How to Build a Thriving Engineering Career
Engineers bring concepts to life. They are dreamers and inventors, and with so many great directions to take your career as an engineer in, it is also one of the best fields to get into. All of the STEM fields are wonderful for your future, and for the future of humanity as a whole, but engineering offers something unique – something visceral, and something physical. Conceptualizing and creating new, exciting projects and seeing them out there in the world just cannot be beaten, and with so many important roles out there, and more options expanding every day, there has never been a better time to get started as an engineer than today.
The Main Engineering Fields
There are numerous types of engineers, which may make it difficult when decide which career path forward is right for you. Not only that, but some fields are incredibly multidisciplinary, and work to combine several STEM subjects in order to solve the unique challenges ahead of them.
Though there are hundreds of types overall, there are only seven main fields. The roles you work within this field vary drastically, but the overall knowledge you need to start with will be fairly consistent.
Civil engineers design and help build civil projects, like bridges, roads, and even buildings. They are one of the oldest types of engineers, and their work has pushed humanity and its cities to new heights. You don’t need to work on big projects, either, and can also focus on sustainable design and development to help create a future that is greener all around. If you find building structures like bridges, or even buildings, fascinating, then this is a great field to get started with.
Electrical engineering is a new field, but a very important one. As an electrical engineer, you work to design, improve, and develop future hardware and computer components. With development and research currently going into quantum computing, and also greater emphasis and investment in reducing the physical size of computer components so that they are more powerful and more efficient, know that you will have a thriving and fulfilling career in this field.
It may seem like chemical engineering is just another type of biology, and in many ways it is similar. This is a multidisciplinary field, meaning that chemical engineers need to use chemistry, mathematics, physics, and microbiology. What they do is work to create chemical components and products that are used in everything from the medical sector to household cleaning products.
System engineers focus on building large-scale systems using a variety of tools. Many of the older systems we use — for example, trains — need to be updated and revamped so that they work seamlessly with technology, and bridging the gap between past and present is what system engineers do.
This is a relatively new field, but it is one that is growing in importance as the climate crisis bears down on us. Environmental engineers will be there in the field and work to design solutions to common climate problems. These solutions can be a way to mitigate the damage caused by climate change, or work to fix problems in the environment. This is also a multidisciplinary field, but also one that has the chance to help forge a new, greener future for all.
Aerospace engineers build rockets, airplanes, satellites, drones, and more. They, quite literally, work with rocket science on a daily basis. Why this field is so exciting to get involved in now is because you don’t just have the national space organization in your country to consider; you can also go into the private sector. With so many big companies like SpaceX competing in rocket development and pushing space exploration, the new age space race is on, and with it a great wave of new opportunities for aerospace engineers.
Like to build engines? Invent new things? Mechanical engineers design and build physical machines and bring them to life. Today this will often mean more than just creating machines that do certain actions when turned on. You will also need to create machines that work with computer systems. That being said, if inventing and designing robotics, engines, and so on is something you love doing, then this is the perfect field for you.
How to Get Started within Your Engineering Field
Kids today have many new opportunities, thanks in part to the growing organization FIRST, which stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology”. This organization works to get kids from preschool to high school to get involved in engineering and other science projects and competitions. By inspiring and helping teach kids with an interest in the sciences we can inspire many of the next generation to get started in a STEM field.
The more direct route into engineering, of course, is with an undergraduate degree. Despite what many feel, you can do this at any time. You are never too old to get started with an undergraduate degree. You can even start a second career if that is something you are passionate about. If you are looking to start again, always get in touch with the admissions board to see if you can use any previous education credits to fast-track through the degree.
It is important to remember that your degree is the bare minimum. It cannot cover everything and you should not solely rely on theoretical knowledge alone when it comes to kickstarting your career.
You will want to prop your degree up with three main extras:
- Personal Projects
- Societies and Competitions
Personal projects give you the freedom to really focus on something you are personally interested in and can help you showcase your experience and knowledge in design and project management. You can use that to help you get your first internship and even your first job. Never underestimate yourself, either. Your invention could be something worth patenting and trying to focus on as a business opportunity. At a minimum, however, it will be excellent practice and a great way to combine the more theoretical knowledge from your degree with practical experience.
