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How Careers Are Marketed vs. What They Are

  1. Oct 7, 2015 #1
    I'm starting my second year as a graduate student in physics at the University of California, Irvine. It's been sort of a long journey getting here, and along the way I've made several academic/career decisions about what I wanted to do, only to find out that the day-to-day work of that job was quite different than I though it would be.

    I started out college in aerospace engineering. I thought that the job of an aerospace engineer would be to work hands-on in a lab, conceiving and building new and innovative designs for rockets and airplanes, and to do some theoretical work and mathematics. I was wrong. It appears that most aerospace engineers work in front of a computer rather than in a lab, and because airplane and rocket design has changed very little in the last half-century, most of their work is in making small improvements in existing designs, not radical new innovations. I was lucky enough to land an internship at NASA, but I worked in front of a computer with an Excel spreadsheet, which is not what I'd expected.

    I changed my major to physics, mostly because I liked the physics classes better than the engineering classes, and I decided to become an astronomer. I wanted to probe the mysteries of the cosmos, and I got a job as an astronomy research assistant. But to my dismay, astronomy research is about 7% astronomy and 93% computer programming. I don't think that my professor (who had about 150 astronomy publications) even owned a telescope, and all everyone in the department ever did was computer programming.

    So now I'm in a graduate program in physics with an emphasis in chemical and materials physics, which I hoped would give me a chance to do hands-on lab work. But I don't have a particular interest in condensed matter physics or materials science, and I still feel like I want to work in space exploration in some way, but I also want to do hands-on work in the lab. But maybe a job that combines designing robotic space exploration missions with hands-on lab work doesn't exist. I'm kind of confused about it all. I feel like I keep running into a "bait-and-switch" situation, where careers in science and engineering are marketed as innovative hands-on design or observation, when in fact they're mostly computer programming and computer simulations.

    I've decided that ideally I'd like to work at a place like JPL, working on designing the robotic space exploration missions. But if my experience holds true, I'd probably be spending most of my time in front of a computer, and very little time in the lab building stuff.

    Are my expectations wrong? Did I believe things I shouldn't have believed? Is my experience unique? Why do careers continue to not be what I thought they would be? I would appreciate your advice and input.
    Last edited: Oct 7, 2015
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  3. Oct 7, 2015 #2


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    Sadly, I do think your expectations are wrong, at least in my experience. I design analog circuits for a living, and where I work, I spend 95% of my time sitting in front of a computer. I cost too much for the organization to let me get my hands on stuff in the lab, that's what lower-paid technicians and test / product engineers do. If you find me in the lab, that means there's Trouble. In addition, even though a lot of people think analog is about as far as you can get from computers and still be electronics, I spend maybe 25% of my time programming. It is the primary way ideas are captured these days and trends suggest more programming for engineers of various stripes in the future, not less.

    I think the issue is that you are wrapped up in design. Design, by its very nature, is not all that hands on. You may, once in a while, get to play around with something new, but engineers are conservative (for good reason) and if you want to innovate somewhere you need a really, really good reason. The vast majority of engineering successes are characterized by execution, not innovation. As I get older I innovate less and less, and my designs are increasingly successful. I look back at some of the decisions I made when I was fresh out of school and I cringe.

    That said, a lot of people prefer hands-on work. In that case, I would look into a career in test. At a place like JPL you won't spend very much time (some but not a lot) with your hands on the hardware unless you work on the test floor. JPL is unique in that it is super-low volume so it is cost effective for them to have engineers on the test floor. Beware industry, though. You know what test engineers typically do in industry? They spend their time writing test programs to run on the testers.

