Combatting Engineering Stereotypes

8. January 2014

Brian Monacelli

Quick! Think of a well-known engineer, real or fictional, from pop culture.

I bet that took longer than expected, right?

Perhaps Scotty from Star Trek came to mind. He is admired among his fictional peers because the fate of the crew often depended on his technical prowess, but this chief engineer seldom made the promotional posters for the series.

Maybe you thought of Dilbert, the fictional comic nerd-hero who is disgruntled and unpopular in his own world. Though humorous, his frustrations with his job are not always relevant to engineering. However, he does share with real engineers the reputation of being unsocial.

Even in our modern society that relies so heavily on technology, engineers and scientists have a fairly negative social reputation. Though there are a handful of notable, socially visible scientists held in high regard in popular culture—Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye and Carl Sagan, to name a few—I’m hard-pressed to think of any publically familiar engineers (not counting technically savvy entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk or Bill Gates).

The Wikipedia page for “engineer” is telling—there is an entire section specifically about public perception of the profession:

“…engineering has in the popular culture of some English-speaking countries been seen as a dry, uninteresting field and the domain of nerds. One challenge to public awareness of the profession is that average people lack personal dealings with engineers, even though they benefit from their work every day.”

Engineering is challenging, but not uninteresting. Most of us rely on our engineered devices, so much so that they are often the first things we reach for in the morning or watch before we sleep. If engineering is dull, why are over 2.5 million people in the United States alone (per the 2010 U.S. Census) employed as engineers?

Wikipedia identifies the problem well: people don’t often have the opportunity to meet the person who designed their phone display or aligned their camera lenses. Layers of corporate customer service often prevent consumers from providing direct feedback to an engineering team, and technical topics are mired in nuanced jargon.

However, I find that it is both refreshing and efficient to have a technical discussion in which specialized topics are broken down into basic concepts that can be understood by an interested, but less experienced person. It’s key to find the right balance of precise technical terminology and universal language for your particular audience.

I suggest that public opinion of engineers can be improved if those of us making the technology spent a few hours during the day in a classroom or discussing technical projects with non-technical peers. Optical engineers in particular should be able to relate to most people, since almost everyone interacts with light every day, whether it’s something as simple as their rearview mirror or as complex as their head-mounted display of a 3-D video that was downloaded via an optical fiber link. If you can convey complex technical topics simply and directly to anyone you meet, then you stand a better chance of being crystal clear when you interact with your professional colleagues.

This new year, consider how you can alter the negative stereotype by reaching out to a young person, a family member or a peer to educate them about your passion for engineering. Understanding technology is awesome, so make it a story that’s told over and over again. Become a better storyteller, and maybe someone in your audience will consider engineering as a career.

Brian Monacelli is an optical engineer. He also teaches photonics at Irvine Valley College, Calif., U.S.A.

 

Career, Communication skills, Engineering , , , , , ,

Taking It as It Comes: My Unexpected Path to Career Satisfaction

11. January 2012

by Jemellie Houston

I was a graduate student at the University of Maryland working on a Ph.D. in chemical physics, and I had a plan: I would finish my Ph.D. and then do a postdoc before starting a career in research. At the time, I was working on the high-speed generation of entangled photons with the quantum cryptography laboratory at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. I adhered to my path religiously and went the extra mile through my involvement in extracurricular activities. For example, I was an OSA student chapter president and IONS North America organizer. And then … life got in the way.

Forks in the road

I went through several life-altering circumstances, including losing my mother and getting engaged and married. I became aware that my career was now part of a bigger picture that included my life with my husband, who was also pursuing a Ph.D. in addition to doing his full-time job. I also found myself surrounded by postdocs and recent Ph.D. graduates who were unable to find permanent positions. Between the economy and the scarcity of full-time positions, I decided it would be more practical for me to obtain my master’s degree and gain some real-world experience rather than complete my Ph.D.

It was a very difficult decision for me. I struggled because I felt like I was digressing from THE path, like a black sheep that had lost its way. Until then, I had only known of one way in which a scientific career could progress.

A path beyond academia

Immediately after finishing my M.S., I found employment at Mettler-Toledo, Autochem Inc.—a division of Mettler-Toledo that makes precision instrumentation for spectroscopy and other optical measurement equipment. I applied for a software test engineer position.

During the interview process for the engineering position, my potential employers deliberated about whether or not I would be a better fit for a position on their research and development team, since I had a solid research background. In the end, I got the engineering position, and in hindsight I am fortunate to have been given the opportunity to strengthen my skills in electrical and computer engineering.

