Preparing for study as an engineer

I'm a high school junior who is conflicted about what engineering to go into. I am currently in an engineering class to see what it's like to get different projects from different fields and so far my favorites have been chemical, aerospace, and mechanical. I was wondering if you could give me some insight about your field of study. What is your normal day like? How was your college experience? Are there any problems or discrimination you have faced?
Thank you!
posted by Alexis, New Orleans, Louisiana on February 17, 2014

Answer 1 by Ms. Megan Harrington

Hi Alexis! 

That's great to hear! I can guarantee that almost every engineer has been in your shoes at some point! Luckily, if you find your interests spanning across multiple engineering "disciplines," that's quite alright because there are areas of application where you can be immersed in multiple types of engineering/sciences. For example, I'm a "mechanical engineer," but researched in aerospace applications, which facilitated my interests in propulsion and combustion of propellants. Right here I've covered your three "disciplines." What's important is really finding what inspires YOU - what do you find interesting enough to go out of your way to learn about? Do you want to make a change in the world? If so, what do you want to change? Whatever the field of application is, I bet there's a way to encompass two, if not all three, of your areas of interest :) If you have something in mind and want some ideas, let me know - I'd be happy to share some ideas!

As for your questions about what I do, my field of study is largely "systems engineering," involving mostly fluid dynamics, thermodynamics, and heat transfer topics. All of these fall under the mechanical and/or aerospace engineering umbrella. I look at the entire piping systems (supply vessels, components, flow controls, gauges, etc.) that route the various gases and liquids needed in the testing of high-powered rocket engines. The rocket engine test itself doesn't last but maybe 60 seconds to 5 mins or so (on average).  But in this timeframe and ~6-8 hours leading up to test time, there is a beautifully orchestrated sequences of events going on throughout the test facility where valves are opening and pumps are initiated to start flows in one (or two, or three) pipe system(s), and valves close elsewhere to direct the flow in some direction, and then these may close and another system flows from it's source to another desired location, and so on. In short, there's a lot going on at the same time, all over the facility. I help moderate and analyze their operation on a daily basis, get data, document any anomalies, analyze, and make sure everything is in check before, during, and after test. As for design, we get to design and redesign these systems as necessary for the different requirements an engine may need. The fluids we use range from gases to liquids (cryogenics), and largely hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, helium, and water. It's never boring, especially when the reward is seeing a 290,000 pound-force engine hot fire every week! 

My college experience was great and probably very similar to most engineering grads! I minored in math, joined a few clubs (i.e., ASME), got involved in undergrad research,all of which helped me narrow down my interests. Despite being one of the few, if not only, girl(s) in every engineering class, I'm happy to say I was not discriminated against. I did have a professor that warned me about possible discrimination from an older generation(s), and said us girls needed to be more on top of our game than the guys in our class as "practice" for the possible real world. He spent the entire semester calling on us (2) girls in class to have the answers for all of his questions. It was a little challenging at the time, but he had a good point and we enjoyed the challenge. Plus, we had the best grades in the end :) 

If I could offer any suggestions, it'd be to pay close attention to what you find interesting and then do some homework on the engineering that goes in to it. This approach alone helped me get where I am today. You'll have a "job" for the majority of your life, so you definitely want to find something you'll not only like, but truly enjoy. I love my job because I'm passionate about it's field of application and want to see space exploration become not only more available, but pushing the limits and boundaries (literally) of where humankind can travel and discover. This drive keeps me going and I think it's extremely important for everyone to find this source of passion within. If you do, you'll enjoy every day of what you do :) 

Let me know if you have any other questions and I'd be happy to help out!

Best of luck!
Megan

Answer 2 by Dr. Mariam Ismail

Hi Alexis,
Happy to see you considering an engineering field. I'm a chemist/chemical engineer. By that I mean I did my undergraduate degree in chemistry, then switched over to chemical engineering for my graduate studies. As an undergrad though, I always gravitated towards engineering (however, was a junior by the time I found my true calling so decided to just switch to engineering for graduate studies). I did my undergraduate research for a chemical engineer in the field of water purification. I was lucky enough to find my passion in energy and environmental work. For my graduate studies, I chose chemical engineering because of the wide applications it covers. But also, I was able to find a research group who's interested were in line with mine. Currently, I work for an MIT start-up, 1366 Technologies, where I develop processes aiming at delivering solar at the cost of coal. It's been a very rewarding experience thus far. I believe what matters in you choosing your field is where you think you can make the most impact. Following your passions is key. You could also begin your undergraduate studies undecided (but on the engineering track), work in a few labs to figure out where your passions lie, and then choose your field. As you can see, it's never too late to switch fields. What's important and will make you successful, is following your passions. 
I've been very fortunate to have no have faced any discrimination throughout my career. Although I was almost always one of the few women in a conference room, sometimes even the only one, I find it empowering to have earned my spot in this field. You have to prove yourself, but once you do, your male coworkers will truly value your opinion and viewpoint. But, that is the case in any field you choose.

