Engineering Career Path Options

Wireless Test Bed – Idaho National Laboratory

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.

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Engineers Making a Difference

When high school girls are asked what they want from a career, one popular response is that they want to be able to make a difference in the world. They want to make a positive impact and help people. Unfortunately, many people don’t necessarily link that goal with engineering and that is a shame.

I know that engineers are out there making a difference.  Last fall I read an article from the LA Times about biomedical engineer Edward Damiano who is working on a new device to help Type 1 diabetics. For him, the project is personal since his son has the disease.

Unlike Type 2 diabetes which can be caused by the body’s inability to use its insulin and is often linked to obesity, Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system mistakenly kills off the cells that produce insulin. Without insulin, sugar in the blood cannot be processed and used as fuel. When this occurs, sugar builds up the in the blood and life-threatening complications can occur.

Currently there is no cure for Type 1 diabetes, although researchers are still searching.  For now, patients must manage the disease by monitoring their blood sugar and injecting insulin several times a day.  Some patients must still rely on shots, but others are lucky enough to benefit from newer technology that has replaced insulin shots with a continuous insulin pump. Blood sugar levels in the tissues can now be detected using a continuous glucose monitor.

Managing Type 1 diabetes is tricky.  If the blood sugar goes too high, it can cause complications and contribute to long-term damage to the nervous system, eyes and kidneys.  If too much insulin is applied and the blood sugar goes too low, a patient can go into convulsions, lose consciousness and go into a potential deadly coma, as the character Shelby did in the movie Steel Magnolias .  Unfortunately, the disease is nicknamed “Juvenile Diabetes” because it is usually diagnosed when patients are children or young adults.

The device Edward Damiano is working on manages the blood sugar by mimicking the pancreas. It senses the sugar level in the blood and releases glucagon or insulin to raise or lower blood sugar as needed. The specific piece that Damiano is developing is the software control algorithm. He is using techniques from a field called Control Theory, also commonly used in robotics.

When I read his story of jumping into this project to help treat his own son’s disease, it hit a chord with me. This could really make a difference in not only his son’t life, but others as well. My nephew was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 3. I hated hearing about how he was getting shots several times a day. My sister told me that anytime he gets sick enough to vomit, she has to take him to the emergency room because it can throw his blood sugar into a dangerous state. When he was little she couldn’t leave him with a regular baby sitter since few are qualified to manage his diabetes. And they have to vigilantly count the carbs he eats to ensure he gets the right dose of insulin.

Since I have a background in biomedical engineering, this story had me thinking about jumping out of the telecommuncations industry and finding a job on one of these diabetes projects (there are other groups doing similar work). And I might have done that if I didn’t have personal commitments preventing me from up and moving. There is just something about working on a project like that which really motivates me. The satisfaction from helping others makes me proud to be an engineer.

To learn more about Type 1 diabetes and the current research efforts, check out the JDRF website .

To try your hand at managing diabetes, check out the Diabetic Dog Game.

A Day in the Work Life of an Electrical Engineer

When you think of what an engineer does on a daily basis, what comes to mind?  Do you think we sit around and solve math problems all day?  Maybe you think we sit in a cube and work on our projects alone.

Well, I have to confess that I don’t perform calculations all day.  I’m sure that there are some engineers who spend time “doing the math”, but most of the calculations I do are either relatively simple or I rely on software to do it for me.

So, what is life as an engineer like?  What do I do in a typical day?  Considering that engineers aren’t typically known for their communication skills, I spend a considerable amount of time communicating via emails, in meetings and on conference calls.  Oftentimes, I am communicating with colleagues around the world.  (It gets really interesting when you have an engineer in Mexico explaining an issue to an engineer in China speaking all in English when neither of them is a native English-speaker!  I am amazed that they can understand each other, but they manage.)

The engineering work I do includes design, implementation and testing of my part of a given project.  I design both hardware (electronics – think circuit boards) and software for each project.  I review the requirements of the project (what does this need to do?) and come up with a solution.  Many of our projects are related so it is common for me to re-use pieces from old designs and then create new pieces to fulfill the new requirements.  This part of the project requires me to spend time in my office thinking, planning and drawing up my ideas.  If I hit a roadblock, it is common practice for me to go talk to other engineers in my group to see if they can offer some suggestions.  Although we work individually on projects, we often discuss our work with each other and share ideas. (We have a shared lab space and end up talking to each other quite a bit)  Around our office if someone tries out a new concept that works really well, they will be enthusiastically showing it off in the lab.

