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I am at a crossroads, need input from industry professionals

  1. Dec 28, 2015 #1
    First off, I am 30. Now, basically, I tried and failed to go back to college in the past couple of years. I was making straight a's in my classes but my career is quite demanding at times, leading me to miss 3 or 4 days of class and being dropped from the class. Because of this my gpa is rather low and my transcript is quite poor. Now, I have been looking at community colleges that offer distance learning opportunities which will solve my gpa and transcript issues. I plan on getting an associates in science degree and transferring to a 4 year college. This is where my questions start. Let me describe my career and experience so that you may better assist me with my questions.

    Now, my career is basically an electromechanical technician. I work on and maintain a large engine that powers a large generator (large is an understatement here). I have experience with electrical wiring, soldering circuits, programming PLCs, replacing motors, PID loop tuning, installing and programming temperature controllers, etc.

    So, my question is what degree should I go for? The only careers that are appealing to me are controls engineer, (though I'm not entirely sure what all they do), RF engineer, actuary, some sort of PLC engineer, or mathematics research of some kind. I really, really like number theory, group theory, calculus, and fractal geometry. (I like them enough to practice them for fun in my spare time.)

    I know, many will tell me electrical engineering. Is that really the only way to reach my goals of some sort of controls engineering job? I was told there is a need for electrically inclined mechanical engineers. Is this true? Since I am 30 and already have a career I am looking to industry professionals to seek advice. I am too old to make a gamble so (and yes I know this is sort of misusing the term) I sometimes laugh and think that I am permuting my future since I want every single detail of it to be in a very specific order.

    I apologize if there are errors or anything seems out of place, I typed this up quickly as I am about to eat. I hope to hear from you guys very soon! =]
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 28, 2015 #2
    Mechanical Engineers (like me) end up doing almost anything, structural design, electromechanical, rotating equipment, thermodynamic studies, piping, power generation, etc. My 47 year career included the above, HVAC design, engineer design, locomotives, and has given me immortality with some patents. Yes controls are also in there. Go for mechanical engineering!
  4. Dec 28, 2015 #3
    First, my background: I am approaching my 30th year at a large water utility. I've been a registered professional engineer of control systems since 2008. I didn't bother getting the registration until asked to by corporate management. I thought it was a silly thing to do at the time, but I humored them. I have to say that the effort and experience from the review was far more than I expected. I also found out that, regardless of the fact that my reputation was known inside the company, the registration conveys significant recognition and respect from outside the company as well. I was wrong. It was well worth the effort.

    You can get lots of work as a control systems specialist. The skills and experience you cite are in demand. However, the lack of any formal engineering degree will hold you back. To effectively lead a technical design effort, you really should have a Professional Engineer registration. Getting that without a formal degree is no easy feat, if your state allows that at all.

    You don't have to be a technical lead, though. If school is out of reach financially, you can always go toward the managerial track. Most companies, especially HVAC maintenance firms, are more interested in your experience than they are with your educational credentials. You probably won't make quite the same salary as a project leader, but you won't have that student loan debt, either. With a bit of business experience, people have made lucrative careers going in this direction as well.

    You can put your time toward an education or toward job experience. Some have experience doing the same thing over and over for decades. Some have only a theoretical education, having never applied any of it toward any goal. These are extremes you should avoid. Find something you really like, and then figure out what you need to do to get there.

    I can't tell you which of these options will work better for you. I can say, however, that the choice is quite personal, and that I can't recommend one side or the other.
  5. Dec 29, 2015 #4


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    You might consider searching for other advice offered by Jake on this site in other posts.
    Your current situation is very similar to my own past. I was an instrumentation & controls tech for a chemical company when I enrolled in a distance learning program (twenty years ago, before online programs). At the time I had the equivalent to a AS degree and enrolled with Thomas Edison State college in their Electrical Eng Tech program (I believe they also have a Mech Eng Tech program too). Engineering Technology programs are notoriously light on Math and are usually NOT ABET accredited. However, Thomas Edison allows you to get a degree from a recognized stated college. Other schools also offer online programs. I suggest you consider an ABET accredited program, as that is best for your ability to obtain a PE. As for program of study, look over the course core curriculum requirements and do some research on the course content. What sounds best to you. Take common classes first, so that you have some extra time to actually think about the specialization classes that you will ultimately have to take. It isn't just money, it is your time and if you change directions from Mech to EE or Controls, each change is 3-6 months of extra time, even if you get your money back, you often cannot recover the time spent on a mistake in course selection.
    Once you graduate, you should consider pursuing a PE as it adds to your credibility and stature.
    On a personal note, I ended up graduating with a BA in Math at the age of 42 (it took me ten years from where you are now, usually 1, sometimes 2 or more classes per semester). And the degree helped (and hurt) my career a LOT! I have a degree! It hurt, in the sense that my degree IS NOT an ABET accredited engineering degree and made it difficult for me to even take the exam for getting a PE. I had to provide documentation and obtain endorsements for my experience to be allowed to take the exam. Having an ABET accredited degree would have made my application process quite a bit easier (and that is an understatement!!!). And as Jake has implied, having a PE definitely adds credibility to an engineer (especially if one has a BA!!!).
    Last edited: Dec 29, 2015
  6. Dec 31, 2015 #5
    Well while I find certain aspects of M.E. interesting my true passions are controllers and mathematics. Thanks though! The only thing you mentioned that I am interested in is H.V.A.C. on the electrical controls side.

    A controls systems specialist sounds like a job I would enjoy doing. I do want my engineering degree since I'm already getting my electrical license and I can program PLCs. The only online ABET accredited EE program us at ASU so if I go for EE I will attend there.

    Is there a job where I could design and implement control systems as well as program all PLCs, PACs, deal with SCADA, program the HMI, etc? That's what I want to do with my life honestly.

    Thank you, I wish I had knew what I enjoy doing 10 years ago honestly haha.
  7. Dec 31, 2015 #6
    I have a career that is all that and more. My employer is hiring too (for the best of reasons: one of our staff retired last year). HOWEVER...

    Jobs where you do the sorts of things you describe are made, not hired. To give you some idea of what I mean, we brought an experienced engineer in to our staff about five years ago. She had years in the field, as well as a solid education. And yet, it was many months before she was working independently on areas where she already had some expertise and a year and half before she was initiating projects and work on her own. I estimate a new engineer out of school would take at least two years before we'd turn him or her loose on independent work.

    You need to prove you're familiar enough with the operations, the processes, the technologies, the maintenance staff, the law, and the internal politics to work independently. This isn't something you'll learn overnight. To get started, you'll need a solid engineering education, and at least an EIT or Certified Automation Professional (from ISA) certification. That might qualify you for an entry level position. Know that we have four with PE certificates in our staff of ten engineers and they're all in leadership roles of one sort or another.

    Whatever you may think of PE registration, for many companies, it is one of the key prerequisites for the sort of work you seek.
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