There should be societies, groups, or other programs at your university that focus on your type of engineering (after all, you are going to a school with a whole department dedicated to your type of engineering). Join them, aim to participate in projects and competitions, and have fun! This is a great way to start making a name for yourself and also get some great teamwork experience.
Internships are a no-brainer and no longer negotiable. Degrees are standard, especially in engineering, so to stand out from others in the job market you’ll need to at least have a few internships under your belt to get started. Start early and use your participation and personal projects to help you land your first one.
For best results, aim for one to two internships per year. These are great for experience but more importantly for networking. You don’t want to intern after you graduate, so get this grind out of the way during your degree and you’ll be ready for the job market once you graduate.
When to Get a Masters
Engineers and everyone working in a STEM role will want to, and in some cases may even need to, further their education. You may go for a master’s, and then a Ph.D. You may need more than one master’s program. The only thing that is for certain is that if you want to work your way up you will need further training and education. Knowing when, and what specialization to go for, however, can trip some people up.
There are three main reasons to further your education:
1. To Further Specialize
Furthering your specialization is always recommended, especially if you want to work your way up to a Ph.D. Like with all further education tracks, however, it is a good idea to try working first, just to learn more and get some more hands-on understanding of what the career field is like and what solutions you want to work to solve. Unless, of course, you want to work within academia itself, but most professors and educators will have professional experience under their belt, so getting real-world experience and using that to help direct where you want to further specialize and what thesis you want to focus on for your Ph.D. is a great way to go.
2. To Get into Leadership
There are masters in management that will allow you to bridge your specialist knowledge with business administration and leadership knowledge. It is similar to changing tracks, yes, but rather than starting in a new field, it props up your specialist experience for a whole new set of roles.
For example, a Masters in Engineering Management online degree will help prepare you by covering budgeting and financing, project management, people management and leadership, data-driven decision making, product innovation management, and operations management. You will of course have the option to customize your degree further with either data analytics or advanced project management, product innovation management, or operations management.
These management degrees are ideal for all types of engineers looking to expand their credentials. You can take this and position yourself for leadership and executive-level management, or you can be better prepared to start your own business.
3. To Change Tracks
If you want to change your career trajectory and change from one engineering major to another you may want to look into how a master’s can do that for you. You may not, in fact, need to start from scratch. There are many interdisciplinary roles out there and the potential to earn a master’s instead of another undergraduate to prepare you for these roles.
You do need to be careful when looking to change tracks. Don’t waste your money or time enrolling in programs designed for specialists, and instead find options there to bridge knowledge. If you are ever unsure then get in touch with the admissions team to have a chat to see if the degree is a good fit for your qualifications and career goals.
Forging Your Way Forward
To get to your dream job you first need to acknowledge that the chances of that job just falling into your lap are slim to none. First of all, the reality versus the idea is always going to differ, meaning that what you want out of your dream engineering job is going to differ from what you actually need.
Moreover, there is a chance that the perfect job for you doesn’t exist – yet. With so many needs in the world, there stands a good chance that you can work to create the dream job you want for yourself. You may need to work for yourself and start your own business to do it, or perhaps you need to negotiate with your employer to have the position created, but it can be done.
One of the best ways to move forward is to change jobs. Job loyalty is only worthwhile when you are actively being recognized and appreciated at your workplace. This means promotions are coming your way, raises are being awarded, and you are being acknowledged for your hard work. If this isn’t happening, then two to three years per workplace before you move on (and up) is a great strategy. Not only can you position yourself in higher and higher roles this way, you can also negotiate higher salaries for yourself this way.
Never forget that you can also work freelance or as a consultant, or can open your own business as well. From consulting and offering work on a project-by-project basis, to starting a new business around your own invention, to anything in between. There are so many ways that you can get the most out of your career and enjoy a thriving, fulfilling career in engineering. You just need to understand what you need, and how to make the next step. With a job as important as engineering, you are sure to forge your perfect, dream role before you know it.