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Engineering Jobs combining programming with hardware?

  1. Mar 19, 2017 #1
    Hi, I'm a high school student in a STEM program, and as of now my primary interests have been in Computer Science, Math, and Robotics. Currently, as I research colleges, my intent is to double major in either Math and Computer Science, or in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering. However, I'm worried that there may not be jobs combining these interests. I've been told that any job I might get would be in only one of these areas, not both, and that worries me because I don't want to be a purely electrical engineer without doing any programming, and I don't want to be a Computer Scientist without ever touching or dealing with hardware in any way. I definitely tend to prefer Computer Science, if I were to have to choose only one discipline, but I really would prefer to be able to combine the two in a kind of way similar to Arduino projects that I've done. Are there jobs like that out there where I would be involved in both, not just specializing in one or the other? And also, how heavily do those jobs use math? I also worry that a job that is too specialized would not scratch my math itch, as I've heard that many EE jobs boil down to formulas.

    Any help is appreciated, and let me know if I'm being too idealistic or my information is wrong.
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 19, 2017 #2
    Don't do it. Become a doctor or a lawyer instead. A lot of people are promoting STEM jobs right now. But it's not worth it. As a scientist or engineer, you may not be able to get a job and if you do, you'll earn a little above average and always have to worry about getting laid off. If scientists, engineers and programmers are in such demand, why do doctors and lawyers get paid 6-figure salaries and STEM workers don't? The reality is, the jobs that have always paid big salaries or the ones that still do for the most part. As a technical professional you're just another replaceable peon to the corporate world. I know, I'm an engineer, went to Cal Tech and now wondering if I'll ever have enough money to retire. Think about it kid. Most of the people urging you to be an engineer probably are NOT engineers themselves and they don't really know what it's like. Best thing you can do is go to indeed.com and look for engineering jobs and then look at the outrageously long list of requirements that most employers have now for engineering jobs. If I had as many skills as some of these jobs demand, I wouldn't be looking for a job, I'd start my own company.
  4. Mar 19, 2017 #3


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    TChris, I'm not sure if you're trolling here (this is your first post), but frankly your post here isn't helpful to the question the OP is asking. But let's look at the claims you make.

    First of all, do you think most lawyers earn 6 figures, or that lawyers don't have to worry about being laid off? Consider the following:


    According to the article above, the unemployment rate nine months after law school graduation for the class of 2013 was 11.2% (not to mention that the salaries for lawyers are on the decline, in large part because of a large surplus of law school graduates). By contrast, the unemployment rate for electrical engineers in 2013 spiked to a high of 6.5%, and was closer to 3.5% for the years 2010 and 2011 (again, I don't have the latest numbers for either figure).


    So from the above 2 articles alone, it seems pretty clear to me that studying engineering is a much safer bet than studying law.

    Second, even if I presume you're a Caltech-trained engineer who is worried whether you'll be able to retire -- without knowing more about your circumstances, to me, this sounds to me to be more of a problem with your ability to save money rather than anything to do with the marketability or employability of engineers.
  5. Mar 19, 2017 #4


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    Many of the big companies out there have slashed hardware engineers (e.g. Intel) and from what I've heard (but this is not first hand experience), that career path is on the decline. It makes sense as a general trend because general purpose hardware has become quite cheap. That said, do note that one of the most hyped fields right now is "Internet of Things". There's plenty of ideas and startups out there needing people who can both code and understand hardware at the level of Arduino stuff, i.e. be able to interface with it, but not necessarily design one's own DSPs.

    As for programming or STEM being a bad career, Google starting salary is somewhere ~120k base + benefits (anecdotal evidence which Glassdoor.com seems to support), which is well into 6 figures.
  6. Mar 20, 2017 #5
    Now who's trolling? I have about 35 years of experience with this problem. I know many engineers who didn't get jobs or wound up doing something different. You pick lawyers to try to make your case, but I notice you say nothing about doctors. Are you going to deny that they make from $170,000 up $400,000? What's the source of statistics and why should I believe them? I can tell you this there are many unemployed engineers who aren't even counted as unemployed especially if they graduate and never land that first job.
  7. Mar 20, 2017 #6


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    As a way to respond to some of the discouragement there, one must actually find people and TALK to them. This can be done at conferences, hiring fairs, and also by traveling to a company site and bringing resume and telling someone what you are hoping to do.
  8. Mar 20, 2017 #7


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    TChris, I have been working in the STEM field as a statistician for the past 14 years, and during that time I've known many engineers (primarily electrical, mechanical, or computer engineers, a few industrial engineers as well) and computer scientists, all of whom are gainfully employed and earning solid salaries (certainly well above the average salary in Canada and the US, close to 6 figures). I don't dispute that there are unemployed engineers, but oftentimes this is dependent on what sector you are working in, and what field. So the notion that there are no jobs for engineers is simply not true across the country.

    As for being laid off, in the modern economy, anyone and everyone can be laid off at any time. The question is whether there are other jobs available for engineers or those with a training in that field. I have never met an engineer in my life who has been unemployed for an extended period of time (i.e. unemployed for longer than 6 months).

    I mentioned lawyers because you mentioned lawyers in response to the OP's original post -- you were advising the OP to go to law school instead of pursuing engineering or computer science. What I had done was present sources which show that your advice is not good advice. As for sources, the link I gave you are the sources, and there are many others.

    You ask why I said nothing about doctors? Here is why:

    1. Not everyone is cut out to become a doctor. IMHO, only those who are truly dedicated to serving and helping patients should consider pursuing medicine, given that one typically needs to finish at minimum 3 years of pre-med studies before going to medical school (and usually complete a full 4 year degree beforehand), spend another 4 years in med school at considerable cost in tuition (most medical school students are not offered scholarships or grants to pursue medicine, so the have to take on debt to pay for med school, on top of whatever student debt these students may have), and then complete another 3-7 years of residency before they are eligible for medical licensing.

