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How will I know when a specific field of engineering is for me?

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I am a senior in high school and I have applied to numerous colleges for engineering. My only problem is that I applied undecided engineering and after hearing numerous colleges talk about the different fields of engineering they offer, I still can't seem to lean towards a field that I like. I don't have much experience in engineering so I'm scared that I won't be able to make the correct decision. #undecided #engineering #college #stem

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Herman’s Answer

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Great question, Rachel! A few years ago, I was a freshman in the exact same spot - I started out in undeclared engineering and needed to make my decision by the end of my 1st year. I was split between many different engineering disciplines.

As a general tip (and this is something I think you're already doing), I'd encourage you and others in a similar situation to keep an open mind. I ended up selecting a discipline that was low on my initial ranking, and it was a great decision in hindsight!

In general, I think there are 3 core considerations for this type of decision between engineering majors:

1) Are you interested in discipline X?
2) Do you feel good / competent at discipline X?
3) Does discipline X lead to the types of careers that you want?

I think it's important to find a major that - as much as possible - is at the intersection of these 3. For #1, interest and passion in the material is important, as it will keep you driven over the course of an engineering degree (which is tough!).

However, you may say that you're interested in many things, which is where perhaps #2 steps in. You also want something that you at the very least aren't anxious about. It's hard to know this in advance, but an adequate proxy can be your performance in first year courses if your university offers discipline-specific courses right away. For example, if you have a first year circuits course and you really struggle with the material, it may be unwise to do electrical engineering, even if it's something you're interested in. Passion can motivate you to compensate for this, but only to a certain extent.

That leaves #3, which is more forward thinking. Remember that university is just 4 years of your life, but your career is 40+. Additionally, most of what you learn won't actually be applied on the job. Now, your major won't completely dictate your career, but it offers a critical launch pad. For instance, think about the type of environment in which you want to work. For example, are you not interested in working in the field in the oil sands? Then perhaps something like chemical engineering would not be a great fit, even if the course content seems interesting to you. On a similar vein, you'll want to select something that has enough job opportunities in a region you're interested in being in. For example, do you really want to live and work in a big city downtown? Then certain engineering fields will almost surely not let you do this.

In some sense, it can help to start in the future and work backwards. What industry and type of position do you see yourself in? Then, what major is the most direct path to that end? For example, some are excited about aerospace. However, there are many different types of engineers that contribute to aerospace, including computer engineering (ex. embedded systems), so your specific major choice in that instant is not as simple as "wanting to be in the aerospace industry means I should study aerospace engineering".

How can you go about uncovering some of this information? For one, try to talk to upper year students in different majors you're interested in. They will give you more honest feedback and reviews about their major and the career opportunities. In comparison, the department representatives are biased - they have a vested interest in convincing you to sign up for their major! Moreover, reaching out to recent alumni in different fields you're interested in can also be a good way to assess the different majors.

Finally, when in doubt, if you really can't decide between specific majors, try to go for the one that is broadest. That way, you'll be closing as few doors as possible. As an example, if I wasn't completely sure about it, I wouldn't go into a more niche field like biomedical or aerospace engineering, since something more general like mechanical or electrical engineering can be viable for those paths (particularly with specialization in a masters degree).

Good luck, Rachel! I'm confident you'll make the right decision for you :)

Herman recommends the following next steps:

  • Think about what you're interested in
  • Think about what you feel good / most confident in
  • Think about what your ideal careers are, and which majors can create a straightforward path to get there
  • Talk to upper year students and recent alumni of the different majors to get unbiased perspectives
  • When in doubt, stay as general as possible and specialize later
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Caitlin’s Answer

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That is a great question Rachel! I had the same issue when I started out as in college as an engineering major. I thought I wanted to be a Chemical Engineer and I really didn't enjoy my intro Chemistry class and struggled with if I even wanted to stay in Engineering. My introduction to Engineering course was very helpful to me as it highlight the different majors. In this class I made connections with other students who wanted to major in engineering and talked to a counselor as well about different engineering major options. She actually recommended Mechanical Engineering which is what ultimately my degree was in. I went home that first summer and read some "fun" books about engineering by Henry Petroski and decided that was the right path. My career lead me into work more like an Industrial Engineer, but I found that the strong basis I got from my engineering degree allowed me to adapt to different types of engineering and experiences in the workplace. I would say:
1. Use your first year classes to refine your interests
2. Stick with it! That first year can by tough
3. Use the resources at the school and build relationships with other potential engineers
4. Don't sweat it if you major in one type of engineering and your career leads you in another direction you will be able to use your skills and find a meaningful career even if you do take a swerve
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Ann’s Answer

