Some of my feelings regarding my future STEM career

sup chiefdelphi, i wanted to share a feeling i personally hold regarding choosing my path in the STEM world.

frc has completely changed my life and the way i view the world, since i was one of the founders of my team i got to experience a big variety of different aspects of building the robot, probably more than alot of students that come from a well established team since we simply never had many people to begin with to split the tasks to, and in my senior year i was in charge of basically every mechanical aspect of the robot, together with a friend of mine, apart from that i did a bit of elecronics and a bunch of programming,

what im trying to say is-
right now i feel like choosing my direction in the stem world is so hard since i dont want to limit myself to a certain discipline, thats just not what my FRC experience was about,
i just know for a fact that if i choose to major in CS, ill heavily miss the fun of designing mechanisms and CAD, and vice versa.

the reason i enjoy STEM so much goes hand and hand with the ability to do many different things at once, i am the kind of person that gets really bored from doing the same thing for too long.

what i wanna do in the future is both programming and CAD, i wanna be one that not only helps design and manifacture but also write the code.

is there even a place for people like me in the world of STEM?, people that would rather be decent at many disciplines instead of being extra qualified at a single one, please give me your thoughts, i am posting it here since i highly value your opinions as students/mentors.

3 Likes

Program for money and CAD for fun.

Computer Science is insanely in demand right now and the amount of money you can make in the industry is insane. Speaking as a mechanical engineer with a lot of CS friends :joy:

There’s no reason you can’t find fulfillment from non-work activities to fill your desire to CAD. Mentoring FRC teams fills that gap for a lot of people!

18 Likes

I have/had some of the same feelings - I get a good chunk of it by mentoring. But also the job I have is as a programmer at a CAE/CAD company making thermal analysis software, which makes use of my MechE BS, CS minor.

I would look into a mechatronics engineering program if you want to learn aspects of mechanical, electrical, software, and controls engineering. With that said, most kids in my program at least found their niche around 2nd year and only really pursue internships in their field, me included. I still enjoy the program as I find aspects of different engineering disciplines interesting and the courses aren’t too in depth so I don’t feel like i’m really struggling in non mechanical courses.

I would also recommend going into software if you care about money and building stuff as a hobby. The difference in salary even at the internship level is quite large.

1 Like

I was a BS in Mechanical Engineering through the beginning of my 4th year of college. Despite being on track to graduate on time, I ended up taking an extra year to get a second major in Computer Science, and have worked professionally as a software engineer since.

The thing that convinced me to finally make the switch? My university career services report that included high and median accepted job offers per major. :sweat_smile:

My mechanical engineering degree hasn’t been used at all professionally, or for much outside of FRC and some random hobby projects since I’ve graduated. I’ve been totally fine with that, because frankly, the career prospects have (for me) just been so much better compared to the other way round. This is also including the fact that I took a whole extra year of paying tuition instead of earning income.

Of course!

So it’s a question of Breadth vs. Depth.

If you go to work for a small startup, chances are, you will just be an “engineer” who gets to do a bit of everything! The scope is small enough that just one or a few humans can do all the aspects of design and manufacture. This could be something you could look into as you form your future career path.

However, on BIG engineering projects (think, the space shuttle, an airliner, a cruise ship), no human being has the capacity to single-handedly design and implement everything. You have to split it into a team project, and most of the team members will inevitably have to pick specializations.

As you go off to college, consider some of the lesser-known specializations. Technical Systems Management at UIUC is one I’m aware of, as is the Cyber Physical Systems Minor AKA “mechatronics” at Iowa State. These programs emphasize breadth-first approaches where cross-functional skills are taught, rather than a “depth-first” dive into the details of one particular aspect of engineering.

University engineering teams like Baja SAE, Formula SAE, Solar Car, and many others will provide a FIRST-like experience. Especially if you’re starting up one of these clubs from scratch, you’ll likely find yourself in that “little bit of everything” role.

As you pick your major, minor, and courses… build up the story of why you are doing what you are doing. Tell that story with how you craft your resume, and how you pitch yourself to employers. Don’t shy away from the idea that you like being involved in a bit of everything, and also emphasize how you know how to work with many teams of people at once. This will disqualify you from some of the more “depth-first” oriented jobs, but make you very attractive to a person who needs a true “Systems Engineer” who can wear many hats in a single day. In turn, this should help down-select your job offers to ones that are most interesting.

