Taking the Blue Pill: Should I Quit Engineering?

After today, I’m sure my comments will warrant revoking both my engineering degrees, but “should I quit engineering?” has been a recurring question that I get often for almost a decade now. It seems to plague the thoughts of many students and entry-level engineers that ask me if it is worth it.

I wanted to explore where this urge of quitting comes from, and hopefully walk you through some FAQs. Personally I have always had a love-hate relationship with engineering, so I’m not going to even delve into the “Why Engineering” question. So here it goes.

The most common question I have for people considering to quit engineering is “how do I even apply this anywhere practical?”

You are right. Modelling how smoke moves in a 3D medium might bring joy to a select few, but for most people that skill set has very little daily practical value. It often takes years of research and experience to truly make a breakthrough for humanity.

Sadly, taking 10 classes in chemical engineering or computer science does not make you the next Koch or Omidyar. Your professors may tell you that you can build rockets and cure cancer after engineering, but only a select few acquire such skills right out of undergraduate work. Most of us learn project management after college or spend time passing cells in a lab.

As a chemical engineer, I feel what engineering schools teach outdated material that is too theoretical. Personally speaking, I cannot do a tenth of what Walter White can, and I am not alone. Outside of “ChemE”, I know computer scientists that can’t build mobile applications, and mechanical engineers that can’t fix cars. Like seriously, what can we do out of college?

At best, current undergraduate engineering programs teach higher level problem solving, and in some cases prototyping. For the real world, companies hire you and train you to do what they need. Research groups do the same. My time in chemical engineering school was definitely not as valuable to me due to it being so “test-taking heavy”. However, other engineering majors did get to build more practical stuff, and would completely oppose my stance.

I also often get asked “is the money good”, or “does it pay off”?

You want money, go to investment banking or build a business. Both require hard work, the former requires great academic pedigree. Both can be done by engineers.

Like any other professional market, corporate salaries are determined by supply and demand. If you are the best at what you do, naturally you get paid more. In general, most engineers on a national average can find a 60,000 USD salary out of college, depending on the industry you go into. Oil&gas and pharmaceuticals seem to pay more. However, for the amount of hours spent in different locations, punching your calculator, and troubleshooting equipment…I personally think there are easier ways to make money. Like any other profession, if you are doing it for the money, you are probably going to hate your life regardless of how much you get paid. Like I said before, the financial industry or startup world might be a better bet. My advice is to learn your trade, and go do your own “engineering thing”.

Does engineering make me a less well-rounded graduate?

Absolutely not. Having applied math & science in your tool kit adds more ways to solve problems compared to if you were just a regular college major. It also allows you to tackle more difficult ones. There seems to be this general stereotype that engineers only know math & science, and code on weekends.

That’s just not true.

We code on weekdays too, and we learn about history, economics, politics, finance, and every other humanity course on our off-time, away from our regular course load. If anything, I’d say engineers are more well-rounded if they are exploring other subject matter on the side.

Seriously though, I hadn’t written code in like 4 years until RigBasket.

Do I think differently as an engineer?

Yes, and you learn how to “dream with discipline”. What makes the engineering approach different is you learn to work within a certain set of laws and rules that many times cannot be violated. For example, genetically engineering a unicorn is possible, however making it defy the law of gravity is not.

In retrospect, engineering was probably the worst thing for my imagination as it just brought too many reality checks for my liking as an 18 year-old, especially when I was schooled to have blind optimism. Creatively addressing problems, the wrong way, doesn’t get you an “A”. It’s not like high school English. In engineering, you will always entertain the question “does this make sense?”.

My co-founder has the opposite stance. Engineering made him a far more creative person, primarily because of the daily process of discovering alternative solutions to address the same problem. We both agree on the value of having more academic tools at your disposal to solve problems. However too many tools at your disposal don’t make you Batman. Many engineers know how to make very simple problems very complex, very fast due to our available options.

Does engineering make me a less sociable person?

From the very nature of engineering curriculums, there is no way you are getting through an academic program without a lab partner, a senior design team, or solving problem sets with classmates late into the night. Assignment deadlines are setup in such a way that you couldn’t practically deliver consistently week in and week out without collaborating.

I will not even begin to defend if our social behavior constitutes as normal. It’s just that most of our social gatherings by design tend to be in late night academic settings and involve cheap pizza. While many of us may not have an expansive network quantity-wise, the very misery we go through with a select group of people makes us a very tightly knit community. Plus, we have far too many academic problems to solve between us to even start addressing personal ones.

So on the social front, I think we could argue we settle for quality over quantity, except on the pizza front, with exceptions of course.

Is life better as an engineer?

I think engineering helps you understand how the world works better, and thus appreciate answers to more of life’s most pressing questions such as “how does the espresso machine work?”, and without stereotyping myself “why is there turbulence on this plane?”. Both answers come from fluid mechanics by the way.

In terms of career opportunities, I know undergraduate engineers who have gone on to become doctors, lawyers, investment bankers, activists, and consultants. I myself graduated with  a biotech/pharmaceutical skill set, worked as a hydraulic fracturing engineer, and now am doing software & operations at RigBasket. It is clear that engineering does not confine you in anyway, as long as you are academically strong.

Which make us come to the concern about having a poor GPA.

The curse of the engineering student. So here’s the honest truth. If you want to do a PhD, your GPA has to be strong to be considered into top programs. However, strong recommendations can on occasion compensate. GPA tends to be treated as a one-size fits all for many recruiters who don’t examine complete transcripts, which I will never understand. For example, if I have a harder workload than everyone else, shouldn’t I be treated as “special”? I mean you are probably absolutely rocking that Introduction to Harry Potter class in comparison to Advanced Thermodynamics.

We all wish that’s how the world works, but most recruiters are looking for at least a 3.0, as so many applications state. I personally think it is ridiculous considering grade inflation and deflation across different schools. A 3.0 from Princeton Engineering should not be treated the same way as a 3.0 from ASU (no offense ASU, but Princeton’s curve is just harder).

Engineers with lower GPAs have a harder time finding their dream jobs. This comes down to supply and demand, and many recruiters not knowing how to “read between the lines”.  I personally advocate everyone taking a standardized engineering exam after their junior year to make it fairer, but that’s another topic.

Eventually in engineering, it’s the hands-on experience that counts. Your companies will most likely train you to do the job at hand.  If you can prove your worth, few people will care about your past academic performance or alma mater.

Bottom line, engineering GPA matters to get your first job, but once you are in, people care less or don’t care at all.

Did we think of quitting engineering at RigBasket and should you?

Some of us have threatened to quit engineering back in the day. Since we never did, we can’t advocate not to quit. Many people we know who quit engineering are doing fine, if not way better. However, many of those people also admit that it’s an engineer’s world these days. The grass is always greener on the other side.

In conclusion, it comes down to the person. Are you doing engineering just to get a job or to actually apply this stuff in the real world? The first choice comes with some solid hands-on experience that pays the bills. The second choice could mean the birth of another Amazon, YouTube, Google, Facebook, or eBay.

Engineering really is the red pill in this case. It’s up to you if you want to take the blue pill instead.

And on that color note and adding some white, we’d like to sign off by wishing you a Happy 4th of July Weekend!

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