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Math Which Engineer Actually Uses the Most Math?

  1. Dec 18, 2009 #1
    Hey all.

    I am really interested in using math/physics/economics (maybe chem/bio too) to solve practical problems. However, I am not sure which engineering field to enter. I find certain specialties in all of the "big four" interesting. I don't care who makes the most (and I am insulted that that, rather than the actual work is so often used as a selling point in forums and by school departments).

    I want to know: who actually uses the most math on the job? I know that elec/software engineers study the most math in classes, but then I also read that software engs don't actually use the math they learn. They use the reasoning skills that all of that math develops. I want to actually use math. And when I say math, I don't mean cost optimizations either. I don't care about managerial positions/supervising others etc (That is why I am kinda shying away from enviro).

    Is it the electrical engineer with his/her imaginary numbers, the mechanical or chemical engineer with thermo, or the structural engineer who actually uses the most math daily?

    Thanks for any input.
    Last edited: Dec 18, 2009
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 18, 2009 #2
    Most of the afore mentioned are ill educated at the tasks they have been assigned, their math skills have become nearly nonexistent, they have become experts at pushing papers that have distant relevance to the physical world, and are perplexed or hostile at attempts to discuss the engineering aspects of their titled role or educational diploma, having scant retention of a dimly recalled and irrelevent education.
    Last edited: Dec 18, 2009
  4. Dec 18, 2009 #3
    You have quite a lot of misinformation.
  5. Dec 18, 2009 #4
    Educate me, then. It is from forums like this that I get the info.
  6. Dec 18, 2009 #5
    Please refine your question, as it is very broad and general. You can find very technical jobs in any area of engineering. If you are worried about this - don't.

    This statement:

    I'm not even sure where to begin on how this is wrong.
  7. Dec 18, 2009 #6
    I have read of engineers being disillusioned at how little technical work they actually do, however.


    Oh, and thanks for the tip as well. I will make any future posts more specific.
  8. Dec 18, 2009 #7
    I have no idea where you heard this. Again, it depends on what kind of engineering role they are doing. Where did you read this?
  9. Dec 19, 2009 #8
    I guess these three links would be the most influential.

    http://www.thelavinagency.com/articles_covers/Devlin/devlinarticle1.pdf [Broken]

    For the electronic eng article in wikipedia (I know, I know, wikipedia is a free-for-all and is generally not "peer-reviewed"), check under the "Project Engineering" subheading.

    Also, I was talking to a mid-40s or so structural engineer who told me that he could not remember the last time he did a differential eqn. He said that the work was all "procedural".

    I know that these are anecdotes, and there have been more (I just can't track down everything I have read over the past several months). Still, they stand out. I remember engineering STUDENTS writing about how tough their math is. I remember ACTUAL PROFESSIONALS saying that they don't really use it.

    To be fair, when tracking down the above links, I did find that others have asked the same question (I will do a "lit review" before I post next time). The basic responses were that:

    1. Those in design and testing WILL use math.
    2. project engineers/managers may not use much if any of the math.
    3. The math learned is internalized, so you understand mathematical relationships. You won't be sitting at a desk like you were in school.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  10. Dec 19, 2009 #9
    Unless you are designing a new untested complicated gizmo or coming up with a new model for predictive purposes (that is, if you are doing research), engineers in general don't use much math. Design of things are generally done through established codes and standards, and putting together well-tested and qualified components. If you are in management, you may be spending your time negotiating for projects and writing proposals.
  11. Dec 19, 2009 #10
    I would agree with comp math and Nspyred. I'm a project engineer and maybe 1% of my job is calculation, 9% is figuring out what to calculate, 70% is communicating with and managing people and 20% is quality assurance and looking for critical errors.

    After a while you can just look at things in your field, make changes without using math and be more accurate than some dude doing a whole day of calculating. For example, I designed a concrete slab for an unusual situation once on a napkin and gave it to the drafter to draw it up. When she asked where the rebar was supposed to go, I just pointed on the screen. The intern freaked out - then I told him to go ahead and calculate all the shear, moments, cross section of steel, etc.