On the other hand… keep in mind a lot of companies, especially right out of college, prefer you be able to illustrate one or more specializations you have - they want to know what makes you unique from your peers.

Also, keep in mind, you’ll hopefully have a solid 50+ years ahead of you to keep repeating that FIRST experience you had, again and again. That’s another 10+ cycles of what you just went through. Each cycle, you shouldn’t be doing the same things again and again. Think of each cycle as an opportunity to pick a new specialization, dig as deep as you can in four to six years, do some productive work, then know you’ll be moving on to something else right about the time you’ve hit the level of expertise you desire.

What you’ll want to be cognizant of is at what point to hand off a task to another person. This is just a general “working in a team” skill that FIRST hopefully teaches, but will be essential. In every engineering role, you’ll always have something you have to let someone else do.

You’ve definitely already experienced this - for example, in FIRST, students don’t design the PCB inside the RIO - someone else does that for you, and tells you how it works, and you just have to use it. Same will be for any team, large or small, you work with in the future.

ALL that being said… Yes, CS does pay the bills the best. At least by starting salary.

Hence the reason why this EE with a sorta-CS job knows CAD.

5 Likes

A good approach here in my experience to specialize in a specific discipline (like CS), but then try and work in an industry that requires a mix of disciplines that you’re interested in. So if you’re a mechanical engineering-inclined computer scientist, try and work at companies that are building robots, airplanes, medical devices, etc. instead of companies that build database software.

In my experience, your familiarity/passion for other disciplines will only help you to succeed at such a company, but (especially at first) specializing in a particular skillset is necessary.

9 Likes

I know it’s been posted on this site a few times, but I think it really fits here. I gave a TED talk a while back and one of the topics was university/career choices. Give it a lesson and it might help you make some decisions.

7 Likes

+1

Also, keep in mind, if you like a company and they’re a good company, they’ll work with you to move you around internally toward projects that you’re interested in.

Case in point: I started by writing python build scripting infrastructure. I’m currently tuning PID controllers on physical iron. I’m hoping I’ll focus more on professional mentoring and student/intern engagement next.

1 Like

There’s a huge field within mechanical engineering that is actually controls engineering and may be a good intersection between these two.

I’m not a controls engineer, but working outside of large corporate projects, I’ve actually done a decent amount of coding throughout my career as a MechE (in addition to being a CAD specialist at times) for design simulation, test analysis, data handling, etc. It’s not professional software engineering by any means, but I like the code.

As someone mentioned already, I’d caution against trying to go too broad too early. I’m a systems engineer now, but I’ve never heard from anyone that had a good experience being or working with a systems engineer that lacked a “depth” background first (CS, ME, doesn’t matter so much). It’s one of those “learning how to learn/think” steps I wouldn’t suggest skipping. Double major/minor if you can manage it, but don’t get sucked into a perfect-sounding “BS in Everything You Like” degree, at least without really researching it.

6 Likes

Your college degree(s) often determine where you start (although not always), but your interests and passions determine where you go. My degrees are in chemical engineering. I started out in that direction doing advanced process control in the chemical industry, but throughout my career I worked on manufacturing information systems, became a six sigma master black belt and worked on business processes involving finance and supply chain, and eventually started a data science organization with industrial statistics, machine learning, optimization, discrete-event simulation and more. Just to continue the “intellectual diversity” theme, my FRC mentoring focuses on mechanical design, CAD, and fabrication. Not a stitch of chemical engineering involved.

You might think that you know what you want to do with your life at this point and are looking for some little niche that fits your current worldview. However, the chances are high that other things you haven’t yet experienced will catch your attention and take you to unanticipated and unexpected destinations.

Don’t worry too much about finding a college program that feels 100% optimized to the high school you. Just try to get close. Look for a school and department that offers plenty of extracurricular activities where you can continue to explore new disciplines and exercise the ones that interest you most. Look for a school where the faculty, culture, and physical surroundings appeal to you. You’ll maximize your growth in an environment where you feel most comfortable.

1 Like

And there’s a bit of a dearth of those in my experience. This sounds like what you’ll want to start in.

