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Just finished Nuclear M.S., what now?

  1. Oct 8, 2014 #1
    I have a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering (graduated 2009), and I've been working for the DoD for a little over 5 years now, and lead a small design team. During that time I've completed my M.S. in Nuclear Engineering (graduated August 2014 with a 4.0 GPA). Now that the dust has settled, I'm trying to get a feel for what to do.

    The opportunity to use my new degree evaporated about halfway through (the project that I was intending to support went away with Sequestration). In my current position I do a lot of design work and FEA/CFD for packaging and cooling electronics in harsh environments, but I'm not using my nuclear degree at all, and I don't see any oppurtunity to do so in the near future. I'm worried that if I spend too much time here the degree will become irrelevant and a waste of time.

    Additionally, in my current position, I'm being paid as a GS-11 ($83,000 a year in the DC area), which I feel is a bit low for my level of experience and responsibility On the other hand, it is a secure job, I enjoy working with my team, and there will be steady (but slow) salary advancement. According to Salary.com, I should be making around a high end GS-12 or low end GS-13 salary (95-106k per year) for this area and my background. I've talked to my management, and there are no mechanisms in place for them to advance my salary faster (though they would if able,at least so they say).

    So, I wanted the input from some people who may work in the field: what are my prospects for a career change right now? Are my expectations way out of line, or am I shooting myself in the foot by staying? Any input appreciated!
     
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  3. Oct 8, 2014 #2

    SteamKing

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    Your salary with 5 years of experience is more than I ever made when I worked for somebody and I have almost 35 years of experience as a naval architect. You're being paid more than most engineers are getting with comparable experience, you have a position in the government service, and there must be some benefits which go along with the position (health insurance + pension).

    If you want to test the waters right now, go ahead, but be prepared to wind up worse off. A lot of engineers study one type of engineering in college and get a job doing another type of engineering, so your situation is not unusual. There may be other positions which open up in other branches of the federal service. If you want to go all nuke, all the time, check out job openings in the DOE at one of the labs or the NRC or in the USN Naval Reactors branch.
     
  4. Oct 9, 2014 #3
    Really? What about all the hype of engineers making 80k-100k right out of college with a bachelors degree?
     
  5. Oct 9, 2014 #4

    SteamKing

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    I have personally never met any. There may be some who exist who get these salaries right out of the box, but I think that kind of salary is atypical. You may see some EE grads get salaries like that to work in Silicon Valley, because the cost of living is factored in, but you'll never see a civil engineer get that much to start with zero experience.

    Engineering as a profession is affected by how the economy does as a whole. For example, when times are flush and the airplane companies are selling a lot of planes to the airlines or the DoD, the demand (and the salaries) for aerospace engineers rises. When things bottom out, you get billboards with messages saying, "Will the last person leaving (insert name of city) turn out the lights?". The same thing has happened several times to petroleum engineers during my career: the price of oil is high, the majors engage in a lot of exploration and capital projects, and petroleum engineers are in demand; the price of oil drops overnight, these projects are cut back, and a lot of engineers get laid off.

    IDK, you may not like your job, or you may think that your skills and knowledge are being underutilized doing your job, but you are doing better, in terms of compensation and job security, than a lot of engineers with much more experience ever achieve.

    For a long time, the demand for building nuclear plants in this country had come to a standstill, and consequently the demand for nuclear engineers was not growing. Now, I understand, there is renewed interest in building new plants to replace those reaching the end of their lives, so there may be increased interest in hiring nukes for the private sector.

    I understand the desire to find a better job. All I'm counseling is, make sure you find a really better job before you leave your current one behind.
     
  6. Oct 9, 2014 #5
    You have to remember, DC has a 24% locality pay for cost of living tacked onto the base pay (a 700 square foot basement condo here is $300k!). If my job were plucked up and moved anywhere else in the country other than New York or California, I would take a significant pay hit (my base pay is 63,000.)

