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CollegeQandA asks: Should I major in Engineering?

Should I major in Engineering?

Engineering BuildingShould I major in Engineering?  This is a specific question that I’m dealing with here, but one that I’m biased towards, and therefore, I have an opinion on.  The answer is yes.

I think engineering is a great major.  Student’s who complete this major have the capabilities to do and learn almost anything afterwards.  Getting the engineering degree, however, is a commitment that takes both significant time and effort.  In many ways, I feel like my undergraduate degree was harder than anything I have done and learned since (though improving my writing has been exceptionally hard).

What is Engineering?

This question should be asked and explored by every major where you replace engineering with your major.  In most cases, the answers are very broad since a major is a label for a vast area of human knowledge and exploration, but practitioners should be able to give you a sense of what a particular major is.

Broadly, engineering, which is sometimes called applied science, is solving problems (by designing a solution) with the use of techniques and knowledge from mathematics and science while constrained by financial and ethical realities.  The types of problems are broad coming from areas such as the health industry to the retail industry, but they have one common aspect.  These problems are our problems whether they be human desires or human challenges.

Most people living in the first world can look around the room they are in presently, and almost every item in that room has gone through stages of engineering problem solving to create the item cheaply, safely, efficiently, etc.  Look at the power outlet.  The screws, the face plate, the outlet, etc. were all designed by an engineer(s).

What do you study in an Engineering major?

Engineering is a broad category that is broken down into specializations such as mechanical, electrical, computer, and chemical engineering (to name a few).  Typically, these specializations are created when there is enough industrial and commercial demand that future engineers in those domains need a focused set of courses covering specific topics.  For example, there is not much difference between electrical and computer engineers, but because of the rise of the computer industry in the 80s and 90s we made the distinction.  However, engineers start all their majors dealing with common introductory topics such as calculus, algebra, probability, statistics, physics, chemistry, programming that apply to almost all engineering fields.

At most schools, the first two years of a major deal with these broad basics in mathematics, sciences, and communication (written and spoken).  In the second year, students will start learning about the basics of the domain they have chosen to major in and will start to see how some of the earlier learned basics are applied to some aspect of the domain.

The third and fourth years will cover more in depth topics as related to the field, but this is just a sample of what practicing engineers do, and even in a field such as electrical engineering a student will further specialize in an area such as communication, electronics, electromagnetics, photonics, power, etc.

The reality is an undergraduate engineering degree is a broad exposure to a field where that student is expected to apply science, math, and engineering design to solve problems.  This, typically, means that engineering has a doing portion where throughout their study, students will build artifacts and prototypes in the lab and in design courses.  However, there are so many careers that an engineer could take that even the senior courses are broad introductions to the specialities.

Why is it such a great major?

In my opinion, an engineering major pushes a person’s mind not only in how to design a working system that solves a problem, but solves that problem with an understanding/application of science and mathematics as tools.  In other words, the major will push your brain to grow in leaps and bounds each semester with challenging ideas that are both theoretical and practical.  At the the end of the degree, you are directly employable since you can build things to solve problems.  Still, you don’t have to be a practicing engineer since the skills learned can be applied to a vast range of problems and opportunities in all varieties of areas.  The degree is not to be taken lightly, but those of you who are committed and willing to work and learn hard will find the results very satisfying.

Credits: photo titled: engineering; by DaveBleasdale


CollegeQandA asks: Why do STEM fields seem better than other fields?

What is STEM?

Plant Stem

No, not plant stems or glass stems.  STEM is an acronym within education and industry for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.  And because these fields have beneficial economic links to each countries success (economy, GDP, etc.), training people with these degrees is being pushed to students.

I’m biased in the following discussion.  I have degrees in computer engineering, and I believe that my engineering degrees have helped me not only in my profession, but have provided me knowledge and skills that helped make me a better person.

Is STEM good? better?

Why do STEM fields seem better than other fields?  There is no good or better when it comes to pursuing degrees.  However, the reality is that from an income perspective and number of career based jobs linked that are linked to a degree, STEM based jobs have both higher starting and medium salaries and probabilities are higher that average performers will find jobs.  So you might perceive  that these degrees are better.

From an individuals perspective, I think your success and happiness are linked to your intrinsic motivation.  Do you want to work in your chosen area for at least the next 20 years of your life.  Are you willing to hate 8 to 9 hours of your day for compensation.  In some cases, those 20 working years are equal to or greater than the number of years you have lived.

Are STEM degrees harder?

The answer here is another yes/no.  For many students science, technology, and math seem hard and for that reason people get scared away.  Note, however, that becoming an excellent writer, artist, or all other so called “non-technical” person is equally hard.  Maybe being average is not hard, but because those other fields are more challenging to become employed in, you will tend to need to become excellent.