Best of luck! And remember, follow your passions, work hard, and everything else will fall into place.

Answer 3 by Moyra J. McDill

Hej Alexis! (as we say Sweden)

Engineering careers have an interesting way of changing unexpectedly.   I am now in Sweden - what an adventure!  If you had told me in high school that I would have the kind of career I have had, in industry, academia and government as well as in volunteer work, I wouldn't have believed you.  

As you approach university, one thing to remember is that often you do not have to decide on your exact field right away. Many universities have a kind of common first year or common period. This allows you to select your program at the end of that time.   Other universities, space and grades permitting, allow you to transfer between programs if you realize you are in the wrong program for you. 

It might be a good idea for you to explore the schools that you are interested in attending and see just how flexible their programs are when it comes to the final selection. That way, you can reassure yourself that your decision at the end of high school is not set in stone for your university years.  As an Associate Chair at my university I helped quite a few students change programs. Some were leaving my department for another and some were coming into my department. Some transfers were straight forward. In other cases,  students needed to first take certain prerequisite courses. Some students, who initially wanted to transfer, opted instead to take  courses in the other discipline at the engineering elective level.  Each school  will have policies that will affect your decision making process. 

Another option to consider is a graduate degree. Some students take an undergraduate degree in one program, say mechanical, and then a master's degree in another such as aerospace or  biomedical engineering.  Of course the two programs and their subjects have to be aligned in order to do that, but it is often an option. 

I have three university-aged children. My oldest is finishing a master's in chemical engineering. She applied to a number of universities for a number of different programs and made her decision when the offers from the universities began to come in.  My second is in mechanical engineering. He applied to only a few universities but for the same program.  My third tells me she  heading for master's in biomedical engineering after doing an undergraduate degree in Europe in math/computer science.  I imagine you can see that I have enjoyed my career enough that my three children, with their own personal talents,  have decided to start their careers from engineering  too and who knows where they will be in twenty years.  

I think it is fair to say that there were a few bumps along the way in my education and life and now in my children's. Indeed these bumps included some pretty significant life challenges.   At school, your guidance office and then your undergraduate advisor are the places to go when you need advice on course selection and program changes. 

Good luck and feel free to email back,

Moyra

Answer 4 by Crystal Harris

Hello Alexis,

I completely understand your conflict.  It is difficult to pin point what you would like to study within the Engineering fields.  You are doing the best and most efficient thing right now in terms of getting exposure to all Engineering and Science careers.  You are thinking like an Engineer! Remember to be flexible and willing to learn new/different things.

When I enrolled into college, I thought I wanted to major in Mathematics.  During the first week, I had an in-depth tour of campus prior to classes starting and was awe struck when I saw the display of an F-4 Phantom outside of the Engineering building.  Right then and there, I changed my major to Aerospace Science Engineering because I thought it would make me a better Pilot.  I was right.  Since earning my Bachelor of Science degree I’ve had the opportunity to travel the world and learn so much more.  I’ve learned how to be a Mechanic/Technician, Customer Service Representative, Accountant, etc.  

As a Liaison Engineer, a normal day for me involves researching specific problems with a component or aircraft and writing the repair instructions to correct the problem.  I also volunteer with different diversity groups to keep me involved socially with the events and projects coming up outside of my immediate workspace.  

As a young African-American woman in a senior Caucasian male dominated field and company, yes discrimination exists.  I am fortunate to have a thick skin about most things, but there have been sometimes where I have had to address and issue head on and wait for the outcome.  Sometimes things will get under your skin and you have to make a decision if it’s worth addressing or not, but that goes with learning more about you as a person and your own limitations.

Most importantly for your college career, enjoy the learning and growing process.  It is definitely a process!  Take personal notes that will help you navigate lifelong choices and decisions.  Try to have just a little fun!   Best of luck, I believe in you.

I actually asked one of my coworkers to comment as well, just to show a different perspective.  
His comments follow below.

Regards,
Crystal


“Dear Alexis,

My advice to you is just keep your mind and eyes open to all the opportunities and possibilities that will open up as you pursue your passion for engineering. As a first or second year engineering student, most programs are going to be the same anyway, so you have plenty of time to decide your specialty. Focus on the basics for now, like the math and physics. As far as choosing one goes, in the real world, the boundaries between the engineering disciplines are often very fluid, and you may find yourself working and excelling outside of your discipline. I can guarantee you that there are no guarantees except that things will always change. Engineers who can adapt and work outside their own comfort zones will excel. Those who cannot or will not will struggle. Try to keep in mind that your years in high school and college are basically teaching you to learn and exposing you to concepts. Your real education begins after you graduate and there are no more textbooks; when you are on the team developing the new airliner, wonder drug, or consumer electronic item that doesn’t exist today.  The point is that you might decide to go mechanical, and find yourself spending the majority of your career in aerospace, like most of my colleagues have, or any other combination you can come up with. 

