Thursday, March 4, 2010

Oh right, there are industry jobs for engineers.

One of the subtle differences I’ve noticed between science and engineering is that scientists have an “optimal” career path: after undergrad you go to grad school, and then you can get a job.  The best job is of course being a professor, but some other jobs that require quantitative skills are acceptable.  I think chemistry might be an exception to this rule, although at my undergrad I think chemists mostly went to grad school, like the other scientists.  Overall, for scientists there was a lot of support for students who wanted to go on the expected career path, and not very much for students who wanted to try something else.

In engineering, however, there are always opportunities to get jobs.  You can get a job right after undergrad if you want, and get paid real money!  Or you can get a MS and then a job, or job and then MS, or a PhD and then a job, or the other way around.  There doesn’t seem to be as much of a “right” way to be an engineer, and people who work in industry aren’t seen as inferior in the same way as they are in the sciences.  In fact, I have had people high up in the academic structure stress to me the importance of patents over papers, and real world experience instead of staying in academia for my entire career.  I don’t know if I will ever get used to this.  It’s a small thing, but every time someone says, “of course you should spend some time in industry!” it’s like they started speaking a foreign language for a moment.

The other part of this that has been a surprise to me is that the less external pressure there is for me to conform to a certain career path, the more I find myself thinking about what it would be like to be a professor.  I’m not convinced that’s the life I want for myself yet, but it’s become a possibility in a way it really wasn’t when I was a scientist.  I wonder though, if professors generally know that they want to be professors from the time they start grad school.  Do they get to the end and think that being a professor, or post doc on the way to being a professor, is the career they want?  Or did they know all along that was what they were working for?  And do people decide to be professors because they want to run their own lab?  Or they have a strong drive to teach the next generation?  Or their advisor knows someone who would be a great post doc advisor, and then it just goes from there?

1 comment:

  1. And the answer is … all of the above. I really don’t think there is an “optimal” path for anyone, even “scientists” in academia (and I consider engineers to be scientists, by the way). The more you get to know people, the more you realize that there are a lot of different stories as to how people wound up where they are. It’s just that most people who have had a colorful past tend to keep their mouths shut about it, especially if they’re not where they want to be yet (e.g., tenured, a manager), lest they appear unfocused or not passionate enough about science/engineering to their colleagues. So the myth is self-reinforcing.

    And I think it’s good for an academic to get some experience in industry. Sometimes, when people have never known anything other than academia, they start to think that the best way of doing things is the only way they know. In those circumstances, it’s good to have lived the experience that other ways are possible and perhaps even superior.