This comes across a bit too often. People often ask me what I do for a degree. My response is “I’m studying mechanical engineering.”
Seems like a standard, harmless question. But what I realise is that if I am meeting this person for the first time, my answer shapes my identity in the eyes of that person. I am no longer just Aaron. I am no longer just an average guy trying to make the best of his life. In his or her eyes, I will henceforth be known as Aaron the Engineer.
Immediately, their facial expression changes. The look in their eyes just gives away that they have conjured up in their minds what engineering students typically see everyday:
In short, this is what a lot of people think of engineering:
- Lots of hardcore mathematics.
- Lots of physics.
- Lots of moving objects doing cool stuff.
The result is that whenever you go out for drinks or a meal and the bill comes, everyone will turn their heads and look to you to work up the bill according to every individual on the table. Whenever there’s some appliance at home that breaks down, your parents will turn to you and expect you to perform some miracle, just because you are an engineering student.
But I argue that we are not just defined by what we study.
What you actually learn in engineering
Some facts do remain true though. Engineers are supposed to be at the forefront of technology. We are taught to be innovators, to challenge physics. Ultimately, we are taught to be problem solvers.
We are taught to solve problems in a very logical fashion. When we face a new problem (e.g. we want to increase a car’s fuel efficiency), we would normally go through this sort of thinking process:
- Hypothesize a solution (Would reducing the car’s weight decrease consumption?).
- Test if the hypothesis is correct (Seems plausible. let’s test it by driving around and measuring the fuel consumed.).
- Refine hypothesis (How much saving would I get for every kilogram I decrease?).
- Rinse and repeat.
And this thought process is not limited to engineering problems. It is applicable to any sort of problem. Say for example a relatively simple business problem: How am I going to attract more customers?
- Hypothesize a solution – Would more advertising attract customers?
- Test it – Run focus groups to test advertisement campaigns.
- Refine – Focus groups show preference to advertisements that focus on our speciality.
- Rinse and repeat.
Different problems, same approach. We are trained to do that.
So do engineers end up not following the engineering career path?
Yes, many do end up doing something completely different. A prominent example would be Hu Jintao, the former president of China. He was trained to be a hydraulic engineer before he entered politics. When I was doing the voiceover for the recent University of Southampton Malaysia Campus engineering facilities video, the person who was hired to produce the video graduated as an engineer.
If you do like engineering and would very much like to progress through an engineering career, by all means go for it. For the rest of us who may have doubts or second thoughts, my point is that we are not stuck to it.
Many vacancies in various companies will advertise something along the lines of: “Background in accounting, finance, science or engineering required.” That basically means that they are hiring anyone with a degree that teaches people to think critically. But engineers do have one trump card (bias towards one’s degree): Only engineers can do an engineer’s job. Hence we have the best of many worlds: If you want a career in engineering, finance, business or simply anything, go ahead. The world is your oyster.
What I suggest you to do to help you decide.
Go visit places, like Florence. Many polymaths find inspiration here.
I suggest using your time in university to explore more about yourself and the world around you. Go travel. Go engage in other activities, like debate, volunteer work etc. Doing different things really gives you new perspective of things.
All this sounds like common sense at best and cliché at worst. But you would be surprised that sometimes it is the most basic things that we take for granted and forget. Common sense, after all, is not really that common. So, this is my reminder.
But all in all, make sure you experience life to the fullest. Your life is more than your degree.