the places that I've worked as an EE, I don't think I've seen a single engineer who felt that their job sucked. Just the opposite, like gmax137, I learn new things every day pretty much, and am constantly challenged to use my mind and skills to design/build/debug/fix a variety of circuits and systems.

    Work hard in school, and it should pay off in your job satisfaction later, IMO.
    Last edited: Aug 3, 2012
  5. Aug 3, 2012 #4
    That disillusionment things happens all the time. In school one has lots of close friends, they're all focused on the same achievements, homework assignments are deterministic and short-term, one gets to experience immediate feedback and instant gratification.

    Then you hit the real world, where many things are gray and non-deterministic. You've been hired because you can add 2 + 2 and usually get 4. The personal value system is shocked because there is more emphasis on whether you can get that flange designed quickly enough to meet the project schedule that involves 75 other engineers designing flanges for a...a...a freakin washing machine or some other mundane gizmo that the company sells to pay your salary, and not whether you can make a 10/10 on the homework. There may very well be deep friendships developed, but also you may also suffer through petty jealousies and Machiavellian maneuvering for climbing the ladder or hindering the ascent of others. Sometimes one is directed by management to do illogical tasks or actions that clearly cause damage to one's career, and there's nothing that can be done about it. You may get invited to participate in the job market for no apparent reason. You may be retained as an employee for no apparent reason. You may grind your teeth at the ridiculous politics or giggle with excitement "that they actually pay me to work here."

    Real world's a surfing contest, you make of it what you want. Many younger folks get disillusioned with "is this all there is?" Many times, yes, because it is not academia but industry which runs on a different fuel. Positive attitude helps, especially during the tough times. Generally I enjoy work, and it is especially sweet when I get an interesting and challenging task or project and can see progressive results converging on an innovative solution to a difficult problem. It is super when I actually get recognized for achievement, but usually it has been more "good work is it's own reward." Decades into my careeer, after personal/professional/economic ups & downs, I've become to appreciate more and more the fact that it's a (generally steady) 8-hour job, they pay benefits and a nice salary, contribute a nice chunk of free money to my retirement funds, and I get to excercise my brain on occasion.
  6. Aug 3, 2012 #5
    Generally speaking, looking for excitement in your job is probably a mistake. I'm not saying that it doesn't happen (extreme skiing? lion taming?), but you should probably be looking for a pleasant working environment with a good salary where you feel like you make a contribution to your organization.

    Job satisfaction can come from various things. I enjoy engineering, and in the past, I have particularly enjoyed working for startups where I feel I'm making a direct contribution to the success of the company. Now, I've switched directions and am working at a national lab where I feel like I'm making a very small contribution to very important work.

    I don't have a motorcycle though.

    Oh, and do people still play "Doom"?!?
  7. Aug 3, 2012 #6
    Your view is pretty accurate for the average engineer.

    Will you be an average engineer? Will you innovate and look for new opportunities?

    One thing to remember: what is the better alternative? I don't think there is a better undergraduate degree to pursue.
  8. Aug 5, 2012 #7
    Whatever you have told is all about engineering job satisfaction. Well you know what? I do not mind being an average engineer doing just my job or being an engineer in a great place doing my little portion of a great job. I am satisfied if I am just let to do my work. However, there is one problem. The love for my engineering work (and physics) is so much that I find almost everything else in the world petty and useless. Sometimes I just wish I were detached from society, forgotten of the everyday chores, forgotten of any worries and just do my "thing" the whole life.
  9. Aug 5, 2012 #8
    You're exactly right to distrust how Engineering is portrayed on TV. The producers have to make it look sexy and exciting, because who wants to watch a boring program about Engineers going about their daily job?

    As long as you are working for someone else, I doubt that you will get a ton of satisfaction from an Engineering career. There have been jobs that I hated, jobs that I looked forward to going in every morning, and some in between (like my current job). But I soon discovered that when I work for a company, my enjoyment of the job depends on things that are often outside of my control -- the need for the company to make a profit, office politics, the competency of your co-workers and your manager -- the list is endless.

    I have accepted it and look for enriching activities outside of work. I don't have the motivation to start my own company, and right now I prefer the security of a regular paycheck. I finished Grad school thinking that I could get into academia, but the competition was extremely fierce and that didn't work out for me at the time. But the dream still lives on.

    If you don't want to accept a "soul killer" job or even just an average Engineering job, there are alternatives. But it's incredibly hard work and you have to accept a lot of sacrifice to reach that goal. You can't expect the dream job to land in your lap.
  10. Aug 5, 2012 #9
    Of course you don't engineer the whole thing. Yes, there are teams of engineers who do all kinds of things. Usually there is some senior engineering lead who makes key decisions from which all the design parameters must flow.

    Is it boring? Well, if all goes well, YES! The thrill is seeing your work do exactly what it was intended to do. I enjoy seeing the software and hardware I design do their job accurately, efficiently, and at high energies, every. single. time.

    In terms of doing creative work, well, the opportunities to work on a clean-sheet design are very few and very far between. The real creativity comes from the engineering leadership. As someone with less than a decade of experience, it is highly unlikely someone would decide to drop an opportunity like that on your lap. Most conventional designs had sound reasons for evolving the way they did. If you deviate from that point too far, you're in research territory. With experience and maturity, you'll learn when and where creativity is warranted, and where it is not.

    Does this sound like a "soul-killing" job? Well, most jobs are like this. Excitement is not usually a good thing for most engineers. You want excitement? Work in a hospital, police station, or the military.

    In my spare time, I teach shooting sports in 4H; I brew beer; I build ham radio gear; and I am a licensed pilot. That's enough excitement for me.
  11. Aug 6, 2012 #10
    To the OP: I've only worked as an engineer for a little over a year, and in many ways I am that engineer that works on a little box that is then used to make some air conditioner. To be honest, I find my job exciting. For example, there is a lot of time pressure most of the time. I thought I experienced time pressure in school with quizzes and tests...that was nothing compared to the time pressure I face now. That pressure makes designing my "little box" safely and without errors quite a challenge.
  12. Aug 6, 2012 #11
    Also OP does the fact that it was you and a team that worked on it make it less rewarding. I mean working on a small part of that rover is awesome you know to me at least. Anyway the examples you made were kinda interesting because how you described working somewhere it seems that you would be board in any job.

    Just learn to play an instrument and be rock star but without all that boring practice.

    Or better yet grow up and realize that even the most exciting jobs in the world require patience and planing.

    Sorry to sound harsh but it seems like you just kinda want some one to say that everyday life is an adventure and its always going to be amazing.

    Its not, for anyone, unless you learn to use your free time in rewarding ways as well as not approaching work as well "soul crushing work"

    Also realize that no matter where you go and who you are you are likely to have to pay your dues at any new job you get for a few years which always kinda sucks.

    Anyway have a nice day sorry if I came off as a buzz kill but this culture of instant and constant gratification has got to go.
  13. Aug 6, 2012 #12
    Come to the UK, where in addition to all that, an experienced engineer is less well paid than a region manager at Burger King.
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