What do I do next?
September 17, 2009 12:34 AM   Subscribe

I feel like I really need to decide between pursuing two career paths that each have their own advantages. I feel like I could be happy or unhappy in either one. I've been putting off the decision essentially for 5+ years now, and it's finally coming to a head. I need advice, coin flips, anecdotes, flowcharts, whatever you've got. Hope me break this down, mefi.

I've always had difficulty deciding "what I want to do with my life" (really, what I want to do with the next part of my life, I suppose). I graduated this past May with a bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering. I really enjoyed certain parts of this degree program. Orbital mechanics is an astonishingly beautiful field, and there's something deeply satisfying about understanding (some of) the crazy math that goes into fluid mechanics.

On the other hand, I've always really enjoyed programming and computers. I've been programming probably since I was 13 or 14 years old. I've enjoyed nearly every facet of it I've explored, and I've worked as a web application developer for over 3 years now, and done lower-level web development for quite a bit longer.

During my undergraduate years, I was able to work at my web development job while attending school, so I never really had to choose between software development and engineering. Because of this, going to graduate school essentially represented the path of least resistance for me.

The problem I'm facing now is that this "plan" basically consists of burying my head in the sand. Over the past summer, I experienced a new kind of life working full time at my web development job. I made a good amount of money, which I was able to put toward paying off some previous mistakes, and building a life for myself. In the evening, when I wanted to, I would sometimes go home and learn some things about computational fluid dynamics, but if I didn't want to, I could also get together with friends, or pursue other hobbies.

So now I'm in graduate school, and I'm hating it. I do enjoy the moments I'm in class much of the time, but I'm basically working 20 hours a week at my job, and 35 hours+ doing homework, in class, and in my professor's lab (I get to work at 8am and leave school at 7pm, so I'm not exaggerating.) The times I'm not working, I feel like I should be.

The main reason I went back to graduate school was that I didn't really like my job prospects as an engineer with a bachelor's degree. From what I've seen of most aerospace engineering jobs, they consist of doing large amounts of paperwork, and very very small, if any, amounts of engineering. My thought was to go back to graduate school to get a masters, and then hopefully I could find work doing computational fluid dynamics (a mix of programming and engineering) afterward, but the idea of living like this for the next 3-4 years doesn't make me very happy. Not only that, but I don't even know if that job will exist when I do graduate, or that I will like it. It's so much time to spend doing something that I'm not even sure will lead somewhere I want to go, and at the end of it, I'm even more specialized than I already am. I am also not funded right now (although that can change), so I'm looking at cutting back on my expenses so I can pay out of pocket, or taking out more student loans. Tuition isn't insane, but after 3 or 4 years, it would be above $20,000. That being said, I would expect to make $60,000-$70,000/year coming out of school.

The other alternative would of course be to go the programming route. The problem there is that I feel like it would be slamming the door on engineering. I've never been very good at retention, and I figure with just a little bit of time out of school, I'd basically forget my entire degree. Then, if at some point I decided to get back into it, it would be basically impossible. Following this career path has other advantages, though. Everyone needs programmers these days, so I could live anywhere, and I've always wanted to live in as many places as possible during my life. As a programmer, I have more opportunities to start a business or work at a small company or startup. I could even freelance, which I've done in the past, which would provide me a great deal of flexibility.

When I first started writing this question, I was sure I wanted to pursue the master's degree. Now, at the end of the question, I'm convinced that that's based on false assumptions about where it will lead, and that I should make the choice for the here and now, which is to quit grad school tomorrow and start my full time job as web developer the day after. I will likely feel differently in a few minutes.

What the hell do I do? I would be happy with nearly any advice here, whether it's seeing some kind of person, or just telling me how it sounds to you, or telling me how I might break this down into its parts, or whatever.
posted by !Jim to Work & Money (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return.

This is a really tough question to approach and try to answer. On the one hand, you have what's basically a long-term goal of yours that you feel beholden to: "I've come this far..." On the other hand, you know as well as anyone the increasing rarity we find ourselves doing what we initially set out to do, especially in college.

At some point, you'll need to finally make the decision. This much is obvious. It may come when you've finished your degree and gotten your masters and have to decide if you want to pursue a career in the field, or stay in the field you've been working in and building upon for many years. Or it can come earlier, like you say, "tomorrow".

I think you really have to analyze if you believe you'll truly enjoy the aerospace-related work, and a career in that field MORE than you would a serious career in web development, with as much else being equal as possible. Then, you need to decide if the additional fulfillment/enjoyment factor is worth the stress now, taking into account the uncertainties of educated guesses like these.

Only you know if you think you'd enjoy one field more than the other. But if, on balance, it doesn't seem you'd enjoy it that much more, or, perhaps even not more at all, then you might also need to be comfortable dropping the masters plan for now and pursuing a career in web development.

At the end of the day, it's a big decision. And I know what you mean about retention. But nothing in life is permanent. If you go down the web development path for a couple of years and really think you'd be happier pursuing the aerospace career path, you still can. Things come back quicker than you'd expect, so don't write that option off entirely.

On the other hand, if I were you and I were serious about the aerospace career and excited about it and genuinely of the belief that it's what I wanted to do, I would quit working in web development, if at all possible, and seek out an internship or part-time job with an aerospace firm that could possibly help with your continuing education.

Financing things yourself is a burden, especially on 20 hours a week. It's even more of a risk if you're not completely sure about the degree and career path, since it's your own money and thus, considerably harder to walk away from. If this is something that, when all is said and done, you really want to pursue, you should see if an option like working for Boeing (or General Dynamics or Raytheon or Lockheed, etc, etc) would avail itself while you continue your education in the field.

I imagine most of those firms would be open to financing at least a portion of your tuition, and would be flexible with your schedule as well.