    I'll leave you with one thought. Edison said success was 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Especially in astronomy and HEP it is easy to see that is true. The problems are epic, and the data sets are truly immense. How do you winnow that data into meaning? Algorithms and software. There is just no other way anymore. The low hanging fruit and the days of staring at photographic plates are over. The computer is the key tool in engineering, and software is how we use that tool. It's as simple as that.
  4. Oct 7, 2015 #3

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    I'm curious as to who is "marketing" the careers this way.
  5. Oct 7, 2015 #4



    Tough to say, but there’s definitely a lot of fantasy about STEM careers in the society we live in. We know now that the big panics around STEM shortages in the 80’s were completely unjustified and that they led to oversupply in the upcoming decades. Instead of learning from this, we turned up the volume on STEM recruiting. I suspect this fetish our country has contributed to your problem.

    But you have a responsibility here too. You learned the truth early about aerospace. Why did it take you so long to learn it about astrophysics? When did you realize you didn't like MS/CMP? I had grad students actively recruit me into physics, but ultimately the choice was mine, and there was information I should have researched to better know the risks I was taking on.

    So now you need to decide what your next step is, and ensure you comprehensively research your options.
  6. Oct 7, 2015 #5
    The job posting sites and recruiting at conferences or other often over-glamorize what the successful job candidate will be doing, this should be an all too familiar problem in physics; your comment was facetious snark and you know it.
  7. Oct 7, 2015 #6


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    Yes, we know that the big panic around STEM shortages is unjustified. This leads to the question -- just what are the real opportunities available to those with a STEM background? If not a STEM degree, what else should one study or train for to have the best chance of landing a meaningful, well-paid career? (I know in your past posts, you referred to statistics and data science, and medical coding. Are these the only areas you would recommend?)

    To the OP: at least in my experience, engineering work has always, at least to my knowledge, involved a considerable amount of work using computers and programming, because so much of the design work involve improvements on existing methods (as analogdesign alludes to), and in this day and age, it is more efficient and cost-effective to work out the designs thorugh computers and software than through "hands-on" physical work. And in many areas of physics, research would involve either simulations or analysis of experimental data, which will of course involve computers and programming. There is really no way you can escape this, and which is why every physics and engineering major should be required to learn programming and software design early in their curriculum.

    In fact, in this day and age, it should be a requirement of anyone graduating from high school that he/she learn how to program a computer.
  8. Oct 7, 2015 #7
    Sounds like you want to be a technician rather than an engineer or scientist. I work in the semiconductor industry and there are multiple technicians at my fab that switched from engineering to technician for more hands on work, better hours and sometimes (surprisingly) better pay.
  9. Oct 7, 2015 #8


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    A computer is a tool, and it is a very effective tool that makes you much more productive than you would be without it. Take your astronomy example. The day is past when anything new will be learned by looking through a telescope with your eyes. So we use electronic detectors which are much more sensitive and accurate than your eyes. In order to analyze the data produced by these detectors, we need a computer, and you need to program the computer in order to tell it what to do. Why is this a bad thing? You are still learning and advancing the science of astronomy. An analogy would be farming. Most farmers, at least in the developed countries, no longer work in the dirt with their hands, they drive tractors instead, and the tractors make them enormously more productive than in the past.

    It sounds like you just have a very romanticized idea of what is required to get anything done in the modern world.
  10. Oct 7, 2015 #9


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    I've seen this too. It's good to be paid by the hour sometimes...

    Have you read the book Soul of a New Machine (a great book about a Death March to design a new computer)? In it there is a scene where they see a pay stub of one of the technicians and he is making more than any of the engineers because of the overtime. I'm advanced enough in my career so I make more than any technician but when I was fresh out of school I made significantly less than the layout technicians I worked with.

    Note to OP: if you choose to read Soul of a New Machine (it's a fantastic book and the closest I've ever seen to an accurate portrayal of real design engineering) don't get too excited. Computer Engineers built boards and lived in the lab in the 70s. Now that work is done sitting in front of a computer. If I may be so bold, however, I think my work with my team sitting in front of our workstations is every bit as challenging, exciting, and fulfilling as it would be if we were soldering prototypes by hand in the lab.
  11. Oct 7, 2015 #10


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    Unless you change your attitude on computers, you should probably get out of the STEM fields completely. Your lament is like saying, "I want to work on cars, but I don't want to use a wrench, I want to turn the nuts with my bare hands." Well, OK, but don't expect anyone to hire you to work on cars. Maybe something in social work or humanities where you are working with people would be more appropriate.
  12. Oct 7, 2015 #11


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    You only get to invent [fill in the blank here] once.