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This is a great question! Like you, I was undecided when I went to engineering school. I found a one week summer program (at a University) that spent time reviewing the various engineering curriculums. It helped me narrow my scope and I started in Electrical. However, as I took my undergraduate courses, I enjoyed the aspects of mechanical engineering more and switched. You may not know until you start classes. I would recommend getting an internship as soon as you can - even if it's unpaid. Through some of my internships, it helped me decide what I liked and didn't like. And there is no bad decision. You will find your way! Best of luck to you!
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Nicole’s Answer

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Hi Rachel D. Thank you for asking this question.

I am thrilled A) that you have this interest and B) that you want to know more about different engineering disciplines.

Similar to Herman, I also was a student, who at the start of my college journey, did not know what type of engineer I wanted to be. I knew for sure, though, that I wanted to pursue an engineering degree. It wasn't until I got to the second semester of my second year that I began to clarify for myself on the engineering discipline that would work for me.

Some of the elements I examined to make my decision included how would I be able to use my degree once I finished, how long could it take me to find a job (#collegeloans), where would I be working, would I be able to travel, what else could I learn and grow from once I got a job.

I graduated many many years ago but I still remember getting my first job offer...:) After completing my degree in Systems Engineering, I actually got my first job at an investment bank, 2 months before I graduated from college, at a salary that was beyond what I expected, I had the privilege of traveling for some amazing projects and I was able to use what I learned from my first job as a catalyst for many other opportunities since.

I wish you the very best of luck in your journey!
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Ann’s Answer

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This is a great question! Like you, I was undecided when I went to engineering school. I found a one week summer program (at a University) that spent time reviewing the various engineering curriculums. It helped me narrow my scope and I started in Electrical. However, as I took my undergraduate courses, I enjoyed the aspects of mechanical engineering more and switched. You may not know until you start classes. I would recommend getting an internship as soon as you can - even if it's unpaid. Through some of my internships, it helped me decide what I liked and didn't like. And there is no bad decision. You will find your way! Best of luck to you!
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John’s Answer

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Firstly I'd say don't be scared of making an incorrect decision!
Specialisms in engineering can be based on what your passion is, and where you see yourself in the future. The broad, foundational skills in any engineering discipline will be a great start.

My own personal journey into engineering when applying to colleges was undecided. Should it be electrical, computer, electronic, aeronautical - too much choice and very overwhelming. I did have a passion for creative problem solving and how to apply that passion in industry.
There is a great set of common skills and knowledge through any engineering disciplines, and then one can always further your learning and development through other academic courses, on the job experiences, and volunteer or extra-curricular work.

Look at industries that really interest you and see where those specialist engineering skills apply in those industries. That can help you decide on your specialism.
The common skills that you will learn in any engineering track are relevant and transferable skills. Personally I've worked in industries such as consumer goods, travel, medical, and government, and those common skills sets are very portable.
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Tzu-Li’s Answer

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Hi Rachel,

I'd suggest three criteria for you to make the decision:
1st What subjects are you good at?
2nd What subjects you're interested in?
3rd What jobs you can see yourself doing for at least 3-5 years after graduation?

You should be able eliminate your options to a handful with this process. Don't forget to talk a school advisor or consular about this.

In my case, I started in Electrical Engineering many years ago. However, after spending 2 years to learn different coding languages, I decided that I don't want to do this for the rest of my life, and I switched to something else.

BTW the reason why I said 3-5 years is because you can always go back to school and take graduate-level courses such as MBA program to pivot to other career paths.

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Casey’s Answer

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Hi Rachel!

Looks like there's already plenty of great advice here so I'll keep it short. Even if you start and get a degree in one type of engineering, that definitely does not limit your career. I have a degree in chemical engineering but work in the biomedical engineering and mechanical engineering field. You will learn a lot of your skills on the job, but an engineering degree will give you great critical thinking and problem solving skills.

Have fun!
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Tom’s Answer

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Hi Rachel,

I found that entering the engineering school gave plenty of time to find out which discipline I preferred. Keep in mind most of your freshman and some of your sophomore year classes will apply to most engineering majors (at least they did at Michigan) and will try to help you understand what each of the majors focus on.

