Attn: Engineers, former engineers, and anyone else.

So, lately, I’ve found myself less and less interested in my major (materials engineering). I’m in semester 5 of a 5-year plan (repeated a couple of classes), so since I’m so far into it I don’t want to just drop it without giving it some thought.

Engineering’s cool and interesting and all, but I don’t feel like I get everything as well as I should and I struggle on exams. If I’m fighting to make it through all this theory and such, I wonder how I’d do in the real world. I don’t like feeling like I’m struggling all the time and not really good at it; it’s depressing.

I don’t know what I would change my major to if I did change. If I took a year off school, I might have to move back home, and that’s really not that good of an idea for all involved.

Now, some of my friends and relatives are engineers, and so they have some advice. They keep tell me that if I do choose stick with it, an engineering degree “opens the door to a lot of other opportunities, like management.”

So, tell me. How many of you with an engineering background aren’t employed in a strictly hardcore engineering position? What’s your job, and what are your responsibilities? Any thoughts, advice, or ideas welcomed.

I’m working as an engineer, and let me just say that school and work are worlds apart for me. What I learned in school gave me a foundation of knowledge, but most of what I needed for this job, I learned on the job. The theory from all my engineering classes served as a good general background, but there’s no way I could have used that to do the design work I do. There’s far more to be learned in the working world from other engineers as well as the blue-collar types who will build/maintain/use the stuff I’ve designed.

As far as managers - some excellent engineers make terrible managers. However, a manager who understands engineering can be an asset - especially if said manager knows enough to know that the engineers need to do their jobs without micromanaging.

Good luck to you, whatever path you follow.

Have a gander at my username.

I’m now in a dry-as-dust administrative position where my engineering background can be classed as “very useful but no longer imperative.”

This situation wasn’t entirely of my choosing, but I also made some quality of life decisions that were detrimental to my career. If I had it to do all over again I don’t think I’d let 'em take the wrench out of my hand.

I don’t have an engineering degree. I have about three years worth of a Comp. Sci. degree, with many of the math and physics classes applicable tho. I’m also a Journeyman Machinist. I design these for a living. Like FCM said, bookwork (and even my apprenticeship) only provide a foundation of knowledge. What you need you will learn in the real world, from fellow engineers, from experience. I think you will also find (after you have a job for a while) that you are learning and comprehending more than you realize right now. Situations will come up and you’ll say Wow, I remember this from college… a quick look at your textbooks (don’t sell them, at least not the math and eng. ones…) a quick look and a lightbulb will go on!

I am an HO engineer.

(15yrs working with engineers)

I work for an engineering company. We provide structural, mechanical, civil, and electrical services for industrial steel, paper and chemical clients. The engineers I work with (I am an inspector/ designer/autocad draftsman) tell me that most of what they use from school is limited. It is more important that they are creative enough to come up with solutions for clients than being “book smart”. All of the engineers have shelves filled with engineering books and just refer back to them when needed. Like I said, if you are creative and want to create “stuff” then you are in the right field.

“book smart”: The one exception in our office is an engineer that has memorized the entire AISC, LRFD and AWS manual and can rattle off calcs and material properties like the a.b.c’s, but on the other hand asking him what time it is may get you a 20 minute answer. He is a nice guy though… don’t get me wrong, but he may be what people think a TYPICAL engineer is like. Not so in my experience.

Hey, this isn’t really completely on topic since I’m not really an “engineer,” but I also had the same feelings as you. I went through about 3 and a half years of engineering (electrical) before I realized that engineering wasn’t really it for me. It seemed so late to change, but after doing some volunteering, some community service and whatnot, I realized I wanted to go to med school. So now I’m in my fifth year (one semester over the 4 year plan, I’ll be graduating in December), and I’m applying to med school. I’ll get my BSE in electrical come December, but I most likely won’t ever use it again in the traditional sense. So basically, it’s never too late to change. Also, from some friends who have graduated with doubts just like yours, and are now in the work force - it’s pretty much like everyone else has said. Work is not much like school. Unless you’re doing stuff heavy on the research side, you won’t be proving theories and all that.
Maybe you should try a co-op. In case you don’t know what that is, it’s a (usually) 9 month work experience. You work for a company for a set amount of time, and you’re pretty much a real engineer during that time. Most schools will fully support this and let you take that semester off or whatever to do it with no penalties to you (in terms of loans and readmittance).
This has rambled on long enough. Time to go to class.

