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Specialize yourself or be a Jack of all trades?

  • #1
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Main Question or Discussion Point

I've been thinking about the potential benefits - or detriments - of specializing yourself in some particular field of work. Currently, I'm into Mechanical Engineering, and I've heard all kinds of arguments in that matter. Some say that specializing is good because you get better chance of most interesting jobs in some field of work that you like. Other, instead, say that being a Jack of all trades, you can apply for a wider variety of roles.

I like Aerospace, and I wanted to master in Aeronautics and focus on Propulsion. Will this decrease my chances of getting jobs in other areas, like structures, for example?
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
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There are no good answers concerning job-market futures. As they say in financial advertising: Past performance is not an indication of future returns.

Those who have graduated with degrees in Mechanical Engineering have typically gone on to interesting careers with upper middle class incomes. That said, the specifics of how they did that are often fraught with many "adjustments" and education experiences.

Follow your interests. It probably won't hurt your overall career. Feel free to make changes, and be open to new opportunities. You don't have to let HR trolls pigeon-hole you in to a specific specialized corner.

The only caveat I would bring to you is that if you decide to become a structural engineer, be aware that you will be required to go through a fairly rigorous apprenticeship and principles and practices exam for the PE.

Keep your options open. Take the FE test for the EIT when you graduate. That way you should have an easier time applying for the PE if or when the time comes.
 
  • #3
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There are no good answers concerning job-market futures. As they say in financial advertising: Past performance is not an indication of future returns.

Those who have graduated with degrees in Mechanical Engineering have typically gone on to interesting careers with upper middle class incomes. That said, the specifics of how they did that are often fraught with many "adjustments" and education experiences.

Follow your interests. It probably won't hurt your overall career. Feel free to make changes, and be open to new opportunities. You don't have to let HR trolls pigeon-hole you in to a specific specialized corner.

The only caveat I would bring to you is that if you decide to become a structural engineer, be aware that you will be required to go through a fairly rigorous apprenticeship and principles and practices exam for the PE.

Keep your options open. Take the FE test for the EIT when you graduate. That way you should have an easier time applying for the PE if or when the time comes.
Thank you. Personally, I'm not keen on the idea of over-specialization. There are various fields of study that I find interesting. Like I said, Aerospace is a great interest of mine, but outside MechE, I'm learning Control Systems and some basic electronics: things like microcontroller programming (PIC, AVR), embedded systems. People in the propulsion labs of the aerospace department, where I study, have classes in data acquisition - which envolves microcontrollers - so I think that this "communication" between very different branches of engineering is possible, at least in the academia. How does that work out in industry? Is it possible for a mechanical engineer with experience in other areas end up working with all of them?

Could you guys give me any insights?
 
  • #4
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I am a control systems engineer. My degree was in Electrical Engineering. However, because there are very few controls systems engineering curricula in most universities, the field tends to draw from the Electrical, Mechanical, and Chemical engineering degree fields.

If you're reasonably proficient with the PIC and AVR microcontrollers, you'll do great as a Control Systems Engineer. Do note that Control Systems Engineering makes heavy use of Laplace Transforms in math. There is also a lot of issue with Cv curves of valve types, material selection for valve packing, pump curves, flow metering, thermodynamics and steam tables, boiler design, and many other interesting things.

I also get heavily involved with protocol and network design technologies. This is not at all like most IT endeavors, though. Our priorities, reliability parameters, and performance goals are completely different.

A mechanical engineer can bring a lot of expertise regarding momentum and dead-time for tuning control systems. Controlling thrust from a rocket engine, or missile vanes or the specifics for aerodynamic controls such for an aircraft autopilot system are all areas where mechanical engineers would tend to take the lead in control systems design. I could go on like this for a long time. So I'll cut things short here.
 
  • #5
178
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I am a control systems engineer. My degree was in Electrical Engineering. However, because there are very few controls systems engineering curricula in most universities, the field tends to draw from the Electrical, Mechanical, and Chemical engineering degree fields.

If you're reasonably proficient with the PIC and AVR microcontrollers, you'll do great as a Control Systems Engineer. Do note that Control Systems Engineering makes heavy use of Laplace Transforms in math. There is also a lot of issue with Cv curves of valve types, material selection for valve packing, pump curves, flow metering, thermodynamics and steam tables, boiler design, and many other interesting things.

I also get heavily involved with protocol and network design technologies. This is not at all like most IT endeavors, though. Our priorities, reliability parameters, and performance goals are completely different.

A mechanical engineer can bring a lot of expertise regarding momentum and dead-time for tuning control systems. Controlling thrust from a rocket engine, or missile vanes or the specifics for aerodynamic controls such for an aircraft autopilot system are all areas where mechanical engineers would tend to take the lead in control systems design. I could go on like this for a long time. So I'll cut things short here.
That really sounds like fun!
Where I study, Control Systems Engineering is in the Electrical Engineering department. Sometimes, I get myself on the fence, leaning towards switching majors to EE, just because where I live - I'm not from US - Controls is most associated with electrical engineering than with MechE. Really, it's a difficult decision, because I love both subjects and I feel that I will always be losing something, either by staying in ME, either by switching to EE.