QFT. Source: Mech Eng who is working on controls right now, and analysis, and design…

Test engineers at my company also use a broad array of STEM skills - designing experiments; designing, building and programming test fixtures; running the experiments; and analyzing data. They also tend to have shorter project cycles than mechanical design engineers (which could be a pro or a con depending on your personal inclination). A mechanical design engineer might work on one part of one product for years, but I see test engineers typically starting new experiments and designing new fixtures every couple months or even weeks (running one experiment often reveals the need to run a different experiment, which you’ll need to design a different test fixture for, ad infinitum)

I second and highly recommend this. In HS I was primarily a CADder, went to college for EE/CS. I now work in software to make the bucks, and spend my free time 3d printing/mentoring a team in CAD/design/fabrication and programming sometimes.

Get great at at least one thing while you’re still in school. Take on hobbies, do multidisciplinary projects, but the super-do-it-all engineer is a myth. A really excellent product relies on coordination of specializations.

There’s always time to get breadth later. Keep your hobbies in a variety of disciplines while you’re in school. You’ll rarely find a similar focused opportunity to go deep later.

(Even if what you go deep on is project management and managing multidisciplinary tasks with a business oriented degree rather than a pure stem degree. That’s still a thing to Get Great At.)

I am a polyglot with an Associates degree in Electronics Engineering from a community college, and lots of college credits without a declared major beyond that.

I was never a student in FIRST. I helped create Team 11. I then mentored over 25+ years. I’ve had a bunch of different roles in FRC, FTC, and FLL.

I program professionally in more than 20 computer languages in a variety of industries, do FPGA and RISC-V work, do CAD / CAM, design and create automation, create art, have filmed an entertainment program, and have made kids toys.

Currently I am working with people on: augmented reality, a few VR gadgets, an MMORG engine, a sheep yogurt assembly line, a drone capable of carrying a payload of 25lbs, a full size industrial crushed glass sorting machine, making LED neon signs, laser cutting my Wife’s art and her custom jigsaw puzzles.

By far I make the most money from programming and DevOps / DevSecOps / DevNetOps of cloud computing at scale. How big a scale? Currently 200,000+ cores spanning stadium size data centers and 3 public cloud providers. We will be adding 12,000+ more cores to that in the next 72 hours.

I do whatever I like, but I am careful to balance my priorities as I do this. If you have the motivation, the commitment and some talent - you can over come the challenges.

If something you passionately want to do is not going to pay, make it a hobby or a charity. Bank roll it from the things that do pay.

Make sure not to forget that you are not just defined by what you do, but how you do it, how you live your life, and don’t let your passion for technology rob too much from being human and having relationships.

Make sure you get a grasp on the fundamentals of running businesses and idea promotion / advertising, project management, metrics like KPI / ROI, and intellectual property legal basics. It is the one thing, in my experience, schools overlook and it can become a serious issue for you later.

1 Like

I wanted to weigh in on some of the (potentially conflicting) advice here, since it’s highly relevant to a lot of the students poking here.

If there’s one thing your “first step beyond undergrad” employer is going to care about, it’s your ability to quickly and effectively contribute to the unique things that company does.

Your choice of major is a big component of how you tell this story to them, and therefor deserves careful selection.

A super-specialized unique major or minor (like I mentioned) is a dual-edged sword. If you can quickly and adequately describe what your field of study is, and why it makes you the best for the job role, it’s an asset. On the other hand, if it’s so far off in left field, HR might screen out your resume for ‘Not looking like an engineer’ before it even gets to a human’s desk.

There is some introspection needed. A key component to having success at something is finding something you’re passionate about. Picking Computer Science purely for the pay can be fraught, especially if you know you aren’t going to find any passion or interest in the studies. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether adding a specialized minor, or doing some awesome extra-curriculars is enough to keep you engaged in the core field of study to walk out the other end with new knowledge and a solid GPA.

In the case where you know you’ll be struggling to remain engaged in a particular field of study… you may want to keep looking for something else. I say this because college is a BIG investment. And only getting bigger. You really don’t want to burn that $120k+ on a field of study you don’t learn anything from, and don’t walk out the other end with a solid, job-worthy GPA and set of experiences. There are far better ways to spend your time and money.

