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Engineering Need help deciding on an engineering major (undergrad)

  1. Apr 15, 2009 #1
    I'm currently a freshman engineering student in my second semester and am currently in materials science engineering. So far I've just taken the core engineering courses such as general chemistry, organic chemistry, calculus (up to multivariable), and physics (mechanics, waves, thermodynamics, electricity, and magnetism). I took AP chemistry and AP physics C in high school and really enjoyed those topics which is why I came in declared as materials science engineering. MSE seems like it uses concepts from these two areas extensively. When I learned about MSE, I thought it sounded really cool... designing and testing new materials such as polymers, alloys, and semiconductors.

    However, I've learned that's not even close to what you do on a day to day basis. It's more like what you over a decade. Most of the jobs are either working in labs or in the manufacturing process of materials and generally involve doing mundane tasks. I've met with a MSE professor several times this year and have toured his lab and learned about his research, and it's definitely not something I could do on a day to day basis. I think the work his graduate students do are comparable to what I might do in a research position, and it just seemed so mundane to me. I don't really remember the specifics, but one of the students was just adding stuff to a petri dish and trying to make certain nanoparticles for hours at a time.

    I need to do something that's more applicable and more interactive (ie not being in a lab by myself all day). When I first imagined what I might do with a degree in MSE, I thought there would be more macroscopic connections so I could get something out of my work. Doing things like making cube-shaped nanoparticles doesn't really seem interesting to me unless I spend the majority of my time actually doing something with the nanoparticles on a macroscopic level. I don't know, maybe there is some sort of job in materials science I would like and I just have a misconception of the field (wouldn't surprise me).

    I've been leaning more and more towards civil engineering lately as I think that's more what I would enjoy. It seems like jobs in civil engineering involve solving problems on a day to day basis, working with people, and doing work outdoors. When I think about engineering based things that I enjoy the do most, two things stand out to me. Bridge design is one of those things. Back in elementary school we had a group project where we were given string, glue, and toothpicks and were instructed to build the strongest bridge possible within a certain "budget" (ie a toothpick cost $5,000). That was probably my favorite assignment of all my schooling. I really enjoyed the aspects competition and trying to be as efficient as possible. In the summer when my family and I go to the beach, my favorite thing to do is build a wall of sand around our chairs and try to outlast the tide as long as possible, trying to find the best designs. Both these things seem to point me to civil engineering, but I want to be sure before I switch (I will lose a MSE scholarship :frown:).

    And then what about other areas such as mechanical engineering? I've looked into what jobs are common with each degree, but it's not really that helpful because most sites just give general information such as companies you would get jobs with and general titles. I need to know more of what you would actually do on a day to day basis with a degree in civil engineering, mechanical engineering, materials engineering, etc. Can anyone help?

    Sorry... this is kind of long - it's basically a summary of my thoughts for the past week - but thanks for reading.
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 15, 2009 #2


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    I'm not doing engineering but I have been doing extensive reading in relation to patents and intellectual property and there has been some overlap in engineering and law.

    If you like working with different designs and you like law (I suspect you may not but I thought i'd throw the idea out there) you might like what patent attorneys, examiners or agents do. The former needs a law degree and the others need some indepth knowledge of the patent system and of the current literature (ie patents).

    Also if you work in a sales role for a company you can potentially earn large commissions.

    I guess if you want to be an engineer though because you were and still are attracted to that kind of work then my suggestions are probably pointless but I thought i'd still throw these out there as you never know when or how your desires change. You might for example become a manager and become interested in business and then possibly take up an MBA or learn business in-house by being trained by the company you work for through say horizontal departmental rotations.

    I actually remember I was in an management course for engineers and the lecturer was mentioning that although your technical skills can take you so far, you need to learn to work with people, make both independent and dependent decisions that affect others and not only yourself, and also develop some sort of business acumen. So theres some food for thought. You can of course remain an engineer your whole life but roles change, desires change, economies change, and other things change too.

    Anyway hopefully some engineers can help probe some questions or raise some issues that can help you.
  4. Apr 20, 2009 #3
    chiro, thanks for your post. I've definitely considered doing something business related (I'm taking some business classes now) but I definitely want to spend some time in the engineering field first and maybe get a MBA later on.

    Can anyone else help?
  5. Apr 21, 2009 #4
    My favorite project in high school was also a bridge building project. It gave me a vague idea of what engineers might do. Somehow, I also ended up in MSE.

    Since you're still a freshmen, there will be lots of overlap between different majors in the first two years. At my school, the curriculum in the first two years is identical for Mechanical/Aerospace/Materials. Have you even taken a materials science class yet? I also thought a lot about my major in my first year and I ended up in a completely different major (MSE). Since you will lose your scholarship if you switch, you can always switch later when the curriculum between the engineering majors diverge. If you like to work in aerospace, defense, robotics, cars, engines, airplanes, then mechanical or aerospace is the way to go. But if you're interested in building bridges, dams, buildings, roads, etc, then you should do civil.
  6. Apr 21, 2009 #5

    Unfortunately MSE and civil engineering diverge first semester sophomore year (my next semester), especially since I have some AP credits. There are three civil engineering classes that are supposed to be taken (2 civil engineering and 1 general engineering) and for MSE there are two classes that are supposed to be taken (one MSE and one physics class). So I really have to decide before next semester or else the semester will be a waste if I end up switching.

    Since you're in MSE, was my assessment accurate?
  7. Apr 23, 2009 #6
    I'm only a student in my second year, so I haven't really worked on any real life MSE projects, but based on my limited experience, you are correct that a lot of what you will study will be at the microscopic scale or smaller. But changing a material's structure at the microscopic level will also change its macroscopic properties. It seems like you are really interested civil engineering.
  8. Apr 25, 2009 #7

    Day to day, civil engineering involves a lot of CAD design work, designing various subparts of a building/road/etc. There is also a lot of consulting the building code, meetings, going out on site etc.

    ME is similar in that there will be a lot of CAD design, looking at drawings, etc. One word of warning: there are quite a few boring ME jobs where you won't really be doing design or testing.

    What about electrical? That's a good field :-) very interesting lol

    This guide might also be of some use:
    http://subversiveguidetoeng.blogspot.com/2009/03/picking-majorfield.html [Broken]
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
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