    After that, everything consists of a series of small improvements, to make it cheaper, faster, quicker, more efficient, whatever.

    Many things require the investment of millions, if not billions, of dollars to design and produce. With so much investment required, and with the consequences of failure so great, most complex things (computer chips, airplanes, cars, ships, etc.) are designed by teams of engineers, rather than a single engineer.

    To make something as simple as a lowly No. 2 pencil requires the skill and talent of many different individuals.

  13. Oct 7, 2015 #12
    Perhaps I developed romanticized views of science and engineering by watching my favorite childhood shows of 3-2-1 Contact and Square One, where kids took home-built accelerometers on roller coasters and where clever detectives used mathematics to solve crimes. I learned from these shows (and various Saturday morning children's motivational speakers) that I could be anything I wanted to be and that I could accomplish anything that I set my mind to, because the sky is the limit. Well, apparently they were wrong. It was certainly my responsibility to correct these romanticized views when my experience showed that they were incorrect. The STEM Labor Crisis Myth is still alive and well. I've done some research on it, and the fact is that universities turn out many more STEM graduates than there are job openings.

    Perhaps what I feel is missing is the holistic creative process, where I get to design, build, and operate something from start to finish. In high school, my favorite thing to do was to build and fly radio controlled model airplanes. I loved it, and it offered me a great deal of creative freedom and expression. I wanted to design-build-fly. But building and flying airplanes is not what an aeronautical engineer does. Maybe I didn't believe it because I didn't want to believe it.

    My favorite research project that I've worked on was building an experiment to test the boiling of water and the transfer of heat in zero gravity. It was really fun to design a part, build it the machine shop, then screw it in place on the apparatus. Then I got to actually do the experiment on a zero-gravity airplane. Yes, I flew on a zero-gravity airplane and I have pictures on facebook of me floating around in zero gravity. It was surreal and totally awesome. Why can't I do something like that for a career? But I don't think that anyone actually gets paid to do that sort of thing.

    So I guess what's missing for me is the start-to-finish creative process, the "design-build-fly" process. I think I'd enjoy sitting at a computer designing a part if I actually got to go build the part and then bolt in in place, but it sounds like the need to specialize prevents that. I've learned to suppress my creative impulses in order to be successful in my coursework because creative answers are generally disparaged in science education, even if they are correct.

    Whether or not the quote is real, Charles H. Duell's 1899 alleged statement that "everything that can be invented has been invented" when he was the commissioner of the US Patent office is often cited as evidence that we will never stop inventing things. I love inventing things, but it sounds like regular engineers and regular physicists in regular jobs don't get to invent things. I find the creative process exhilarating, but it sound like there is not as much opportunity for it in science and engineering as I'd hoped.

    It appears that maybe my "dream job" doesn't exist. What are my options now?
    Last edited: Oct 7, 2015
  14. Oct 7, 2015 #13


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    It depends whether you want to just play or whether you really want to make a contribution. I agree the things you mentioned are fun, but don't fool yourself into thinking that you are advancing science or technology by doing those kinds of things. If you really want to make a contribution, you have to specialize. But that doesn't mean you aren't inventing things. If you specialize and work with talented other people, you can invent some awesome things.
  15. Oct 7, 2015 #14


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    The holistic creative process is perfect for after-work hobbies (or working at a startup). I write music in my spare time and do the whole process from start to finish. Composing, playing instruments, singing, recording, mixing, synthesizer programming, drum editing, the works. I'm not claiming it is any good, but doing something from start to finish is FUN. That said, you know the saying "jack of all trades, master of none"? That's not something you want to be in the workplace. If I were in the music business I would pick one of those roles that I enjoyed, was in demand, and I had aptitude for. Then I would push myself to be the best at it that I could be.