I hav a friend with an engineering master’s degree. He worked for several years designing dishwashers, and, as far as I know, used little of his college work on the job, other than the most basic of math/science elements (his master’s work was in heta transfer or something). He has for the past few years been a brand manager for the same large company, a marketing position. Why? That’s where the money is. He kind of plateaued in the engineering side, and the only way to go up was to go out. And I know a few folks who parlayed the engineering background into sales careers selling the equipment designed by “real” ( :wink: ) engineers. All these folks are going very well.

I started out in engineering school, then switched to math to teach, then switched to computer science centered math degree and now I work as a programmer. My math degree means rather little at this point.

My point is that people are right, an engineering degree can to other career paths. And who knows, 5 years after graduating you could be doing something completely different anyway.

Good luck.

My degrees are also in materials engineering, and I now work as a patent attorney. I need to have a good intuitive feel for how stuff works (materials and other), but I don’t really do any engineering - I just explain it to others.

I think that a science or engineering background is great for many kinds of lawyers (not just patent attorneys). Law school is a little tougher, because the focus is so different from what you’re used to, but a scientific bent is very useful when you get into actual practice.

I have a degree in Nuclear Engineering and I use very little of it in my day-to-day work. I work as a Licensing Engineer and this involves maintaining the license of the power plant I work for (lots of paperwork). There is very little “hard engineering” in this job (i.e., no calculations or design work).

The most important things you learn in college are how to think like an engineer and how to solve problems.

First of all, what you’re going thru is sometimes called “sophomore crisis.” It happens to a lot of people. You are worried if you’re doing the right thing or not. You’re going thru a lot of introspection as the realities of your choice of major are hitting you.

Even after five semesters, you’re still only starting to specialize. That’s when I began to have the most problems, too. If you like your current subject, hang in there and try and get support from your peers, joining a study group. You’ll find that almost all of the students with the best grades study in groups.

When you graduate, you’ll discover that the specialized training you need on your job, you will receive on the job. The only general training that I use regularly are basics (like Ohm’s law) and calculus, occasionally. The rest is stuff I learn by doing the work, and it seldom requires more complex math and physics than what I was first shown in high school.

Materials Science Engineering sounds pretty specialized. I bet it includes a lot of physical chemistry and thermodynamics. Those were two of the hardest subjects for me, too.

I’m in my fifteenth year in an engineering career, and I struggled thru college, too, finally getting a BSEE with a 2.5 GPA. Before you drop engineering altogether in favor of Philosophy and Film Studies (a real “roll-your-own” degree one of my friends graduated with), consider these questions:

How are your lab grades? If you are good in the lab classes but struggle with the theory, then definitely hang in there. You will be more valuable in the working world than someone who aces the lecture classes, but can’t distinguish their ass from an oscilloscope in lab. I have the good job I have now because my aptitude in the lab showed I was merely incompatible with academia (A+ in almost every lab class, C average in lectures). Get some tutoring or join study groups to keep a minimum C+ average in your lectures.

However, if you are struggling in your lab classes, too, then you should definitely seek another major, something that interests you enough that the hands on stuff is the fun, easy part.

What is your class load? Are you taking too many classes at once? Drop down to the minimum load to be eligible as a full time student; it will mean an extra year to earn a degree, but it will pay off. Other ideas: Find a professor that will let you do undergrad work on his research project in exchange for “independant study” credits. Look for classes like “technical writing,” “engineering management,” “industrial processes,” and other less technical curriculum offered by the school of engineering. Take all the humanities classes you can. The school wants you to be well-rounded, and those “softer” subjects can be a welcome relief from symbol-crunching and all night code fests.

What is your passion? This is a very important question for you to answer, regardless of your major. Are you in your current major because you are genuinely interested in the subject matter? Why did you pick that program? If not, what are you really fascinated by? What would make you get out of bed in the crappiest weather and look forward to going to work? If you’re only in engineering for money or career security, then you are likely doing it for the wrong reasons.

(If you skimmed past the last paragraph, go back and read it now!)

