September 22nd, 2005

Beware the Engineer

Becoming an Engineer

xinef asked "what do you recommend that a student, now in Grade 10 and definitely interested in a career in engineering, should do?" That's a broad question, so my answer got long enough to become a separate post.

First off, "a career in engineering" includes a lot of possibilities. You should decide what kind of engineering you're looking for. Some of the specific choices:

Hands-on vs. theory: some engineers go out into the field or machine shop and get dirty, some sit in a cubicle and do viewgraphs.

Cutting edge vs. practical: there's a lot of really "cool" technical work out there, but most of it is done on government contracts (with annoying restrictions and paperwork) or start-ups (long hours, high risk). Either way, you have a good chance of working your heart out on something that winds up in the trash (BTDT). But it's lots of fun while it lasts. Someone working on more practical projects (the next generation of lawn mowers or scanners) will have a tangible accomplishment to point to.

Large vs. small projects: I've mostly worked on huge government contracts with hundreds or thousands of engineers on them. You have a big goal to look at, but a lot of overhead to coordinate them all. Small projects are usually less ambitious but you'll have more chance to have a personal impact.

Field: There's aerospace, mechanical, civil, software, materials, etc. etc. engineers. Each have their tradeoffs. If you don't have your heart set on one consider if you want to avoid the government (aerospace is mostly gov't) or have lots of flexibility in where you live (civil and mechanical engineers are everywhere, other fields less so).

[Granted, that's a nasty pile of decisions to throw at a 10th grader. Most of your classmates probably have no clue what they want to aim for. But any decisions on the above you can make will help with the next section.]

Picking a school: Rule 1. Avoid Enormous State University at all costs. If that's the only school that will take you, try community college or an apprenticeship.

MIT and Caltech will give you chances you won't get elsewhere, but they're heavy toward the theory/research end. There are chances to get very hands-on there but you have to go get them, it's not a requirement. If you want to get into cutting-edge research they'll give you the best start. If you have a field of engineering you want to concentrate in, make sure they'll support that--they're deep but have gaps in what they cover. They're also hard to get into, so don't set your heart on them, keep a backup plan.

Look for small schools, especially ones with an "Engineering Technology" program. Private is probably better than public, but size matters more. ET can be more what the old-time practical engineering education is, depending on where you go. Research schools before applying. Look for the average class size and whether the faculty actually teaches or spends all their time preparing publications. Troll the web, find student's opinions of their classes and professors. Every school will have some bad teachers, don't put too much weight on one bad review. Look for the good reviews. Try to find a match to the type of engineer you want to be. Unless you want to be in the labs, avoid research universities, they tend to get rid of anyone actually good at teaching. The joke at MIT was that the response of a professor getting the Baker Award for best teaching was to scream in horror since he'd never get tenure.

Even a good school will miss out on some stuff a working engineer needs. You can fill in some of the gaps with books:

Visual Explanations - how to communicate. All of Tufte's books are great, but this one includes the actual slides the Thiokol engineers showed NASA before the Challenger launch. That should be mandatory reading for all engineers.

Engineering and the Mind's Eye covers the history of the profession, how engineers work in real life, and some of the education issues I've been complaining about.

There's a bunch of books out there with stories of engineering disasters. Most of them are field-specific: Why Buildings Fall Down for civil engineering, Software Runaways for software. I have some more general collections, which I'll dig out and post the links for when time permits. The case studies will point out mistakes you might make more effectively than a standards document.

Other things . . . Try to find out about a professor before taking an elective. Not always possible, but a class on a boring topic from a good teacher is better than one on a good topic with a lousy teacher. Try for classes that will have you do experiments or papers rather than just taking tests. Together with any outside the classroom work you do this can be the basis of a portfolio to show employers what you can do.

Lastly, take care of yourself. A bad grade will be averaged out over the degree, and after a few years in the workforce nobody cares about your GPA. Get some sleep. Have a life. And good luck.