Although many engineers work research or design fields, this is not true for everyone. Types of engineering positions vary and an engineering degree can even lead to a completely different field. Engineering can open many doors of opportunity, so don’t think that you will end up boxed into a cubicle designing widgets if that’s not what you want to do. Here are some insights on the types of careers that may be possible:
Research & Development: Do you like the theoretical work or want to be an inventor? Engineers in research and development (R&D) work at the cutting edge of their field. They develop new ideas and technologies that in some cases may not be used in commercial applications for many years. Their work can be theoretical in nature and is often conducted in laboratories where new ideas can be investigated and tested. Many engineering positions in R&D require graduate-level degrees since masters and doctorate students get more research experience. R&D careers include tenure-track professors who perform research at universities and investigators at large laboratories (think National Labs like Los Alamos, Fermi, Brookhaven, Argonne, etc). Many large corporations also have R&D departments (like AT&T/Bell Labs) where they investigate promising technologies to eventually develop into new products with a competitive edge.
Design: Do you like building and designing new things? Maybe you really like the “hands-on” experiences in your engineering labs? Then a career in Design may appeal to you. While R&D engineers develop new technologies (e.g., developing battery technology for an electric car), design engineers design a specific product (e.g., designing the Chevy Volt). Design engineers design everything from bridges to software apps to manufacturing equipment to better snowboards. These jobs are the ones that most people think when they think of engineering jobs. This type of work is all about practical applications of engineering and making new, usable devices and products. Design engineers can be found at large corporations, small businesses, and engineering firms.
Field Engineering: Are you someone who likes “hands-on” practical work? Do you enjoy troubleshooting (doing detective work to track down a problem) and doing work away from a regular office cubicle? If so, field engineering might be a good fit. Field engineers often work at customer sites to install products, maintain equipment and troubleshoot issues. Depending on the position, this could provide opportunities for travel as well. These types of engineers are commonly employed by large corporations who make equipment or products used by other companies.
Quality: Are you a numbers person? Do you like to investigate and improve things? Then a job as a quality engineer may interest you. Quality engineers monitor design and manufacturing processes to ensure that the final product works reliably. They will often use statistical techniques to watch manufacturing yield rates and field return rates and may help track down root causes for failures. These type of engineers are most commonly employed by large corporations.
Business and Management: Do you like engineering but are more of a “people-person” and really want to be in a leadership role? Then a business or management career may be for you. Many corporations have two different tracks for the engineering career ladder: technical or managerial. Those who enjoy the hands-on aspects or technical challenges of day-to-day engineering choose to stay in the technical track and may eventually culminate their career as Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). However, those who prefer to exercise their people and organizational skills may choose the managerial track. These careers include not just management of an engineering group, but also include project management and corporate leadership positions. Unlike engineering managers who manage a staff of engineers, project managers are in charge of specific projects. Their role is to ensure all the pieces of the project are completed on time and that any unexpected issues are resolved. They coordinate activities between the different team members. Some project managers pursue professional certification such as Professional Project Management (PMP) as part of their career development. Managers who wish to advance to high-level positions within their company may pursue an MBA degree to enhance their business knowledge. Engineers with outstanding leadership skills are often sought after for executive leadership positions at high-tech corporations because they can understand the technical aspects of their business. Engineers can be found in the CIO, CTO and CEO positions of many corporations.
Medicine, Law and Others: Many friends of mine used their engineering degree as a springboard to pursue other professional careers. About 50% of the students in my undergraduate biomedical engineering class went on to medical school after finishing their bachelor’s degree. Several of my friends went on to law school and used their engineering degrees as a technical foundation for patent law. Having a technical background can be a benefit in these other career fields. For example, doctors who understand the latest technological advancements can push for new medical technologies that will improve their patients’ treatment plans and outcomes.
Entrepreneurs: Are you a motivated, independent worker who prefers to work on your own projects rather than what the company dictates? Then perhaps owning your own business would appeal to you. Some engineers decide that working for someone else just isn’t for them and chart a course on their own. I have several friends who left large corporations to start electronics, software or consulting businesses. Most of these were bright, creative, people-oriented engineers who discovered that being an entrepreneur fit them perfectly.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of all the possible career choices for engineers, but can be used as a starting point. It’s great to know that there are a variety of roles to choose from depending on what aspects of engineering you find exciting. Additionally, if you decide not to pursue an engineering position , your degree is not a dead end but can lead you to careers in other fields, too.