Or is there another engineering program you might be better suited for?

To help answer that last question, consider these associations:

If the problem is that you are having trouble learning the abstract material, like thermodynamics or modern physics, then consider a major that operates more in the macroscopic domain, like mechanical or chemical engineering.

If you’re good at calculus and advanced math, consider electrical/electronics engineering or aerospace, or even physics… especially optics.

If you find physics and chemistry “arbitrary” and requiring too much rote memorization, then consider something more abstract like applied math or computer science.

And finally, like Nuke said, you do have to learn how to think like an engineer. The hardest things to learn are how to let go of your assumptions when facing a difficult problem, how to admit that you don’t know an answer (and need to research it or study it), and how to isolate your customers’ requirements and quantify them so that they can be demonstrably satisfied. Fortuantely, they’ll give you time to learn these on the job, too.

Good luck, whatever you choose.

If I had it all to do over again, I would have been an astronomer. Or maybe a filmmaker. Or perhaps, if I were just doing it for the money and the chicks, a plastic surgeon…

Just to add the slighest morsel to a VERY fine post… When you do run into a difficult problem, and you’re racking your brain, searching thru ref. books, the internet, and you’re lying in bed before you fall asleep, still thinking about it… when you finally find the answers you need, and the project comes to fruition, that is the most satisfying feeling in the world! When something that existed only in your mind becomes an actual working object, that’s what it’s all about!

Ah, finding the answer… We were on vacation, driving north on I-95. My husband, a mechanical engineer, while chatting with me, was also mulling over a design problem in his head. All of a sudden, conversation shifted. I got out some paper and as he described (he was driving) I sketched. The solution to his design problem came to him. When we got to my folks’ house, I did a clean sketch for him (he’s too much of a CAD user to do a freehand sketch) and my dad faxed it to hubby’s boss. By the time we returned from vacation 2 weeks later, the part had been built and installed.

THAT’S what being an engineer can be!

I’m trained as an electrical engineer, but currently I seem to be employed more as a general engineer, i.e. I have to know a little civil, a little architectural, a little mechanical, and the like. My construction unit kinda needs someone with knowhow in all the areas.

Sure the designs are done by those who specialize, but paper plans don’t exactly happen all pretty and perfect in the field.

And on top of that, I’m a financial manager and personnel/HR manager when we go on trips.

Your main complaint seems to be that the coursework is very hard. You’re hardly alone in that respect… fully half of my classmates were totally lost much of the time. I had some bad moments myself, and I was in the top 10% of my class.

When asked about this, the professors always said that it was MEANT to be hard… that they strove to make it hard enough to weed out anyone who wasn’t either (a) very smart, or (b) extremely hard-working.

The consensus among my former classmates now tends to be that actually BEING an engineer is much easier than being an engineering STUDENT.

A big hi from another materials engineer. Well, metallurgical and materials engineering to be precise.

I was the recipient of some poor carreers advice. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed engineering school and was good at it, but as I became more aware of what engineers spent their days doing, I became less convinced that I wanted to be one.

I did finish my degree, but my final year included a lot of interest papers and a big shift of my priorities onto … extracurricular activities.

After I got outI became a breadcrumb manufacturer (don’t laugh), a painter, a rubbish collector, a pastor and finally a mathematics teacher. I don’t regret the career changes for one moment. I’m much the better person for it – more rounded and more flexible and better able to relate to a wide range of people.

People used to ask me if I ever intended to “use my degree”. Dumb question. I use it every day of my life. I’m not saying that I need all of that specific knowledge (much of which I have forgotten anyway), but my engineering training did change the way I approach the world. They taught me “engineering think”.

If you want my advice…
Finish what you have started. You may as well have the qualification and the open doors it provides.
Do the things you want. Take advantage of any flexibility afforded by your degree to do some interesting things.
Pick the career you want and don’t feel like you have to fit in the box of someone else’s creation.

Remember, most engineers end up using very little of what they were taught – either because their job doesn’t require it or because they are forced to specialise in a particular direction. Engineering school is not about the knowledge you learn or about a particular career path. It is about developing a useful mindset for solving problems and becoming a creative, flexible and versitile person who might end up doing anything. (And probably more than one thing.)