Engineering Questions (career related)

One of the career paths I’m interested in is Engineering. However, I think I need clearer definitions of what engineers do though. I have some vague ideas of how they apply science, and have a general sense of what an engineer is, but what are the specifics involved in different types of engineers (such as mechanical, electrical, industrial, computer, chemical, civil engineers)? And: What would be typical problem for each type of engineer to solve?

In my 4th year as an engineering student here. In general the goal of an engineer is to problem solve. You give an engineer a set of specs and problem and they find the best way solve ot.

Mechanical Engineers deal with mechanical or theromdynamic systems. A typical problem would be to design wing for an airplane, design an HVAC system, improve the efficency of an automobile engine, or design the cooling system for a nuclear power plant.

Electrical Engineers deal with macro and micro electical systems. A typical problem would be to design a power grid for a power company or design computer acritecture.

Chemical Engineers deal with macro chemical processes. A typical problem would be to design a plant the will refine one chemical from another.

Civil Engineers deal with several things from designing roadway to bridges to landfills and more. A typical problem would be to design a roadway properly for traffic volume, water drainage and repair costs.

One important thing to remember with engineers is that they rarely work alone. Engineers are always working with members of their own displine and members of the others. Engineers are also exspected to know a little bit of everything. This lets them be more effiecient problem solvers and when to know when they need help. Engineering is a great profession, I love it. If you do pick Engineering be prepared to work hard but when you are over it pays off.

Good luck


The Bureau of Labor Statistics has good information. Check out their article on engineers. It has links to articles on civil engineers, mechanical engineers, etc.

I have a BS and an MS in Mechanical Engineering and I have worked as an engineer for the last 12 years. Currently, I am in the high precision robotics industry. I am very impressed by etgaw1 's description of what the various disciplines do and couldn’t have done a better job.

An engineer is very different than a scientist. A scientist is concerned with theory. An engineer applies the theory from their scientist friends to practical purposes. As etgaw1 said, an engineer’s main job is to solve problems and make things work. Generally this is done is groups with each member of the group an expert in a field or sub-field.

The best engineers have a certain personality. There was a great thread that I believe was lost in the Great Purge where the “engineering personality” was described. Engineers must be natural born problem solvers with a innate curiosity about how and why things work. Engineers need to have good common sense. You’re going to have to work well with others and strong written and verbal communication skills are a must. Frankly, if you screw up, people could die or millions of dollars worth of equipment could be destroyed.

Good luck. Email me if you have any more questions.


I am an engineer, a PE, and agree pretty much with most of what’s been said here.

I have moved out of design completely and am a consultant. Which means essentially I review designs or review problems, and suggest ways they could be improved or solutions to them. An example: a power plant has a mine which supplied 40% of their coal announce that the workers have joined a religious cult, and decided to close the mine down. This plant now needs to find a source to replace this 40% of coal that is missing. Since coals are very, very different, and many coals may not even be burnable at this plant, I get called in to do the following:

  1. First, I am responsible for negotiating, writing, and getting the decision makers to sign contracts limiting liability, defining the scope of work and deliverables, insurance statements, invoicing schedules, etc. And cost. Ohhhhhhh yes. How much I get paid.

  2. Then, I evaluate the entire thermodynamic, combustion, and mechanical systems of the plant to see what the current status of equipment is.

  3. I interview people and research to discover the historical operations and problems of the plant, to uncover potential limitations and things that might prevent them from using one coal versus another.

  4. I subcontract, or hire a team member, to study fuel sources - mines that have coal they can deliver, the rail, barge, and ship routes to get the coal to the plant, the economics of each delivery method, and the mine economics. Sometimes, rarely, I visit the mines to talk to them directly about their guarantees and ability to meet said guarantees.

  5. I subcontract, or hire a team member, to study the economics of power contracts, emissions credits, tax incentives, politics, Union politics, etc. to determine if there are any intangibles that need to be accounted for. Sometimes, rarely, I get involved here.