    I'm not sure where you live or what the norm is for naval architects these days, but The ASME salary survey and several salary survey sites I've been watching do not reflect your assertions for engineers in general. Here is the salary.com national survey for Nuclear Engineer III (defined as 4-6 years engineering experience, graduate degree):

    http://www1.salary.com/Nuclear-Engineer-III-Salary.html

    Mechanical Engineer III is not far behind that. I'm just trying to get a feel for how accurate that assesment is from others in the industry. Do the surveys truly follow national averages?

    I hear what you're saying about the nuclear power industry, but honestly that only is a fraction of what nukes do; my thesis topic was on radiation shielding of electronics for defense and space applications. That type of work would be involved in power or healthcare or research. Either way, the overall unemployment rate for nuclear engineers is 1.5%, so it doesn't look like there are enough of us graduating to replace the retirees even with no industry growth.
     
  7. Oct 9, 2014 #6

    SteamKing

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    The survey you linked to appears to be linked to a job search site, so it is not entirely clear that there isn't some self-interest at work to entice people to think they are getting a raw deal at their current job and to look for other opportunities. It would seem that salary.com is in the business of telling professionals that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence.

    In government service and in a lot of private sector jobs, the plum assignments often go to the engineers with seniority, and the younger engineers 'pay their dues' by toiling at the less appealing jobs. It seems that you had advanced to a position of some responsibility by being put in charge of a small design team, according to your OP, and I think you should realize that the engineers in charge of a team may find that their duties become more managerial than hands-on engineering. What happened to your team after the project you were working on 'evaporated'? Often times, if that happened in the private sector, your job would have expired with the project, yet apparently you retained yours after this debacle.

    I had a good job with a small firm, and a lot of my early projects were simple stuff. At times, it was literally coloring book stuff, preparing charts and exhibits of one sort or another, something a graduate of kindergarten could do. It took a number of years before the opportunity to work on a major project came along.

    I'm not trying to sway your decision one way or another. I'm just giving you some anecdotal evidence based on my experience. There are engineers out there who are what I call 'strivers', who never stay in any one job or even any one city for more than a couple of years. I was not one of these 'strivers'; I stayed in my job for 25 years, but even the 'strivers' I have known eventually settled down by starting their own companies.
     
  8. Oct 9, 2014 #7
    My team has had a long term project, the thing that evaporated was a side project wih potential to grow into its own full scale program. The potential for that project to grow is what got me the approval to pursue the M.S. What ended up happening is the GS-13 that was running my current project retired, and I took over the lead mechanical engineer job while finishing school. I was able to juggle both successfully, and I've managed to help grow the project and succcessfully develop several products, but I'm still being paid as a GS-11 for the same duties as my predecessor. The other lead engineers in my department are also GS-13, so its just frustrating being paid less for the same job. It's just red tape though; there are hard caps on the rate of salary advancement in the govrnment, and pay is not always tied to performance.

    In any case, I appreciate your feedback. I'd still be interested to hear from someone in the mechanical or nuclear fields currenly just to get another perspective, but i sounds like thing are more cut-throat in the private sectort than I had though. I'll probably confine my job search to other federal positions for now.
     
  9. Oct 9, 2014 #8

    SteamKing

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    Good luck to you in your search.
     
  10. Oct 11, 2014 #9

    analogdesign

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    Have you worked out how much your federal pension is worth?

    I think you're doing very well.
     
  11. Oct 11, 2014 #10
    I'm not really considering the pension at this point. I would need 15 more years of federal service at a minimum, and I wouldn't be able to collect for another 30 years. The way public sentiment and federal spending policies are going now, I will likely never see it.

    So, it seems the consensus is that $66,000 a year base pay is typical for a lead engineer in most of the country?
     
  12. Oct 11, 2014 #11

    analogdesign

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    You should be considering the $83k, not the base pay, because any private sector job would be compared to that.

    You could probably make more money elsewhere. You would also likely have less security, more pressure to work a lot of hours, and it may be hard to stay a "lead engineer" with 5 years of experience. Might be possible at a startup / small firm but then the hours will be brutal.

    It's all a trade off.
     
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