From that perspective, that’s where I’d say the “extremely specialized” majors or minors are good for some folks. If you know enough about yourself that you need something that fits your personality very closely to have success, that’s where you want to be spending your time and money. Even at the cost of “rolling the dice” a bit on being able to fully describe the value of your choice of study to a future employer.

Ultimately, the ideal case is cultivating in yourself the discipline to stick to a particular field of study and learn as much as you can from every experience in life, regardless of whether it aligns ideally with your current interests. This is far easier said than done, but worthwhile to keep in mind.

2 Likes

One other thing:

Be careful with the difference between science and engineering. The goals of scientists and engineers overlap but also diverge.

A few decades ago the US Government asked MIT to helped build what would be a critical part of computing history: SAGE. MIT respectfully declined as they viewed themselves as computer scientists not computer engineers. IBM took this enormous contract and it’s fundamentally a key to the continued wealth of IBM decades later.

Engineers apply science and scientific methods to building working solutions. Scientists may use engineering skills, but they work on advancing science.

It is pretty ironic that programming was originally a job often done by women who were ‘just’ secretaries. Was advanced by women like Grace Hopper. Now people are programmers by pursuing computer science degrees to apply programming to solve problems.

So now we have the rise of DevOps. Where building the ‘servers’ and programming intersect to fully apply those skills to automate and optimize the delivery to production. DevOps shifts cultures and it comes with ideas and some commonly applied current tools.

Ask yourself: is DevOps pushing better algorithms or better computer architectures. No. It’s pushing an improved application of skills and knowledge. So it is really computer science?

So if I hire a fresh out of college software developer with a computer science degree, and I really do hire software developers by the dozen, I do not think they will be ready for our kind of work. My work is largely around more engineering skills than they can currently get from college whether that college was MIT or a community college. So what gets you through my hiring gate-keeping? Passion to commit and grow gets you through me to be hired.

For the record: I am also an industry advisor to a major college. With an Associates degree from a community college and my advice has shaped Master Degree and PhD programs they offer.

Lots of great advice here and I applaud your passion for STEM and for FIRST. We need many more like you.

That being said I’ll offer a bit of advice with the hope that it won’t be taken the wrong way.

Work on your written communication skills. You should capitalize “I”. You should trim and distill your ideas into coherent paragraphs and the paragraphs into a logical sequence of steps heading towards a concept you want your readers to take away with them.

These are not skills that appear to be emphasized in our educational system these days. Having them will help set you apart from others.

It’s just a different variety of programming really.

In pursuit of this I suggest you read more, and not just STEMMY stuff. Golden Age Sci Fi. Well written history. The books you hurried through in English class without appreciating.

Also travel. And work some interesting jobs. One of our students is spending the summer working at a petting zoo. I anticipate her applying to MIT. At her interview she’ll be able to lead with: “Lemme tell you some things about goats…”

That they’ll remember!

Great times to be alive, make the most of them!

And again, don’t take my advice the wrong way.

3 Likes

I don’t disagree, but I also think we should distinguish between these two. A “weird sounding” undergrad major can be a serious liability if you aren’t going exactly where it’s relevant (e.g. I get a decent number of interdisciplinary business-tech that think it means they can do either as well as a specialist, rather than specifically working at the intersection). I’ve never known a rare undergrad minor or specialization to hurt someone in overall job prospects.

Say you get a mechanical engineering BS with a specialization in something “abnormally” specific, like combustion. (Not saying this is a good fit for you, just an abnormal example.) All else equal, i.e. assuming it doesn’t make your grades or extracurriculars worse, I wouldn’t worry about it hurting you. It might not help you much if you come to me looking to work on space robots, other than your gumption to go above and beyond (which is cool but there are other ways to show). But it could help you at GM, and I wouldn’t expect it to hurt an entry-level BSME almost anywhere.

On the other hand, if you got a major directly in combustion engineering and weren’t looking specifically to do that, you’d have a harder time getting through screeners for other mechE jobs. If you love it and only want jobs on combustion engines, no problem (well, fossil fuel problem). If you want options, not recommended.

So my advice is look at what your bachelor’s is actually in and don’t try to get too creative unless you’re wed to it. More is fine, though. Heck, I still have a double major and three minors in political science sitting on my CV, and I’ve never had someone get upset so long as the first line is mechanical engineering.

2 Likes