Dear Engineering Student,
Congratulations! You have decided to embark upon a journey that will be both challenging and rewarding. The next few years will be exciting ones, filled with long, caffeine-fueled nights where you struggle with boundary conditions, have heated arguments as to whether it’s “math” or “maths,” and in general question your life choices.
Some of you will decide engineering is not for you and switch to a major with more sunlight and fresh air. This is a perfectly respectable choice. Engineering as a discipline is demanding and requires a certain amount of commitment. If you are unsure early on whether you are willing to make that commitment for the next four years, and don’t have a particular passion for engineering, you might want to consider another field.
This is not to suggest that if you struggle with engineering you should quit. To the contrary, if you’re sure engineering is for you, then by all means, grind it out. It’s worth it in the end, I promise. Just be sure to ask for help from your peers, teaching assistants or professors if you need it. Don’t let your fear or pride keep you from asking. If you don’t need help occasionally, you’re not challenging yourself. Remember, the goal is the degree. There is no extra credit for doing it the hard way.
Victor Hugo once said, “It is by suffering that human beings become engineers,”…or something like that. You will know something of suffering over the next few years as engineering requires a lot of math. You will be expected to learn calculus, linear algebra and differential equations. You’ll also likely have to take a statistics course and almost certainly an applied mathematics course that will cover advanced concepts useful for particular engineering applications.
You will also be required to take some physics courses, and probably some chemistry and biology as well. These core math and science courses in the first two years are meant to be the foundation upon which the more specialized engineering courses you take later are built. As a consequence, it is not enough to just pass these courses. If you want to be an engineer, you’ll need to take the time to understand the concepts presented in these courses.
One of the joys of college is meeting individuals with different backgrounds and experiences than yourself. Labs and study groups are an excellent opportunity to interact with your peers and develop the cooperative social skills that will become essential later on in your career. Be mindful and respect your peers and try and learn about their respective cultures. You’ll find learning about other people’s cultures and perspectives will help you better understand your own. Such self-awareness can be a real strength later in life.
It’s never too early in your college career to start looking for an internship in engineering. I strongly recommend you try to complete one or two internships as an undergraduate. This will give you a real-life understanding of what it is to be an engineer. You’ll learn the difference between the academic engineering environment and the workplace engineering environment. You’ll also pick up lots of engineering wisdom and gain valuable experience that helps build your resume.
As a professional, I am sometimes asked what level of education is ideal for an engineer. In my opinion, you must have at minimum a bachelor's of science. A masters will give you a lot of flexibility and upward mobility and is worth the effort. A Ph.D is a wonderful thing to have, but it is time-consuming and often very specialized and in my opinion doesn’t have as much of a return on investment as a masters. If you’d like to be a Ph.D, by all means pursue that dream. Just keep in mind, much like the field of engineering itself it’s a labor of love.
A few years after graduating, you may want to seriously consider getting licensed as a professional engineer (PE). All states require that candidates complete four years of qualifying engineering experience, typically under the supervision of a PE. After that, it’s just a matter of meeting requirements and passing a state-administered exam. Certain jobs or projects require a licensed PE, particularly those related to government projects. A PE license makes you that much more valuable and also really hones your skills. Well worth the effort.
Finally, just a quick note on what engineering field to pick. Often you will receive advice based on projected job growth. Many students take these projections to heart and pass up something they’re interested in for perceived job security and opportunity. In my experience, these projections are often wrong and should not be used for making decisions that last a lifetime. Chase your dream, follow your passion, etc. You’ve chosen a discipline requiring a lot of math and science. That is always in demand.
I wish you the best of luck in your engineering endeavors. You’ve chosen a field where you get to experience a real sense of accomplishment. Engineers are a special group of men and women from different cultures and backgrounds that have come together to build the next version of our world. That’s what you’ve signed up for, and I for one can’t wait to see what you build.
It’s like Isaac Asimov said, “Science is great and all, but it is engineering that changes the world,”…or something like that.
Dr. Roger Pink