  6. Then, given the above possible sources, I narrow down what can be economically and practically delivered to the plant. Then I have to determine what can be burned at the plant, and what the resulting effects are on performance, maintenance, economics, emissions, etc. I do this by multiple series of computer simulations, spreadsheets that have to be seen to be believed, hand calculation, and “engineering judgement” (I am an expert in this area). For example - one coal might cost less than another to be delivered to the plant, but produce twice the ash, so that ash will need to be disposed of - perhaps the plant’s systems are not large enough to handle the ash loading, or perhaps the county has a ban on dumping more than “X tons per year” of ash in their landfills, and thus new landfills have to be built. Or maybe the ash removal causes so many problems that the power plant has to be shut down frequently for cleaning - which costs about $10,000 an hour in lost revenue. Or perhaps they produce too much SO2 or NOx from one coal, so they no longer meet Federal, State, Local, or Homes Association (just kidding on that last one) emissions standards…

  7. Whatever the case, I develop a subgroup of the “Top 10 coals which could be delivered, which the plant could burn, albeit with different costs.” Then I contact my retrofit and plant upgrades group, to see if there are any capital equipment upgrades or changes in processes that could either 1) allow a “rejected” coal to be acceptable, or 2) make one of the accepted coals more palatable over a long-term basis - that is, trade a capital cost for a lowered O&M cost, and therefore save money in the long run.

  8. Once I have all of these various scenarios worked out, a giant freaking report is written, and all of the assumptions, tasks, calculations, modeling runs, considerations, contingencies, and caveats are included. Ultimately, we never decide on one coal - because depending on the goal, there could be many right answers. Economics are presented on a 1st-year basis, on a 5-10-15-20-whatever basis, cumulative present worth and levelized annual cost, taking into account inflation and deflation rates for multiple factors…it just goes on and on.

  9. The report is presented to the power plant and the utility officers - you put on your best suit-dress and nice heels, get up in front of a laptop projector, and talk for about 1-5 days over the report. During this time you must also talk with the clients, schmooze, go bar-hopping with them, etc. after hours - all for the purpose of winning them to like you and your company, convincing them that you did good work, and that they simply must hire you again and again. You will eat at many very expensive restaurants on the project $$, drink too much, and gain lots of weight, which will make you cry when you get back home. Fortunately, because you are ugly, you will get very few people making passes at you or trying to cop a feel.

  10. Eventually, the CEO will pick the coal mine that sent him the nicest Christmas card (the one with the 10, crisp new $100 bills in it), and you can go back home.

Yeah, I know, I got kinda cynical at the end there. But I am trying to show that even after all that preparation, sometimes it all boils down to human nature.


I’m in my 4th of 5 years of college, double-majoring in biomedical engineering and biochemistry.

Biomedical engineering is a relatively new subset of the engineering field. Broadly, it’s applying science to medicine. There are various specialities within it–basically the other engineering disciplines. There are biomedical engineering versions of chemical engineers (they may work on new materials to implant in the body), electrical engineers (pacemakers), industrial engineers (setting up a hopsital to run more smoothly), or mechanical engineers (possbly the broadest field–from designing cardiac catheters to hip implants to surgical instruments).

I didn’t “officially” know I wanted to be an engineer until high school–I had always loved science and medicine, and had just assumed that I’d be “a scientist.” The summer before my senior year, I was able to work in a university genetics lab. I discovered that research was kinda boring. That’s when I first started investigating engineering (the engineering building was just across the street from the one I worked in), because like yourself, I didn’t know exactly what engineers did.

In retrospect–I should’ve known long ago. When I was about 6, I heard the phrase “build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” I took it literally and actually did try to build a better mousetrap.

One way I’ve heard to distinguish scientists and engineers is this–scientists are interested in the “why” and “how” and engineers are interested in “how can I make this better?”

Biomedical engineering was the perfect choice for me, because of it’s broad scope and my interest in medicine. Unfortunately, this has the downside of not making me “specialized” enough–I will probably need to do some grad school to bone up on actual engineering background. Since the program is so new, very few employers know about it. At career fairs, I often find myself “selling” my major before I can sell myself.

I’m currently on co-op (like a paid internship, but it lasts at least a semester+a summer, and I’m still considered a full-time student) with a medical company. The project I’m working on now is to find a new material to use as the inner liner of a catheter used in proceedures like coronary angioplasty. The ultimate goal is to make the walls thinner–we want as large an inner diameter as possible to make it easy to pass bulky devices through, but as small an outer diameter as possible to be able to send the catheter into small vessels.

I know lots of students in the other engineering fields–feel free to email me if you have some questions (my email address is in my profile).