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Free Career Advice to Aspiring Engineers (you get what you pay for!)

  1. Oct 9, 2009 #1
    Well, I logged on here to ask my own career question, but I think I might be able to help a lot of you, especially those early-college and high school students considering engineering.

    I am a 31 year old mechanical engineer. I graduated with a BSME from a Big State U in flyover country in 2000. I earned a MBA from a SLAC working-adults program in 2003. I have worked for nine years for two power engineering-procurement-construction(EPC) companies. I spent over 6 years as a design engineer, 1.5 years in project controls, and 1.5 years as a market research analyst (my current position). I am a registered PE as well.

    I didn’t start out with plans to be where I am now. I started out at one school and later transferred. In my senior year, of high school I was granted a full academic scholarship (really) for a 5-year BS/MSME program. I was going to do “research.” To be honest, I wasn’t sure what that really meant, or what ME really was about. My dad is a truck driver and my mom works in accounting. Neither has a degree, although I have an engineer uncle, a psychiatrist uncle, and my grandfather has an MS in education and was a principal (we’re not a bunch of rednecks). Regardless, I didn’t have much guidance at home, and I went to a “diverse” high school where there were kids from million dollar homes and welfare moms (and kids who WERE welfare moms). The 4.0 kids didn’t get much guidance. I was good at math and physics, and well, you know that story. . .

    I pretty much hated my first university. Lucky for my boyfriend-from-back-home knocked me up over Christmas break and I was able to get the heck out of there. I’ve been married to him ever since, so it wasn’t all bad. . .

    I took a year off, had the baby, married the BF, moved to our local U, won another full scholarship (this time needs based and academic), and pursued my BSME. I graduated #3 in my class, with my original class, while raising a baby. I had an offer for another Masters fellowship, but I turned it down because I thought people with kids should get real jobs. I was a top prospect during a high-volume hiring year, but I chose poorly and ended up with a lousy first job. (Obviously I didn't realize that till I was deep in it.)

    Off to work I went. I was put in a department that you didn't want to be in. I was told that I’d “only be there for a year or two” and then move on to some more desirable design work. Boy was I mad when I found out that “everybody” didn’t start there like the recruiter told me. I was also disappointed when 9/11 and Enron happened, our business cratered, 30 of my departmental friends got let go, and I got stuck in that job for 4 years total till business picked up.

    Things got better and worse. I had our second son. I tried some other things to find a better fit within the industry, but I was never satisfied. I always had a desire to pursue an academic career, but I just kept trying to make my regular job work because eventually I was making decent money, and that's not so easy to give up. And once you're in your 30's, with a 6th grader, it's hard to justify working hard enough to get the advanced degree. . .

    So, to help the rest of you NOT end up like me, I've made a list of a few things to do before choosing a college and a major.

    1. Know why you like what you say you like. I don’t care if you like math and are good at it. What is it about math that you like? If you like working out complex problems by hand, don’t be an engineer in the Power business. I have never done that. We use packaged software for most things, and MathCad or Excel for more rote problems. And I really spent most of my time managing procurement contracts or checking drafting anyway.

    2. Figure out where you want to live long-term. There are two reasons for this. One, you will be more likely to settle down close to where you went to school. Local companies recruit locally. Two, if you want to work in a specific industry, you better be sure that the industry has some roots in your desired location. If you want to work in solar power, you better be on the west coast. If you want to stay in your hometown and only one [shrinking] manufacturing company hires engineers, perhaps you should choose another major.

    3. Once you have a few options selected, GO TALK TO PEOPLE. Real people, not people on the internet. Avoid the new grads who might come talk to you on career day. They don’t have a clue. The new grads think they’re all going to be management in 2 years, and think they’re rich making $60/yr. They've never weathered a business cycle. I had a good friend at my first job who was my father's age. He had worked for 26 different engineering companies as a contract employee. He told me all the cold, hard truth about the business. You need to find a guy like that in every industry that you may consider working in BEFORE you are there. I learned that the power and oil and gas industries have been cycling up and down since the beginning of time. Good Lord, why didn't someone tell me that I might get laid off every ten years before I took my first Power job? Same goes info about outsourcing, or a glut/shortage of employees. Don't believe what you read on Yahoo HotJobs about what careers are in demand. You need to talk to experienced people in the trenches. Intern if you can. I didn't do this, and I'd probably have ended up Mechmama PhD if I had spent 5 minutes in industry before I graduated.

    4. Do what your company does for maximum opportunity. Mechanical engineers in the Power business become company leaders. Civil engineers in the Power business become Senior Civil Engineers. Architects run architectural firms, not HVAC engineers.

    5. Also, for those of you Physicists looking for engineering jobs, stay out of industries that require PE licensing. I worked with a pipe stress engineer with 25 years of experience and an MS in physics, and the company wouldn't promote him beyond an ME IV (a 5-10 year position) because he didn't have his PE license. He wasn't eligible to get it with his degree. Power, oil and gas, HVAC are examples of where you will need a PE. You won't need it in manufacturing.

    6. Don't chase hot industries or money. Whatever was the next big thing will change. Once your basic needs are covered, you just keep upgrading in lifestyle and you're still broke. (Most people do, anyway). I really love my SUV in the winter, but I'd love spending 8-5 doing something I care about even more. Once you acquire a certain lifestyle, it's very hard to change. I know you don't believe me now that you could be happier making $60K than $120K, but I was happiest when I was full time student/wife/mom living off $28K.

    Anyway, I hope this helps someone. I hate to think I made all these mistakes for nothing!
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 9, 2009 #2
    I read all of it. Sounds like great advice.

    I'm a Junior in EE.
  4. Oct 10, 2009 #3
    Great advice!! I hate when people ask about which careers make the most money like that is the only thing that matters in life. I cant wait to be a poor graduate student next year because I love research and being a student.
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