I'm going to take some classes in Control Systems. For that, I need to take two semesters in Circuits, and one more in linear dynamics systems. Anyway, it's good to know that mechanical engineers can apply for such diverse roles in controls. Indeed, I will be giving a look at that!
 
  • #6
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Engineering is a frame of mind. We study the technology in school, but that's not the only aspect to it. In fact, that's not even half of it. Other aspects include setting goals, budgets, design methods, life cycle maintenance, and forensics. Furthermore, if you're not always studying newer technologies, you'll soon find yourself out of a job.

The goal of an education is to lay down a theoretical base that you can use for studying new technologies and methods. Long after receiving my degree (many years), I'd get these flashes of insight that would relate my current situation to something we studied in class but didn't actually associate or apply to anything. While that theoretical base is helpful, it is not and can never be complete.

As such, the foundation that your degree lays for you helps --but it is not a defining issue. The math and the concepts are all very similar. Resonance is resonance whether it is mechanical, electrical, or atomic. Likewise, potential is potential, whether it is a column of water, a charge on a capacitor, or the pH of an acid.

I know more than a few engineers who got their start in other fields and who then began applying it to something completely different. Once you have learned some concepts, you can use what you know and your experiences to study others. For example, I didn't study anything about information theory in my college experience. However, I did open some books and study some fundamental concepts (Shannon's Limit, coding methods, the Walsh-Hadamard transform, etc...) so that I could understand what I was dealing with better.

Again, this is not about your education. That continues throughout your career. This is about the conceptual frame of reference for your career, not the actual work you do.
 
  • #7
178
23
Engineering is a frame of mind. We study the technology in school, but that's not the only aspect to it. In fact, that's not even half of it. Other aspects include setting goals, budgets, design methods, life cycle maintenance, and forensics. Furthermore, if you're not always studying newer technologies, you'll soon find yourself out of a job.

The goal of an education is to lay down a theoretical base that you can use for studying new technologies and methods. Long after receiving my degree (many years), I'd get these flashes of insight that would relate my current situation to something we studied in class but didn't actually associate or apply to anything. While that theoretical base is helpful, it is not and can never be complete.

As such, the foundation that your degree lays for you helps --but it is not a defining issue. The math and the concepts are all very similar. Resonance is resonance whether it is mechanical, electrical, or atomic. Likewise, potential is potential, whether it is a column of water, a charge on a capacitor, or the pH of an acid.

I know more than a few engineers who got their start in other fields and who then began applying it to something completely different. Once you have learned some concepts, you can use what you know and your experiences to study others. For example, I didn't study anything about information theory in my college experience. However, I did open some books and study some fundamental concepts (Shannon's Limit, coding methods, the Walsh-Hadamard transform, etc...) so that I could understand what I was dealing with better.

Again, this is not about your education. That continues throughout your career. This is about the conceptual frame of reference for your career, not the actual work you do.
Thank you. I really appreciate your answers.

For now, I think I will stick with my undergrad in MechE and then do a M.S in Controls. I've just found some M.S programs with control and automation programs both in the ME and in EE departments, and they seem to be very correlated. In ME, they study things like robotics, sensors and active controls. In EE, they do guidance for airplanes, automatic control for industries... Both sounds like fun, and I hope they will guide me to become a Control Systems Engineer. Looks like a field where there seems to be a huge amount of interconnection between different areas of study.
 
  • #8
donpacino
Gold Member
1,439
282
Keep your options open. Take the FE test for the EIT when you graduate. That way you should have an easier time applying for the PE if or when the time comes.
This is good advice. I did not take the FE exam, because in many cases you do not need a PE to act as an engineer. 2 people at my company have PEs, and they do not need it or use it for their work.

Now that being said, if I make a career more, having the FE completed would be nice if I choose to get my PE later.

TLDR: Take the FE exam
 
  • #9
donpacino
Gold Member
1,439
282
Thank you. I really appreciate your answers.

For now, I think I will stick with my undergrad in MechE and then do a M.S in Controls. I've just found some M.S programs with control and automation programs both in the ME and in EE departments, and they seem to be very correlated. In ME, they study things like robotics, sensors and active controls. In EE, they do guidance for airplanes, automatic control for industries... Both sounds like fun, and I hope they will guide me to become a Control Systems Engineer. Looks like a field where there seems to be a huge amount of interconnection between different areas of study.
Controls is by definition a systems engineering field
 
  • #10
Dr Transport
Science Advisor
Gold Member
2,330
446
The best advice I ever got was learn something new every 4-5 years, that way you'll always keep a job.......
 
  • #11
987
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Advice I was given was this: being a generalist can get you a job, being a specialist will keep you said job.
 

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