I suggest trying informational interviews to help you decide, this is both a great opportunity for networking as well as to get some candid thoughts on each of the majors. You can talk to professors at your university easily though office hours. I also suggest talking to some industry professionals, Linkedin is a great way to reach out to local professionals for informational interviews.

My final suggestion is to think about the type of work you like to do and what interests you, for example, if you really like cars perhaps think about careers in the auto industry, if you like figuring out how things work perhaps a design career.

Good luck!
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Stephanie’s Answer

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Hi Rachel,

Given all the amazing answers other professionals left for you, I decided my response will be biased based upon my real life experiences with my engineering degree. So you can see how pursing my world of Software Engineering was, and maybe my experiences might help you with some more insight. I'll also give you some college tips and tricks to help maintain going about your major, regardless of the engineering field you pick, so you know what to expect and can better prepare yourself.

Every engineering field is going to require you to put in a lot of work. Especially with college, there is a timing rubric set up to help students measure how much time they need to invest to be successful in your engineering college degree. Given how many classes and their credit hours you are taking is what your school work schedule will depend on. It is recommended to give at least 3 hours for every credit hour - being the amount of credits for that class. So, if you are taking on a full-time semester, which is 4 classes with 3 credit hours each = 12 full credit hours, that means you will be dedicating 36 hours to studying (per week).

Now, I know that may seem like a lot of work, which it is, but the true test lies in your time management. Even til this day, I use an app called Productive and I also use an agenda to keep track of how I plan to spend my days in that given week. It helps give a guideline to follow to get into the habit of a routine. That way you allow yourself to accomplish your tasks in school, as well as still allowing yourself time for your own endeavors and some RnR (rest and relaxation). It also holds you accountable to continuously take action on the goals you need to accomplish to succeed.

Mind, some classes won't require 9 hours each of study. Some require less and others require more. It all depends on what you already know vs what you find challenging. Sometimes I would have a semester of 4 classes, 2 in which were a breeze to me so I knew that I didn't need to dedicate much time to those since I already built a strong foundation in that type of learning. As for the other 2 classes, I factored in that time saved to hone in more on bettering my skillset in those more challenging classes. Meaning, you don't have to follow the status quo. Though, those 2 classes I said came easy to me, I still payed attention to so that I didn't fall short of those tasks trying to manage the more difficult classes. Also the amount of work being given by the professor. A class may also seem easy, but look at the syllabus and calendar to see what is expected of you. It may be easy but requires you to submit a lot of work. Also, some universities let you see classes and their previous semester's syllabus. I recommend looking at those and see which kinds of classes get you excited.

Like I said earlier, I am a Software Engineering B.S. major. So one example with a semester of 4 classes could be: operating systems, web development, linear algebra, and databases. All these classes differ from each other so, at times, you may need to bounce around different types of logic. Other semesters could align perfectly: software enterprise, design and analysis, design and process, and data structures. Where these classes flow with one another, so what you are being lectured about in one class, you could very much have that same lecture, with different context, which makes learning the material easier since it's being reiterated throughout your classes for that semester.

Being a Software Engineering major, my responsibility as a student was to learn every and any types of software and how they are being implemented in all areas. As challenging as it was trying to grasp the different concepts and methodologies, it was very rewarding succeeding at these different topics and finding my true area of passion. This major allowed me to test out all the types of ways one can work with software, and help me find my niche.
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Julissa’s Answer

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I would say to search for 5 different engineering careers, read the qualifications and try to see where do you see yourself.
Once you choose 1 or 2 engineering careers, search online for available positions and read the requirements, sometimes reading the responsibilities of an specific open position gives you the idea of what you would like to work at, or not.
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Ryan’s Answer

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Deciding what engineering field to go into can be difficult and may change throughout your time at college.

If possible, talk to people you know such as family or friends or friend's parents that are in Engineering.
They can provide pro's and con's to the engineering field they are in. You can also look at companies in a area you would like to work. If you wan to live in the Minneapolis area, there are a lot of companies that have electrical, mechanical and Biomedical Engineering opportunities.
If you can get a internship at one of these companies, it will open your eyes to a lot of different engineering career paths.
Hopefully then, one will stand out and help you focus on one. Good luck.
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George’s Answer

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This is such amazing advice, thank you!!!!
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