Many of the students I talk to who are pursuing engineering degrees have a similar fear or dislike for writing that is similar to their counterparts dislike of math and science.  The thing is, they’re all hard to become good at, and they all take time, grit, and pain to learn.  Also, success in a career requires more than just the knowledge you gain from a degreee.

Going forward…

Pick a field that you have interest in, you want to learn about, and you will seriously commit to learning in.  If you make a committed effort to learn something then you will find fascinating aspects within that field that will help you grow.  There is something to be said of picking a STEM degree because of the economic benefits of these degrees, but don’t think a single reason makes these degrees a good choice for you.

Credits: photo titled: Sunny Stem; by GollyGforce – Living My Worst Nightmare


CollegeQandA asks: How do I pick a major?

The big question rated number 1 for many

For high school students and even first year students, “How do I pick a major?” is the question.  A major is the area of focus, within academia, that you spend the majority of your 4 years of study exploring and learning about.  In many cases, we associate a major with what you are becoming in terms of your future career.

So, in some ways “how do I pick a major?” is the same question as “what do you want to be when you grow up?” that adults ask children throughout time.

My book takes a look at some of these ideas in more detail, but let’s define a few things here:

  • A job is trading your time (and skills) for compensation
  • A career is a path in a set of related jobs of with some goal of getting to a job where you do (mostly) what you want to do on a daily basis
  • A degree is awarded for completing the set requirements usually including a concentration in a major
  • A professional degree is a degree that is a credential step towards a career in a focused concentration
  • Vocational training is a process to teach you a set of skills customized for a specific job(s)

So how does that help you pick a major?

Universities don’t train you for a job

The first thing to truly grasp is you major is not necessarily your future job.  For example, a computer engineer major will start their career in a vast number of jobs that can include engineering work, sales, training, etc.  In other words, I couldn’t list all the jobs that someone who did a major in computer engineering does.  Even in one of my narrow research fields: Field Programmable Gate Arrays, the list of jobs which you need this major for easily goes over 100!

Therefore, we can not train you in a major for a job.  You will have to prepare for your career while pursuing your degree in your major, and yes, the university will provide great opportunities to do that (career center, career fairs, company visits, etc.), but that is not the universities primary goal.  It is up to you to shape your career.

A major is your opportunity to explore an area of interest (caveat economics)

Most of us have to worry about our future career, income, and financial stability.  The tricky part is how can you pursue what you are truly interested in while balancing the realities of your future career and your family situation.  There seems to be evidence that your major choice correlates to your family’s current financial status.

If I was allowed to choose what I was interested in when I was 18, then it would have been video games and basketball.  My parents, however, were not going to pay for my education if it did not include science, engineering, or math.  I was fortunate to find a compromise in computer engineering.  Was that a compromise?

As I’ve matured, I have come to believe that engineering can be applied to almost any other interest.  For example, if you like sports, then the mathematics, analytics, and modeling applies to understanding sports better in – see Moneyball or The Wages of Wins.   I’m biased towards my experiences in engineering and so is our economically driven world, but do we only need technologists?  I think any major can be applied to any interest, and you should leverage these connections in your pick, and take time to consider how you will mold your major into your career.  There are a common set of what we would call high-level skills needed in all industry – thinking, communicating, and doing.

I, also, think the key to picking a major is to find something that has a spark of inspiration and motivation for you, and you should have some aptitude in that field or be willing to work really hard to develop needed skills.  You need that drive to help get you excited to explore that something more deeply.

Finally, it’s not that big a deal

How do I pick a major?  The question scares all of us.  This decision will define your future.  Your parents hope you pick something that means you won’t live with them forever.  The country needs you to contribute to our bottom line.  Yikes.

Book : You majored in what

In many cases, however, it doesn’t matter that much.  If you have some motivation, curiosity, and interest in learning, then you will find a topic, professor, class, or hobby that starts you on your future path.  You Majored in What?: Mapping Your Path from Chaos to Career is a great book that will help you understand what seems to happen for at least half of us.  If anything keep your mind open to opportunities and learn what you can.


CollegeQandA asks: How do I find high quality friends in College?

New friends…

One of the greatest things about going to college and university is the new friends you will meet.  For one, these new friends self-selected to go to college, and the population of a college as compared to your high school suggests that there is a greater chance in this larger pool of people that some or many will share your interests both academic and hobbies.

Be warned that your friends have a big influence on you, and make sure that some of them are quality friends who share the same academic, career, and life goals, or you will be fighting an uphill battle.

Picture of colonel by engineering building
The building where we met and spent most of our time for undergraduate – Colonel By.

How important are your friends?

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