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Engineering Industrial Engineer vs. Actuary (AND: should I be in engineering?)

  1. Nov 6, 2008 #1
    Hi everyone,

    I'm a first year engineering student, and basically I'm wondering if I'm in the right program or not. This post is kind of long (but for a good reason), so first I'll thank anyone who takes the time to read it all and give me their input.

    I chose engineering because I'm a creative, analytical thinker, and I figured I'd like a job that lets me use those skills on a daily basis. Originally, I thought that I'd like to be an electrical engineer, since electronics/communications seemed to me like the most interesting kinds of things to design. However, I've recently learned more about both engineering education, and engineering as a profession, and I'm having my doubts.

    To begin with, I looked at some of the material for some of the upper year courses I would be taking (I also looked at upper year courses related to civil and mechanical engineering, since I had also been considering them somewhat), and frankly they didn't look very interesting to me. This eventually led me to realize that I'm not particularly gung-ho about technology. I see it as a means to an end, not the end itself. This immediately set off an alarm in my mind, as not only would it be harder to do well in courses that I'm not interested in, but it also means that I probably wouldn't find working as an engineer as interesting as I originally imagined.

    On that note, what I've learned about the engineering profession isn't very encouraging, either. My understanding is that once you're hired, you're trained in a very specific aspect of your discipline that's necessary to the company that employs you, and that's what you do. So in electrical engineering, for example, if the company hired you to develop microchips, then you'd learn about microchips in-depth and work on designing and improving them, and that's about it. The same applies for troubleshooting and maintenance, apparently. Considering I'm only mildly interested in technology itself, this sounds agonizing to me. Not to mention that it seems that budget and time constraints frequently limit how "far" you can design something, and the latter can lead to serious overtime.

    So if I'm not interested enough in technology to want to have my career entirely centered around it, then the one remaining field of engineering that might be a good fit for me is industrial engineering (and I actually do think it would be a decent fit for me). However, another career that I've learned about that I think would be a good fit for me is actuary. Both jobs are analytical and require skilled use of math (which I like) and computers. Industrial engineering would require me to take some courses I'd probably hate in second and third year, and would earn me less money than being an actuary, but is also probably more creative. Actuaries make more money and have better job stability than industrial engineers, but the work would probably be more routine and possibly less interesting.

    Having said all that, I have a few questions. First, is industrial engineering different enough from the other engineering fields that I'd probably enjoy it even if I'm not a technology enthusiast? Second, if not, would it be safe to say that I shouldn't be in engineering?

    Third, what are the main similarities and differences between an actuary and an industrial engineer? I understand that an actuary is more like a statistician and an industrial engineer is more like an operations research analyst, but in terms of the kinds of tasks I'd be doing, and what work would be like on a day-to-day basis, how are actuaries and industrial engineers similar and different?

    Thanks again,

  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 6, 2008 #2
    well I dont know anything about either industrial engineering or actuarial practice so maybe this is not responsive to your question, but here are my thoughts anyway:

    If you don't think the classes would be interesting you'd be better off looking for some other major.

    Dont worry about the job/career picture. If you do something you love doing, you will be good at it and there is always a spot for good people. Besides, if the classes are interesting (see item above) then that's enough. I think too many view education as career training, rather than learning *how to learn* If you can learn how to learn when you're in school, you can continue learning for the rest of your life. That's what "being educated" really means.

    Just my 2 cents.
  4. Jan 5, 2009 #3
    Personally I think engineering is one of the best preparations for any other profession around. I'd put math and physics up there as ideal preparatory majors for other professions as well, but still second to engineering.

    First you get the discipline and rigor thanks to math and science. Second you get the practicality of having to make real things actually work and work well enough to be usable by people in some way. Engineers generally don't see things black & white but as a continuum of trade-offs, and there is an inherent element of underspecified problems and of a "stochastic"-ness to things. The word "sufficiently" are pretty pervasive to deal with this kind of flexible problem and solution space.

    A statistic my parents found before I went into college about engineering was that apparently (no reference for it, sorry, but circa 1970s) only 30% of pre-meds who apply actually got into medical school while 99% of engineering grads who apply to med school got in. That kind of cinched it to me also.