My day consists of problem solving in multiple disciplines, providing leadership and education for those I support as a technical specialist, and acting as a resource for management decision makers. We are mentors, judges, teachers, facilitators, technical resources, innovators and entrepreneurs. 

College will be what you make of it. It can be four of the best years of your life, independence and new adulthood, or the hardest thing you have ever done. Most of the time it will be a bit of both. Just remember that college just gets you the paper that says you have been there and done what it takes to complete the program. It is just a snap shot of what was “state of the art” when you were there. Technology will march on and make most of what you learned obsolete. What will never be obsolete is the scientific approach, research skills, and task discipline college will teach you. 

Discrimination can rear its ugly head, certainly, but this should not be an issue for anyone on top of his/her game. If you are good at what you do and live by the golden rule, that will rise to the surface no matter what others may do. People with bad intentions and evil in their hearts will never succeed in the end and fortunately, people like this are rather few. You may encounter this in your journey, but it is part of the learning experience and not just limited to sexism or racism. Some colleges are hostile to conservatives, for example. You may want to research discrimination at a particular school before applying there if you are concerned about this.” – Doug J.

Answer 5 by Jennifer Turner-Valle

Hello Alexis,
I'm glad to see that you have taken an initial step that will help you identify a field of engineering that you will enjoy the most by trying out different fields of engineering  during high school.  In my experience, many undergraduate students find an area of study they are passionate about only after several semesters of university, and while it may appear to be ideal to choose your path before going to university, I would encourage you to be open to different areas of engineering specialization even after you have started towards your bachelor's degree.  After all, you may find something you find even more fascinating only once you've started down your degree path.

My typical optical design engineer work in the aerospace field mainly involves optical system design, including interfacing with colleagues who design the mounts and mechanical benches that support my lenses and mirrors, interacting with customers and colleagues in meetings to ensure my part of the system works the way it needs to, and working with the instrument systems engineer to ensure that the performance of my design meets all requirements under the full set of customer requirements.  In support of this work, I  generally spend roughly 30% of my time working at the computer with design software tools, 10% of my time working with colleagues to package optical systems and ensure mechanical mounts meet the needs of my optical system, 35% of my time attending meetings and preparing briefing packages for colleagues and customers to explain what we're doing, and 25% of my time documenting my work in engineering reports and creating assembly, integration, and test documents to guide the hands-on work.  The mix of work on any given day varies depending on how far along the program is.

As an undergraduate I studied engineering physics,  specializing in optical engineering later as a graduate student.  My class was approximately 30 engineering physics and physics undergraduates, and although the class generally subdivided into manageable study groups of 4-5 people once we reached our fourth semester of school, we were a fairly tight-knit, friendly bunch since everyone took the same required classes and we were all in it together.  I believe there were roughly 5 women in our class, which was quite typical for physics and engineering physics at the time (~25 years ago)-- and I always felt like there was no notable gender bias among either the students or the faculty.

As far as problems or discrimination in colleges and universities, my observation is that some departments are composed of more "forward thinking" faculty members who actively work to balance any unintentional gender bias they might exhibit and other departments are composed of more faculty members who are less adept at treating all students as equals.  For the schools you visit, strive to meet with an assortment of students and ask them how they feel they are treated- whether the students support each other, whether the faculty are generally bias-free, whether the faculty are willing to go the extra mile to help students learn, and find out what the program's graduation rates look like for female students.  If you gather the right information, you will be able to determine which school is the right fit for you- whether you prefer a program with highly competitive classmates with a healthy camaraderie or a program with exceptionally supportive faculty or perhaps a program that allows excellent flexibility in constructing a custom degree program.  I expect you will find that the students are very forthcoming in sharing their opinions about their experiences.  One note I would like to add to supplement my observation on "problems" is that it often seemed to me that the women I knew as a student were less confident about their skills than our male counterparts were- even though the women in our class were all just as smart and well-prepared as the men.  Always be confident- because if you work just as hard as everyone else in class and you're just as well prepared, you will do at least as well as everyone else!

In my career experiences, as far as problems or discrimination, my observation has been that nearly everyone I work with is gender-blind, particularly once they've worked with me sufficiently long to evaluate and find my engineering skills to be up to the challenge at hand.  In fact, it's the case that ALL the new engineers , irregardless of gender, must prove themselves to be worthy to their coworkers before they're fully accepted into the team-- through this informal proving process the team understands where their new colleagues are able to contribute and where they may require supplemental guidance.  It's just like getting to know a new player on your sports team- you need to figure out how best to mesh their different skills into the team strategy.  The great thing about engineers is that it's all about performance-- so if you perform well, there should be no problem convincing them that you're a great fit to the team.

Best of luck,
Jen