One of the great things about working with electronics is that I generally get to “play” with my design in the lab and tweak it.  You can’t really do that if you design roadways for a living.  So, when I design a circuit board, someone (a technician or factory) will build the board and send it to me.  Then the fun of troubleshooting starts.  The board gets plugged in and tested.  Then, if something doesn’t work as expected, I get to play detective and try to figure out what is going on.  Although it can be tricky to troubleshoot when the design isn’t working, I usually learn a lot from the effort. Troubleshooting sometimes requires me to be clever and creative to get to the root of the problem.

Once my design works for me and I send it out for it’s intended use, I still have to support it.  This usually results in my trying to troubleshoot problems with it remotely.  This can be challenging and frustrating, but if you can fix a problem that is happening at a factory on the other side of the world you feel like you can fix anything!

Most of my work takes place in my office or lab, with the occasional trip to a factory.  Other types of engineers do their work in other places – factories, oil fields, electrical substations, nuclear plants, to name a few.  Most of us spend at least some time in an office working in front of a computer.  To read a little bit about other engineering fields, you can check out the  Engineer Your Life website.

Don’t be afraid to fail

Not long ago I met a female high school student who was very interested in pursuing a career in engineering (I swear her eyes sparkled with excitement when she talked about it), but she was afraid of what could happen if she made a mistake as an engineer.

Ah, if we could just all be perfect… wouldn’t that be nice?  But we’re not.  We’re human.  And we make mistakes sometimes.  That is why engineering organizations build checks and balances into their processes.  Work that is safety-related is checked by other engineers.  Detailed failure analyses are performed.  Critical systems are designed  with redundancy to avoid single point failures.

This student’s concern strikes an ever deeper cord with me, however.  I know what she’s thinking and where she’s headed.  When I first started working as an engineer, I worried about every little mistake.  I was convinced that if I were a competent engineer, then everything I designed and built should work correctly the first time.

I am here to tell you that it doesn’t work that way.  It has taken me years to understand that being an engineer is all about learning and building upon our experiences.  Sometimes we make mistakes.  And sometimes our designs don’t work because of something completely unexpected.  So what happens when something doesn’t work?  We have to investigate, to troubleshoot, to find the root cause.  And what is the end result of this?  We learn something new.  We create an even better design next time.  Some of my best days in the lab started when something didn’t work as planned.  There have been times where I’ve had to dig into the project to a level that forces me to gain a true understanding of how things work.  If I didn’t figure it out myself, my coworkers were always willing to jump in to take a look.  There is nothing like an elusive problem to draw a crowd of engineers, all with their own suggestions for how to uncover the answer!

I have learned far more from my mistakes than I ever learned from my successes.

Don’t be afraid to fail.  Otherwise you will never take the risks required to create something truly extraordinary.

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”   – Thomas Edison

15-year-old student wins Intel award for developing inexpensive and accurate cancer detection test

Over the weekend I heard a story about a 15-year-old who won the Intel Science Fair competition for developing a test to detect pancreatic cancer.  The test is inexpensive and remarkably accurate.  The fact that this boy beat researchers in creating this test is truly amazing.  I was awed and inspired reading the story.  His brother has also won an impressive award in science.  It will be interesting to follow him while he attends college and beyond.

The story explains how even as a young child he was curious about the world around him and tested out how things worked.  This type of exploration and curiosity is a trait of many of the best scientists and engineers I know.  They want to know how things work and find ways to create better designs.

This is not to say that you have to be a genius to be an engineer.  You need to be curious and interested in solving problems.  This boy’s story should be inspiration as to what is possible.  Also, don’t think that a child cannot be a scientist or engineer if they haven’t solved some big problem by age 15.  I never competed in a science fair in middle or high school.  Unfortunately, my school never participated in such events.  However if a student does have an opportunity to be involved in science fairs or engineering competitions, they should take advantage of it.  These events help get students interested in science and engineering.  It helps them understand what kind of work these careers entail and whether or not it might be of interest to them.

The real major roadblock to pursuing a STEM field that I worry about is that if a student decides late in their high school years that they want to pursue such a field, they may not have taken the classes they will need.  When I was in school the graduation requirements for science and math were very skimpy: 2 years of science, 3 years of math.   Students need to complete 4 years of math and take high school chemistry and physics to really be prepared for a technical curriculum in college.  Otherwise students may have to take remedial classes (hint: extra classes = extra time & cost) before they can enter an engineering program.   If a student has even a remote interest in STEM, they should check out college entrance requirements while they are still a high school freshman so they can be sure to fulfill them.  Otherwise they may  lose opportunities down the road.