    2. The salary range of doctors vary considerably depending on specialty and where they happen to practice. In general, specialists like neurosurgeons or cardiologists earn the top dollars you talk about, while primary care doctors earn much less. Also, doctors in the big cities tend to earn more than doctors in rural areas. But the key shortage of doctors are precisely in those areas where they happen to earn the least (i.e. rural areas, primary-care physicians -- a problem that also affects Canada)

    3. Related to point #1, medical school graduates are often saddled with huge debts, which cuts in to the 6 figures that you talk about. Also keep in mind that doctors are typically in school or in training for much longer than engineers or computer scientists (you can go into engineering of computer science immediately after graduating with a 4-year BS, whereas it takes anywhere from 10-16 years to become a fully licensed doctor). So the earning potential of those additional years of schooling/training needs to be kept in mind.
  9. Mar 20, 2017 #8


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    Back on topic.

    To the OP:

    To follow up with what Paallikko stated earlier, if your primary interest is in working directly with hardware (i.e. working in semiconductors or integrated chips), then opportunities, while still available, have been on the decline.

    That being said, if as you state, you are interested in combining an interest in programming/software and hardware, there are increasing opportunities in areas like robotics, which at least by word-of-mouth has been a growth industry (one of my first jobs out of grad school was working for an engineering company specializing in robotics). I can also foresee opportunities in areas like the Internet of Things (where software is embedded into many products to ensure connectivity to the Internet), among others.

    You had also stated earlier that you had an interest in combining computer science with math. If so, then there are also opportunities that are open to you in areas like data science/machine learning (a major hot area right now), or in areas like cybersecurity/data privacy/encryption (cybersecurity will become increasingly important, especially as more and more data will become available through the Internet and more businesses and other organizations rely on being connected).

    So to summarize, I feel that you have a solid set of opportunities ahead of you, so long as you are flexible and willing to learn and work hard in college/university. You're still young, and still have time to explore your options.

    Best of luck!
  10. Mar 20, 2017 #9


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    Thread closed temporarily for Moderation...
  11. Mar 21, 2017 #10


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    Thread re-opened after some cleanup. Let's please stay on-topic in helping the OP. Thanks. :smile:
  12. Mar 21, 2017 #11
    Thank you very much for that information! I guess a better way to phrase one of my questions I had, though is like this: Lots of people that I've talked to have told me that even in fields like Robotics which work in both software and hardware, I would still be doing one or the other. As in software specialists and hardware specialists collaborating, not with people who actively work in both aspects. Is this true, and if so to what extent?
  13. Mar 21, 2017 #12


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    I personally don't work in the robotics field (at least not directly for over a decade), so I may not be best placed to answer this question, but from my limited knowledge (among people I've known in the field), it is true that there tends to be software specialists and hardware specialists collaborating, which is understandable given the complex nature of the robotics field (robotics encompasses everything from control systems in hardware to incorporating intelligent decision making in robots).

    That being said, from what people have told me and what I observed when I worked for a robotics firm a decade ago, the software specialists still need to have an understanding of what the hardware component and vice versa, and there is scope to work on both aspects.
  14. Mar 27, 2017 #13
    I have a point to add that does not seem to have been covered here. OP seems to have a fundamental misunderstanding of professional engineering. Generally people are hired to solve a problem. They say, "if you have a hammer, every problem is a nail", similarly, if you are hired by computer science people they will see a computer science problem and visa versa. If you have insights to both that can be very valuable but it will not be advertised that way. This is related to the second point about EE jobs being formula based. Most real world problems are hard and formulae that are used in industry are usually hard earned and used 'because they work'. Trying to derive, or re-derive, formulae is usually a waste of time and get in the way of actually doing the job. There are exceptions of course but for many problems in industry solving a problem is more important than understanding it.
  15. Mar 28, 2017 #14
    Thank all of you very much for your advice!
    I don't mean to sound like I think engineering is easy, by any means. I guess my problem lies more so in that I'm not really sure what specific field is for me, yet.
  16. Mar 28, 2017 #15
    After reading your question again, I think the answer is actually quite simple.

    First, I don't think a double major in math and CS is a good solution. Most of the math you would take as a math major has little to do with computer science. The CS dept will let you know what math you really need for CS.

    Your don't need to worry about never working with electronics or hardware in general. In fact lots of programming involves interfacing with hardware. Look at embedded systems, which is a huge field. But you don't need an EE degree. What a CS type needs to know really is basic digital electronics along with some knowledge of how computer systems work, how do CPUs and GPUs work, how do networks work, etc. But a CS major does not need to get bogged down in hardware details.

    As far as jobs, I think there is no question that someone with a B.S. in CS is in a much better situation than with a B.S. in EE or math.
    Last edited: Mar 28, 2017
  17. Mar 28, 2017 #16
    P.S. if you do want to get into hardware design as a CS major, then you could learn about FPGAs or related technology, and learn how to design a custom chip.

    You mentioned the Arduino. Eventually you might want to combine your interests in software and hardware by designing your own system. You could always team up with a hardware specialist if you need to. No one can know it all.

    My "spare time" project, if I ever have spare time, will be to design my own LISP computer from the chip level up, running my own version of a LISP operating system.

    Here is a fascinating talk by the great Prof. Wirth on his experience designing an Oberon-only system, including a custom chip.

  18. Mar 30, 2017 #17
    Thanks very much for your advice and especially for that video - definitely is something I'd be interested in!
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