Thanks for your question. The greatest thing about being a professor is that I get to work with students AND work in my field of study. In addition to teaching in the classroom, I have a laboratory in which my students and I study new materials and their properties. Although we are not manufacturing and selling these materials, the understanding that we gain and the ideas that we generate can be used by other engineers in industry. Training students is also very satisfying. The questions students raise in class or in the lab often lead to new experiments, which ultimately lead to a better understanding of how materials behave.
For me, this is the best of both worlds.
Dear Hope: Thank you for your question, "Why do so many engineers prefer to become professors rather than work for a company in the field for which they are trained?" (Did I interpret your question correctly?)
First, there really are many more engineers working for companies than as engineering professors in universities. At least, that is the case in the US. Even so, you may wonder why someone trained in engineering might prefer to become a professor. Here are a few reasons.
We enjoy working with the students. It is a pleasure to be around bright young people who are interested in their subjects (at least most are). It is a privilege to teach them. In the case of our graduate students who are working on their PhD degrees, they start out as students but by the time they have finished their research theses they have become colleagues and often remain friends for years.
At the research universities, besides teaching we also conduct our own original research, which can be very exciting. Carrying out such research is usually impossible in industry, where one is told what to work on, projects that are important to the company. This research can be interesting too, but it is more constrained.
In many universities, some professors start their own companies, based on their research discoveries. Thus they are both professors and work in industry too.
I hope that I have given some answers to your question. Whether working in industry, in a government lab, or a university, engineering is a great career choice. Good luck and best wishes for your career!
Walter P. Murphy Professor Emerita
Department of Materials Science and Engineering Northwestern University, Evanston, IL 60208