I have now been with the company for more than three months. In anticipation of a product line launch in a couple of years, I am again being encouraged to join a research and development team. I am thinking about this and figuring out my next move. I like what I do now, but I am open to other opportunities as well.

One of the perks of my job is that my company will pay for my classes if I pursue another scholastic degree. I plan to take advantage of this opportunity as well in the next academic year.

Learning to adapt

The moral of my story is that opportunities arise unexpectedly in places that may be unfamiliar to us. We shouldn’t have a rigid mindset about how to get where we want; we also need to open our minds to other perfectly good opportunities. This not only opens doors for your career but also gives you a chance to learn more about yourself.  Although I am not a gambler by nature, I am glad I took a risk. If I hadn’t, I would not likely be as happy as I am right now. I like where I am and where I am headed.

Jemellie Houston (Jemellie.Houston@mt.com) is a software test engineer at Mettler-Toledo AutoChem Inc. in Columbia, Md., U.S.A.

 

Career, Graduate school, OSA Student Chapters, Profiles, Women in Science , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Preparing for an Engineering Career

19. November 2010

By Stephen D. Fantone

 In this era of rapid technological, industrial and economic change, it is challenging to build a technical career. Engineers entering today’s workplace can be assured that many of their skills will soon become obsolete. So the challenge for future engineers is not about mastering specific tools, but rather learning how to think and approach complex problems. Here are some recommendations to help students gain a competitive edge.
 
Develop problem-solving skills. Virtually all companies need engineers with problem-solving skills that transcend disciplines. I'm not talking about typical “homework” problems; I’m referring to problems that defy easy quantification; that involve ambiguous situations; and that require nuanced judgment.
 
Try to put yourself in situations where you must solve problems on your own. As an employer, I often assess problem-solving skills in young engineers. For example, I might ask how many gas stations there are in the United States. Nobody knows the right answer, but anyone with a mathematical inclination should be able to give you some process by which they can come up with an estimate. An example of a good process might be: "I came from a town with 40,000 people and we had about 20 gas stations. The population of the U.S. is around 250 million, the equivalent of about 6,000 towns like mine. So I guess there must be roughly 120,000 gas stations."
 
Few problems in the real world are as clean as those presented in textbooks. Some universities offer courses outside the normal curriculum that focus on a case-study approach of how to solve product design problems. Take them if you can.
 
Study successful people. They probably succeeded for good reasons. In watching successful engineers, I've learned that they tend to have an intense personal interest in—and even a personal relationship with—their technology. They're not in it for the money. They have a passion for their work.
 
Study hard while you are in school, for learning will never be easier. As your career progresses, there will be less and less time for classes and training. More than anything, in school you are acquiring and refining your ability to learn. Certain areas may seem irrelevant to the career you have planned. However, even those subjects present a challenging opportunity to improve your skills.
 
Acquire an interdisciplinary education. Companies need optical engineers who understand electronics; electrical engineers who are sensitive to packaging problems; and mechanical engineers who can deal with optics and electronics. For almost any product development, you need some understanding of mechanical, electrical and optical engineering. Narrowly educated people can't understand the context of a problem; someone else has to explain that context and establish a framework for them to work in. That's inefficient.
 
In addition, many of the most important problems that a technical specialist must address are non-technical in nature. Narrow technical skills may get you in the door, but what moves you up the ladder will be the ability to communicate, to cooperate, and to understand the context, both inside and outside the corporation, for the area in which you apply your technical specialty.
 
Interpersonal skills are also very important in a technical organization. You can't do it all yourself. You have to be able to work effectively with people from other specialties to negotiate interfaces and deal with all of the system-level problems that crop up.
 
Develop practical hands-on skills. It's possible to get through engineering school without developing the hands-on skills that are basic to your profession. Don't fall into that trap. All of us see some mechanical engineers who can't read blueprints; electrical engineers who don't know how to solder; and optical engineers who don't know how to grind and polish a lens.
 
These people become a burden to their first employer. When I was in graduate school, one professor told me I was spending too much time in the optical shop. I answered him by quoting Bob Dylan: "Time will tell who has failed and who has been left behind as you go your way and I go mine." I left the discussion and went straight to the optical shop. I'm not proud of that remark, but I tell the story anyway to emphasize that you might have to insist on preparing yourself adequately for what is essentially a hands-on profession.
 
Finally, let me add that students with relevant summer work experience have a distinct advantage over others. These experiences tend to motivate the student during their schooling and ensure a minimum level of engineering competence.

Stephen D. Fantone is OSA’s treasurer and the president of Optikos Corporation in Wakefield, Mass., U.S.A.

 

Career, Engineering, Graduate school, Job Search, Small business and entrepreneurs , , , , , , , , , , , ,