    Getting into my MBA program was pretty trivial, likely due to the same effect - everyone else in my program who was not an engineer said the GMAT was "so hard" when I thought it was pretty easy. I ended getting pretty much every MBA school trying to recruit me based on my score - Wharton, Harvard, Stanford, LSE, UCLA, USC, etc.

    - Interest (or not) in Technology

    Keep in mind that "technology" == "the art of tool-making". Ultimately everything engineers do is tool-making. Tool-making itself is part economic: better tools more economic output to be achieved with fewer resources (historically human resources, but also energy resources or other resources). In a sense, engineering is the utilitarian use of science for human benefit, especially economically.

    This is contrast of science which is seeking understanding of nature. Creating a comprehension and understanding of empirical reality is central. This is naturally for human benefit as well, but in a different way that is more abstract and metaphysical. With science there is a deeper level of knowledge but it is more abstracted as well sometimes making it detached from reality. I'd include mathematics in this realm.

    Naturally these are artificial separations as there are engineers who are distinctly scientists by behavior, methods and goals, and vice versa and all of us move back and forth at different points.

    The point here is for you to identify what it was that led you start engineering school in the first place. I'm guessing there are some aspects that are fun, easy or interesting releated to math and science. The question is what are those.

    An additional self-examination is to ask what your level risk tolerance or risk aversion is. If you naturally are attracted change and risk you will probably want to pursue studies that result in a job/profession/life that is more likely to provide that. And the converse, of course. Even within specific professions like EE, there is a range of industry risk profiles - start-ups working on leading edge technologies or sciences are obvious better for the risk thriving, while a larger corporation that is involved with a mature industry will be better for the most risk averse. Considering these can be useful to your choice.

    - Internship

    Before you decide if those upper division courses look like deal killers, it would be worthwhile to get an internship with some local engineering company to see what "real life" use of that knowledge might really be like.

    Don't assume you necessarily need to always and forever being an engineer - it gives plenty of choices that other majors won't be able to.

    - Industrial Engineering vs. Actuary

    Industrial Engineering is involved in engineering processes and operations research/management. Stuff like financial project analysis, optimization of supply chains, workflow, time-motion of production cells, etc.

    Actuaries are specific to the insurance or bond ratings business and are involved in estimating or assessing risks and tuning insurance pools against revenue. I know less about that except what I know through my MBA program and business experience.

    They're pretty different except for the business & math slant and the consideration of risk. If you are risk averse, actuary is appropriate while if you are more risk tolerance or thriving industrial engineering would be better.


    I can relate to the need to "feel" right about what you spend you time on and whether it will be worth it. When I was a high school senior I was trying to decide between: MD (possibly with PhD), sciences such as chemistry or physics, engineering such as ChemE, ME or EE. I picked EE because it "covered" more possibilities of distraction, because it would make decent money without waiting 10-15 years (as an MD), and because of my "questions about 'stuff I'm interested in'" it seemed the most unanswered area that I wanted answers in.

    That said, I've never had a stereotypical EE career since graduating (just passed 25 years now). I started working my specialization, IC design, and after a few projects quickly realized I couldn't be doing this for another 5 years, let alone 30 or 40 - not that I didn't really like it, but it was just too predictable too quickly. I discovered you can "break out" from the stereotypical career paths if you want, but it does take courage and fearlessness that some folks don't have. For me, being bored is too easy and the need to be "un-bored" transcends almost all other things. As I saw recently: "The best definition of laziness is not doing what someone else wants you to do" so I've never followed what made sense to anyone as "normal".
  5. Jan 5, 2009 #4
    Actuaries are very sophisticated, very business oriented professionals who use mathematics, primarily statistics, to assess risk for insurance and the bond ratings folks. This is pretty far removed from thing even faintly related to any sort of engineering, whether it be EE, ME, or IE (even including Operations Research). One of the big questions you need to ask yourself is whether you are primarily interested in the physical world or in the world of business and finance; this is the sort of choice you are looking at.

    I would strongly suggest that you do some serious reading pretty fast on the various options. Be aware that the road to becoming a full fledged actuary is quite long, requiring many years and a whole string of grueling tests before you can truly call yourself an actuary. If you make it, the money is quite good, however, if you like that sort of thing (I was strongly urged to become an actuary when I was younger, but I decided that I was much more interested in the physical world than the financial world.)
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