As demonstrated by the sheer variety of engineering disciplines and sub-disciplines, the world of an engineer is about as varied as it’s possible to get. But what do you do if your dream job turns out not to be what you expected? Are you stuck in a career you don’t enjoy or aren’t suited for?
If you start to feel that you’re pursuing the wrong course, whether you’re still at college, just starting out professionally, or even later on in your career, don’t worry. It’s not unusual to find out that what you thought you wanted turns out not to be right for you.
We spoke to several engineers who changed course, or even changed careers completely:
4 Case Studies
Andrew Schmidt is a Senior Technical Engineer at Ingram Micro.
“I started out as one of those rare people who knew what they wanted to do going into college. I had a scientific interest in food from childhood and Food Science was the degree I went to college for. I started as a food engineer in the food industry and became disillusioned in a few years. I started over again in an IT call center. Over the years l learned that what I really enjoy is the opportunity help others understand technology, and more importantly, understand how technology can help them solve business problems.”
Sara Weinberger, CEO of Butterflyvista Corporation, wanted to be an engineer for the financial stability.
“When I got to university, I took physics and did okay. I was forced to choose a degree, and so I thought that electrical engineering was as good as any other. I really was not interested in electrical engineering, as I found out, nor was I good at it, but in my first job at Northrop, I was introduced to software development on a PC. I am a successful software and systems engineer, and I still use the electrical stuff, as I do a lot of embedded work.”
Steve Wood is a Sales & Application Specialist at Eclipse Automation Inc., with over 25 years of engineering experience.
“I was always interested in tinkering with machinery and electronics and took machine shop, electricity, and welding classes in high school. I loved the challenge of understanding machines and electrical systems, along with figuring out how to build them and the satisfaction of getting them to run. If you had asked me in university, I would have never expected to end up in the sales field, but there’s a fascinating attraction and satisfaction in scheming out the overall concepts of machines and automated systems to find the perfect solution to a customer’s needs.”
Thomas Hamilton found himself following whatever avenues presented themselves, ending up with a unique career track.
“I majored in astronomy at Columbia, and went to work for IBM. I was unhappy there. A lawyer I knew socially passed along to a recruiter at Grumman Aircraft that I was unhappy and had an astronomy background. He called and asked if I would be interested in working on the Apollo Project. I replied I would give both legs and an arm to work on it. After a moment’s silence he said “I guess you’re interested.” I worked there for three years, before going to work for Viewlex, one of the world’s few planetarium manufacturers.”
Change can be good
Cross-disciplinary training can often be a huge benefit. The most challenging and rewarding engineering projects are rarely so simple as to require just one discipline. They need teams of engineers with a range of different skills. Having a background in more than one discipline puts you in a strong position to take a key role in the team.
Although each discipline requires its own specialist knowledge and skills, many of the fundamental principles that make a good engineer will remain the same. You’ve learned to understand the necessity for scientific rigor, how to analyze a problem, and how to design a workable solution using mathematical formulae and solid data. You’ve learned the need for safety, and you’ve learned to appreciate the compromises that have to be made between what’s ideal in theory and what’s practical in the real world. And, perhaps most importantly, you’ve learned how to communicate complex engineering ideas to team members, customers, and managers in terms they can understand. Retraining to learn a new discipline isn’t the same as starting from scratch: you still have much to learn, but your existing experience will put you well ahead of someone just starting their engineering studies.
Furthermore, your background will give you unique insights. As a mechanical engineer, you’re in a better position to appreciate the machinery that is required to keep a modern office building functioning efficiently if you retrain as an architectural engineer. Your chemical engineering background will help you design chemical manufacturing plants. And any engineering background is valuable if you decide to move into safety process design.
Keep your options open as long as you can
Wood advises exploring as many opportunities as possible while you’re in college. “Try as many different engineering activities as possible, whether it’s being part of a solar vehicle club or a member of a robotics team. Being active in extracurricular activities not only lets you discover what facet of engineering you love the most, but also offers you hands-on experience that can prove valuable in the future.”
Talk to your advisors if you’re in college, and discuss whether you can switch classes. Once you’re employed, look at whether there are other roles in your company that you could switch to, and find out what skills you need.
Use your engineering skills elsewhere
It’s not uncommon to find that although you enjoy the intellectual challenge of engineering, the day-to-day reality of the job doesn’t suit you. Maybe you don’t like being out on a construction site in all weathers, or testing seals on aircraft isn’t what you expected from working in aerospace. So take that experience and use it in other ways.
For example, think about making a move into management, sales, recruiting, or some other administrative role where an understanding of what engineers have to deal with will benefit you and your employers. Perhaps you’d be better off in a training role, passing your hard-won knowledge on to others, either working within a company or in a formal academic context. There’s always a demand for skilled writers with good experience who can clearly explain engineering issues to the public or to policymakers, so you could look at law, journalism, or an advisory role.
If you feel your talents and interests lie elsewhere, then allow yourself the freedom to try something different and follow your true passion. You have more opportunities than you may realize.