    24 hours later to the interns amazement I was accurate within 4 decimal places. Kinda freaked me out also to be honest.
  12. Dec 20, 2009 #11


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    It really depends - I know that is a lame answer. It depends upon where you work, what your role is, and what you consider to be "math". Let me tell you about my workplace. We mainly hire electrical engineers, physicists, and mathematicians, with some computer-science mixed in, plus a few mechanical, materials, etc. We supposedly specialize in research and development. The reality is that 95% of the interesting work goes to folks with PhD's. I am lucky that I have a PhD (electrical)! Even then, most PhDs spend half (or more) of their time doing work that is not so hard-core technical. My current project is 99% drudgery (they would pay me even less if it was all fun!), but most projects allow me to do interesting technical work for about 50% of my time. I use real math (meaning math beyond elementary linear algebra, probability, statistics, or Fourier analysis) for <5% of my work. There are a few "stars" that do a lot more math, but they are definitely smarter then me, and also have a long history of spending their own time (read weekends and nights!) doing interesting, publishable work that is beyond the work required for thier job. By the way, I find a lot of enjoyment in solving problems that don't require a lot of math. It is the act of technical problem solving that is fun for me. Some engineers find that they like management - I have dabbled in it and hate it.

    I my opinion, being happy at work requires: reasonable people to work with, reasonable work environment, reasonable numbers of work hours, and having the attitude that I will find something interesting in whatever I am doing. As long as I am doing technical work for a few hours a day and like my co-workers (and am not working >50 hours a week) I am pretty happy. With my current project, the only way I stay sane is to teach myself math when not at work! Every job has its ups and downs.

  13. Dec 20, 2009 #12
    So basically , engineers use very little math when working ????
  14. Dec 20, 2009 #13
    Haha, no. You are the victim of a bit of a joke. Engineers and scientists like to complain about how much time they spending doing things that are not actually engineering/math/science. This is just the nature of the work. You need to spend time writing reports, making presentations, putting in face time with your colleagues, procuring equipment, etc, etc.

    If you can't do the math, you can't be an engineer, it is very necessary for the job. But, depending on the specific thing you are doing, the amount of time you spend running the numbers will likely be small. This is normal. I have a test running right now at work that takes a week to get results, and I will only have a handful of data points. I have another test I will run later that takes 6-8 months, and the data analysis will probably take 15 minutes. There are some specialists who spend a greater proportion of their time doing calculations, if you really want to do this you need to specialize appropriately.

    jasonRF is quite right that it depends on what you call real math. I would define real math quite differently, but I'm in a different field doing different things. I cannot remember the last time I used a differential equation for anything. This is because I do not need to. There is no point in using this technique when a simpler one will get the result I need. However, it is important that I understand them, and understanding the concept gives me insight into how things behave. [STRIKE][/STRIKE]
  15. Dec 21, 2009 #14
    I wish I had the slightest idea as to what you are actually saying here. Then I might rebut. Are you implying that an engineer's education is irrelevant? Or that engineers have "become experts at pushing papers that have distant relevance to the physical world" ?

    Please enlighten me.
  16. Dec 21, 2009 #15


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    Exactly. Some engineers who go into sales or management may use little math. Other engineers who are responsible for product design, manufacturing or performance use a lot of math.

    I do a lot of calculations, most using automated codes. Some programming might be involved if we introduce a new model.

    Model development involves reading journal articles or reports from experiments then building numerical models (of material properties or behavior (e.g., consitutive models)) from equations that describe the physics of whatever phenomenon being tested/observed, then integrating the model into a multiphysics code to simulate a system. Inputs are taken from measurements and best estimates (environmental (boundary) conditions, thermomechanical and thermophysical properties, . . . .). The ouputs are state variables or observables of the system. This approach applies to engineers in EE, Mech E, Aerospace, Civ E, Nuclear E, i.e. just about any engineering discipline.

    Simulations can be done in order to determine stresses/strains, thermal performance (efficiency and/or degradation), mechanical response to fluid-structure interaction.