    Where did you learn this? In my PhD program creativity wasn't just supported, it was REQUIRED. Remember a PhD is a contribution to the body of knowledge in some narrow area. You can't break new ground without being creative. Just isn't going to happen.

    Nobody here would claim that everything that can be invented has been invented. First off, there is a big difference between inventing something and inventing "the electric car" or "the liquid fueled rocket". Countless incremental innovations and boundless creativity goes into the development of most of our technologies. For example, I design readout chips for digital imaging for a living. While I most certainly didn't invent the digital camera, I do innovate on a regular basis and I'm creative in my job every day. Just this year I developed and implemented an algorithm to automatically design and lay out in silicon a specific circuit that comes up over and over again in imaging chips. That was a lot of work and I can't tell you how fulfilling it was to see the final layout done in minutes instead of weeks. That was a bona-fide invention and it is what engineering is all about.

    What are your options? Well, you can sober up and see all the interesting problems right in front of you. Engineering is the best job on the planet and I can't believe they pay me so well to do it. Or, if you really want a create-build experience in the workplace you can join an early-stage startup. It's risky and (really) demanding but that is the only place I know of where you will get the chance to wear a lot of hats. If you join a regular company or institution you will specialize from day one.
  16. Oct 12, 2015 #15
    Exactly. Wanting the 'create-build experience' (as an applied physicist, again, after a stint in IT) I started my own business. Note that you also might need to wear some non-STEM hats, like project management and marketing.

    I agree to anything that had been said about computers and programming. What I am doing is as hands-on as it can get on principle (heat pump systems), but I spend most my time developing software for simulations, automation and control, and data analysis. Actually, am happy that my programming is about engineering again, and about my own projects - many physicists turned programmers work on something non-sciency.
  17. Oct 12, 2015 #16
    There have been a lot of great contributions to this thread, especially from analogdesign. You do seem to have expectations for the world of work that don't match reality, but you probably aren't alone in that. That being said, I've had some experiences that may be of interest to you. In my undergrad physics program, I worked with a professor who did experimental work in astrophysics. Unusual to be sure. My program was at Northern Arizona University, which is in the same city as Lowell Observatory. There is a lot of active research in astronomy and astrophysics, and my professor used a vacuum chamber and an X-ray source to try to reproduce the formation of ices that are observed in the Oort Cloud and other interesting places. I want to emphasize, this is unusual, but there is some actual experimental lab work that goes on in astrophysics. The other thing I would like to share with you is that some engineering fields are probably going to be more hands on than others. My field for example, is very hands on in design, because we don't have many useful computation models. Thus I really did go all the way from prototyping in the lab to testing to market personally. This is normal in my field, not so much in others.
  18. Oct 12, 2015 #17


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    Yes. If work were fun they wouldn't call it work. I'm shocked that you're surprised that an astronomer didn't own a telescope. If you want to spend most of your time as an astronomer looking through a telescope and taking pretty pictures, then you need to do astronomy as a hobby (see my sig/avatar). What astronomers do is so far beyond the capabilities of most amateur efforts that there is little or no overlap/commonality (and after sharing some time with Hubble, I'd probably find my rig unsatisfying). And what professionals do is much more rigorous/computational analysis.

    Engineering, too. If you are looking to build cool robots, that's a hobby, not a job. If you are willing to spend 6 months designing and programming a single actuator or sensor as part of a large team, that's a job. Real science/engineering tends to be is intensely specific/detailed work on small pieces of large problems. There's a lot of grunt work and the payoffs are only occasional.