From WIE: “I Create the World. I am an Engineer”

I love this poster; by the Women in Engineering (WIE) section of the IEEE: “I Create the World.  I am an Engineer”. From providing clean drinking water to inventing artificial organs that save lives to creating technologies that allow people to connect with others on the other side of the planet, engineers really do make a difference.

I attended an event this last weekend where we inspired young girls with our passion for engineering and technology.  Two college students shared with the girls why it was that they liked engineering.  One student said she wanted to help people.  Her interest was in developing technologies to provide clean drinking water to people who don’t currently have access to it.  She believes by finding a solution to this problem she can make a difference in other people’s lives.  The other student shared that he liked to solve puzzles, and engineering problems are often just puzzles.  Science and math are two of the tools that he uses to solve these puzzles. For him, the challenge of a new problem keeps him engaged and excited about his work.

I had a friend in high school who had a passion for music, but he decided to go into electrical engineering so he could design better sound equipment for bands. I was recently inspired by a high school girl who wants to pursue aeronautical engineering because she wants to be part of space travel.

For me, engineering is an opportunity to create something new. I like working with fellow engineers to come up with new ideas and innovations and to be constantly learning. Additionally I also like the challenge of a good puzzle!

Women and Patents

I recently heard a story from American Public Media’s Marketplace podcast which revealed that females account for only about 7.5% of the patents in the US.  Really?  Only 7.5% of patents?  This number is somewhat debatable since gender is not captured on patent applications and therefore the data are estimates based on applicants names. This article from the National Women’s Business Council claims that women received 18% of the patents in 2010. What is not in dispute is that the number of patents women are receiving is growing. A recent Forbes article mentions that the two of the most patent-intensive fields are mechanical and electrical engineering, fields that have lower percentages of female workers. However, the women in the research departments of these fields tend to be younger than their male counterparts, which could indicate why they receive fewer patents. It may also mean that in years to come there will be more women receiving patents as they become senior contributors in their fields.

I know a number of patent holders, but none are women. That does seem strange to me, but maybe that will change!

My journey into engineering

If anyone had told me when I was young that I was to become an engineer, I probably would not have believed them.  In high school I really wasn’t sure what field I wanted to pursue in college and beyond.  I enjoyed my math and science classes, but I also loved music, art and creative writing.  My parents wanted me to pursue engineering, but I was having a difficult time understanding what engineers did.  I attended a program sponsored by the boy scouts that explored engineering, but it was based on designing buildings and that did not interest me much.  By the time I entered college, I had yet to make a choice so I officially declared myself “undecided” and hoped I’d figure it out eventually.

As a freshman, I toyed with the idea of majoring in either biology or chemistry.  Biology was interesting, but I couldn’t see myself working in a lab all day culturing tissues (my idea of a biology job!) and the salary prospects were not exciting.  I ended up deciding against chemistry as well and was leaning towards medicine.  The problem was that I wasn’t convinced I wanted to be a doctor.   Medical school was a huge commitment and I was convinced that if I went that route I would be stuck in the profession even if I didn’t like it.

Then one day I met another student who was doing research at the medical center on MRI machines.  This was back when MRI machines were fairly new and I thought the work he was doing was so cool!  I loved the idea of a machine that could look inside the body and see so much.  It was then that I learned about the biomedical engineering field and decided it was an excellent combination of my interests.  This was a field where I could contribute to improving peoples’ lives without being an MD.  The starting salaries of biomedical engineers with bachelors degrees were very good and the coursework sounded very interesting.  I signed up.

The biomedical engineering curriculum at the school I attended incorporated courses adapted from other engineering disciplines such as mechanical and electrical engineering.  Little did I know when I enrolled in my first circuits class that I would really enjoy it.  Electronics was a foreign field to me, but once I started studying it I was hooked.  I liked that I was learning how to make complicated devices work and “think”.  It was also an opportunity to be creative and clever in the designs.  I ended up concentrating my studies in electrical engineering and then I pursued a masters degree in electrical engineering to balance out my biomedical engineering degree and define my field of specialization.

At times I review my decision to pursue engineering and wonder how my career and life may have been different if I had pursued another career.  I am glad I did not go into the medical profession.  It is a wonderful profession and I have a true admiration for MDs, but it would not have been a good fit for me.  Engineering has been a great choice.  Engineers are in such high demand that finding a job is much easier than in other professions.  Employers often offer flexible schedules and work-from-home options to attract the best talent.  Engineering salaries always rank among that highest for professionals with bachelors degrees.  Although layoffs have become commonplace, the salaries are usually generous enough for engineers to accumulate an emergency fund in a case a layoff hits them.  Additionally, there are many engineering jobs out there (like designing artificial organs, etc) that provide the satisfaction of making a difference in the lives of others.