Aerospace and Defense

An Open Letter to an Engineering Student

06 February 2018

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.

Dr. Roger Pink with his daughter AnnabelleDr. Roger Pink with his daughter Annabelle

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.

Best Regards,

Dr. Roger Pink

Senior engineer
IEEE GlobalSpec

To contact the author of this article, email roger.pink@ieeeglobalspec.com


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Discussion – 11 comments

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Re: An Open Letter to an Engineering Student
#1
2018-Feb-07 9:27 AM

Roger, this is a heartfelt and insightful letter, addressed to no one in particular, but applicable to all who have chosen the path.

I hope you don't mind, I'm going to print this out and frame it, then hang in my office somewhere conspicuous.

Thank you.

post script: Congratulations Dad! Were I as eloquent as you, I would offer a similar letter regarding your road ahead as a father.

Re: An Open Letter to an Engineering Student
#2
In reply to #1
2018-Feb-07 9:32 AM

I appreciate the kind words. I tried to picture my daughter as the engineer as I wrote it, seemed to help!

Re: An Open Letter to an Engineering Student
#3
2018-Feb-07 10:09 AM

Nailed it. The only thing I might add is that while being an engineer is almost a guarantee of a comfortable life given the motivation that gets you through school, you are not likely to become extremely wealthy but you will have riches beyond your wildest dreams.

If money is your dream, run a business and have other people earn money for you.

Re: An Open Letter to an Engineering Student
#4
In reply to #3
2018-Feb-07 11:23 AM

Thanks! Yeah, I completely agree regarding getting rich, including the part about running a business being the best way to get there.

Re: An Open Letter to an Engineering Student
#6
In reply to #3
2018-Feb-08 11:34 PM

Hmmm. Emulate Elon Musk??

Hooker

Re: An Open Letter to an Engineering Student
#5
2018-Feb-08 4:50 PM

Congratulations on the tiny engineer!!!

Re: An Open Letter to an Engineering Student
#8
In reply to #5
2018-Feb-09 8:49 AM

Thanks!

Re: An Open Letter to an Engineering Student
#7
2018-Feb-09 8:30 AM

Getting to know your fellow engineering peers, particularly those from different backgrounds, is excellent advice. I would add, however, that it is also good to get to know some people who are not engineering students!

Re: An Open Letter to an Engineering Student
#11
In reply to #7
2018-Feb-13 8:05 AM

Good point!

Re: An Open Letter to an Engineering Student
#9
2018-Feb-12 11:27 PM

Roger (Bayes),

Thank you for this. I appreciate the content and the spirit in which it was written.

As I was reading through the pros and cons of graduate degrees, I was wondering if you were going to cover PEs - and then you did! In the end, the achievement was not in the obtaining of the license, but the path to get there.

You stressed hard work as being inevitable in our chosen field and that's true. There are many times also, when you can stop, rest, and contemplate what you do and have/can accomplish(ed). In these times, you (I) don't even consider the struggles!

I came to engineering relatively late in life - about 9 yrs after HS graduation, I decided I'd had enough of minimum-wage jobs, and start school. After I proved myself at community college, my dad made it possible financially for me to go to the university. I finished the ChE program (I did get a summer internship at Battelle for 2 years before I graduated) and was hired right out of school.

Since then, I have had several different jobs, and the most important thing I have learned is to make every effort to work as a team.

Re: An Open Letter to an Engineering Student
#10
In reply to #9
2018-Feb-13 8:04 AM

Thanks, Mikerho! That's an inspiring story and I appreciate you sharing it here. It takes a lot of work and willpower to make that kind of change, it must bring you a well-deserved sense of satisfaction.

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