    Some projects require more calculation than others. Some projects simply involve discussing better approaches to engineering.
  17. Dec 21, 2009 #16
    I think he means that those engineers who end up doing little math are the less talented ones.
  18. Dec 21, 2009 #17
    Thanks for the responses, everyone. I like writing, and preparing presentations. I just don't want to be stuck in a role in which I just stamp papers, attend meetings and manage technicians and scientists who get to do the technical stuff. I sure as heck don't want to be in sales.

    Keep 'em coming!
  19. Dec 21, 2009 #18


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    I much prefer the technical work, but I also have to write proposals, write technical reports, run training programs, write papers, and do adminstrative work.
  20. Dec 21, 2009 #19
    Of course, that is not necessarily MY opinion (I don't know enough to formulate one yet). I imagine that people move into mgmt and away from technical roles for a variety of reasons: increase in salary, a different challenge, economic restructuring of the firm, etc.
  21. Dec 21, 2009 #20
    Do you have a PhD? I think I read somewhere before, echoed a few posts back, that the PhDs and Master's degree holders get the lion's share of the technical/conceptualization roles.

    Thnx for the input.
  22. Dec 21, 2009 #21


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    MS+. I work for a privately owned company, and I've known some of the management since grad school.
  23. Dec 21, 2009 #22
    In many cases engineers work the same problems over and over again with different numbers. In other words, many of the problems lend themselves to being solved by spreadsheet or computer program. It is unusual when the engineer has to tackle a new problem every time and derive a mathematical solution anew each time.
  24. Dec 21, 2009 #23
    You could work in special effects (i.e. shader effects) it depends on what you mean by "math" doing things like artists tools and trying to create software that makes everyone's life easier is pretty "mass intensive", i.e. figuring out how to solve complex problems. Remember it's not merely crunching numbers, it's HOW you develop algorithms to solve real world problems that matters. Sometimes you won't be using math everyday but you still need to solve problems, i.e. figure out what you need to do then mathematize it. If you are great at math, imho, software engineering needs you. Most software absolutely sucks because their are not enough math guys in the field.

    Nerds tend to not see the forest from the tree's, "yes math is cool", but your job as a technical/problem solver is to make life easy for other people, or enhance their creative abilities (i.e. artists, etc).

    Check out Intel fluid simulation PDF's (for games)

    http://isdlibrary.intel-dispatch.com/vc/2743/Fluid%20Simulation%20for%20Video%20Games%20Pt1.pdf [Broken]

    http://isdlibrary.intel-dispatch.com/vc/2739/Fluid%20Simulation%20for%20Video%20Games%20Pt2_120909.pdf [Broken]
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  25. Dec 21, 2009 #24
    Thnx, but I never really considered sw eng an option. I want to use math to deal with physics concepts. I don't know much about sw eng, so I may be wrong. It just doesn't seem like my cup of tea.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  26. Dec 21, 2009 #25
    Perhaps you need some insights into 'actual' engineering vs. 'book' engineering. In reality, there are very few things we can find closed form solutions for. In other words, all that math becomes intractable. The derivations in all your books make many simplifying assumptions. Enter the role of the experimentalist. They fit trends and find relationships to the data. Sometimes this can be correlated from equations derived from first principles, most time not.

    If your goal is to 'do the most math' in engineering, then you have missed the point of engineering entirely. Go major in math. The point of math in engineering is to understand the language of what is going on, and gain insights into any data you may have. At the end of the day, we care about what is physically happening. For my area, Aerospace controls, it is highly mathematical. But then again, if you want to do something like CFD, it can very quickly become extremely complex. (Here I don't mean USE CFD, but WRITE CFD code). Using the code is undergrad level.

    It is exactly the lack of closed form solutions that we have FEA/CFD software to examine fluid flow, heat transfer, and structural problems. With out these advanced software packages, one would have to resort to a series of engineering 'rules of thumb' that are verified later with testing. Still, one has to verify via testing the output of any software code, but the hope is that it is much more accurate than using rules of thumb. There is still tradeoffs between rule of thumb or software depending on what kind of answer you care about: ballpark, or fine resolution.
    Last edited: Dec 21, 2009
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