    [disclaimer: science and engineering are diverse and experiences vary.]
    Yeah, I'll give you that. Those are popular lies that parents tell their children, that I disagree with. Parents, I guess, think it motivates their kids, but I think it just makes them unrealistic. The reality is that, no, there are things you can't do and things that are no more likely than winning the lottery (and they are literally a matter of total luck). The better message? Aim high, but make sure you have a realistic plan behind it.
    Last edited: Oct 12, 2015
  19. Oct 12, 2015 #18


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    Disagree. I'm honestly dumbfounded by the disconnect from reality here. For my senior design project, I spent the better part of 9 months researching and designing a fairly straightforward piece of test equipment for industry....and someone else fabricated and built it. I'm not sure I ever even got to touch it, and I certainly never used it!

    I've posted this video before:

    This would, by far, be the most exciting thing these engineers ever do in their entire career. Most of them spent 20 years - half their careers - designing a single, specific, but extremely complicated sub-system of that plane. The structures team put years into the design that was tested that day. It's a tremendous amount of grunt work for a single 5-minute payoff.

    Last week, I got to field test one of my designs. It's a rarity that happened by a coincidence of travel requirements, a busy office and a client who I have a relationship with. It's just an air handling unit, but I spent 6 months on studies/reports and designs (as leader of a team). It was a great success I got to participate in (an energy saving prototype, to be repeated 8 more times), which is rare for me; something I get once or twice a year.
  20. Oct 12, 2015 #19


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    As an engineer, it is to my benefit to down-play the opportunities of STEM, but the reality is that currently there are some shortages in STEM. See (from 2014):
    Due to baby boomers retiring, we're approaching the point of overall labor shortages with the current unemployment rate being just about 5%. 4 or 5% is what is considered "full employment", with that being the minimum required for healthy job flux. I know it's only gotten tighter in my specific industry in the past year, but 3% unemployment was already a shortage last year.
    Seen that in my industry too: engineers working as balancers/testers.
  21. Oct 13, 2015 #20
    Thanks all, these are great responses. It's a hard thing for me to give up some of these romanticized notions of what it means to be a scientist or engineer. Some of you have mentioned opportunities to work with holistic creation/hands-on processes, but it sounds like those are less common, and probably aren't used much on the larger engineering projects, which is what it seems I am inclined towards.

    My most pressing career concern now is finding a research group to join. It's something I really need to do in the next few months, and with the reality check I've experienced on what STEM careers actually are, I feel like I'm kinda lost as to what I want to research. There are lots of opportunities to work in experimental condensed matter groups and experimental fluids groups here, and that would give me many opportunities to invent things and be creative in the lab. But that wouldn't necessarily point me in the direction of being able to design or build anything that flies or goes into space, and I would probably end up working in the non-areospace semiconductor industry, which wouldn't be terrible, but isn't really what I want. There are aerospace engineering groups here, and they're doing some really cool stuff, like working on Mars entry and descent. But it's all done with computer simulations, and I think it's rare that any of the engineering research groups actually build anything. I've never worked on simulations, so I don't really know if I'd like it. If there are opportunities to be creative with it, I could get into it. I've done well enough with mathematics to get through the physics graduate program coursework so far, but I don't really feel like I'm a math genius, and I feel like maybe I wouldn't be as effective as some of the other people who speak math more fluently than me.

    There was a really cool lab-based project I could join that would examine quantum vortices in liquid helium. It sounded quite interesting and looked like something I would enjoy doing. But it's unclear what kind of job I could get with that kind of research background, and it certainly doesn't point me in the direction of astronautics.

    And in the realm of science, if I did join a group like the quantum vortices group, that isn't a very realistic preparation for what a scientist actually does. The most important activity of university-based scientists is writing, revising, and submitting grant proposals. It's graduate students - like me - who actually do the work.

    And so now I (reluctantly) have a more realistic view of what engineers/scientists actually do. But I still feel something of a mismatch between the kind of work I like to do and the field I want to work in. Can you offer any advice for me on finding a research group to join?
    Last edited: Oct 13, 2015
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