Now, this doesn't eliminate the risk that the aerospace career path might not be as fulfilling as you hope. That's for you alone to determine. But I think you need to be in a place where you're psychologically okay with "slamming the door on engineering" and pursuing a career that you're talented at, enjoy, and have experience in.

I also would avoid characterizing the web development path as a choice for the "here and now"—it's certainly a choice that would have the most immediate impact, but it's not the difference between bagging groceries or pursuing your higher education. It's a perfectly legitimate career in and of itself, with great potential, and it's something you seem to enjoy doing. Would it be all bad if, in five years, you were a senior developer making $75,000-80,000, working on interesting web projects? Would you regret not choosing the aerospace path? Or would you look back and smile because you were able to enjoy those years without the incredible stress burden you're under right now?

Take a deep breath, consider where you'll likely be on each path in five years, and then start thinking a bit outside the box. I don't know if the aerospace-company-funding-your-masters plan is viable at all. But I bet there are things to be done if you try. I also bet you'd be pretty happy and feel pretty accomplished in either field, and so maybe the journey should play a role in your decision.

Good luck and godspeed.
posted by disillusioned at 1:12 AM on September 17, 2009

My quick take on your situation is this:
1. As you state the world is in need of many web developers and programmers. However most of the programming and web development jobs out there will not stretch the kind of mathematical capabilities you will need for Orbital Mechanics. If you love this kind of work then are you willing to work in a job that probably does not really exercise it?

2. There are other branches of engineering which might be crying out for your skills: Aeronautics and Naval Architecture for example. These fields could be relatively easy for you to migrate to and they could pay relatively well against many web development jobs. Would you be willing to explore any options in this area?
posted by rongorongo at 2:06 AM on September 17, 2009

If you had asked this question last year, I would have said "don't go to grad school without being funded." You are right that you can't work at a job and do grad school well, you're wearing yourself ragged, and I don't think you can judge grad school or engineering based on your experience this semester.

Pursue funding for next semester aggressively. Hopefully you'll get some and then you can have a semester of just grad school from which you can actually judge both your passion for engineering and the actual prospects more fairly.
posted by hydropsyche at 3:40 AM on September 17, 2009

There is a lot of crossover between engineering and computer programming, so I think you are in less of a quandry than you believe. I did 3 years of computer science, then switched over to study engineering, and got a masters in engineering too. You could easily apply your skills to dynamic modelling and controller design. As an aerospace engineer, you probably have a good background in control. Control engineering jobs abound.

20K debt is no big deal if you end up with a masters of engineering. Considering your earning potential, 20K is very manageable. Many people in far less employable fields take on multiple times as much debt.

One thing though - why will your master's take 4 years?? A master's should take 2 years... 3 years tops but that's pushing it. If you can finish the masters within 2 years, sweat it out.

And don't give up on computational fluid mechanics. It seems like the best combination. Or, in a similar veign, Matlab is a huge company and you could consider applying to work as a developer.
posted by molecicco at 4:01 AM on September 17, 2009

I am in the humanities, am many, many years out of undergrad and am trying to finish my dissertation while working in my field full time. I know nothing about your fields, but I can tell you a little bit about graduate school and being young with the whole world at your feet.

1. Graduate school is exhausting. It is not for everyone. It is likely not even for the vast majority of graduate students who finish it out. It is exhausting, debilitating work, filled with self-deprecation and a fair amount of doubt, sprinkled with exhaustion and emotional upheaval. It is, however, fertile ground for amazing friendships, lots of learning, and character building.

2. Both of your fields would pay pretty well. I am $86,000 in the hole and make a fraction of that. I am 30 and am still in an entry-level position. But I am still learning a lot, and I think that financially, you'll be A-OK with either job.

3. You are young. You have the whole world at your feet. But you know who knows a lot about that stuff? The free counseling that is likely at your graduate institution. I went to counseling through almost all of my graduate career (7 years), and I must say, those people know what's up. Give it a try.

Best of luck!
posted by cachondeo45 at 5:02 AM on September 17, 2009

Just to throw my two cents into the anecdote pool: my father was an aerospace engineer (Shuttle main engines). Did some military contracting after that (missile guidance systems). Now he does reliability engineering for a place that makes things for hospitals. The problem is that there's just not a lot of places that need full-blood "rocket scientists," sadly. R&D is expensive, and if you don't have a direct life-line to the DOD teet you're on the outside looking in. Maybe that will change as aerospace goes more commercial, but for now the prospects in the U.S. do not look very promising.

That said, I just flipped a coin for you and it came up EN over CS.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:45 AM on September 17, 2009

I did an internship with a military R&D firm, which seemed to be filled with people doing jobs you'd love: writing software to simulate various hypothetical designs of rockets/planes/missiles in order to improve the designs. The place was about evenly split between aerospace engineers learning to program on the job, and software engineers learning about aerospace on the job. This was in Australia, so no direct help, but it sounds like your ideal job is out there. I could put you in touch with one of the guys I interned with: he was an aerospace graduate modelling something something fluid dynamics something wing shape (I was a programmer, in case you didn't guess) who then moved on to work at Boeing in Germany and is now back in Australia.
posted by jacalata at 8:24 AM on September 17, 2009

Option paralysis and decision avoidance! I'm facing a similar choice, just different fields, and have been wrestling with it for a while. Time has helped me see that one path is the one that feels somewhat better, though the other is undeniably better in some respects, has some potential opportunities that could lead to a potentially cool future for me if they were to manifest, and a time traveler might be able to tell me that it was in fact the one I should have chosen. One thing that has occurred to me though is that whichever one I pick, I'll be fine, I'll adapt to my new reality, and that'll be the new platform from which I make decisions about where to go next. My confidence in my ability to survive, learn, adapt, and thrive no matter where I find myself helps me feel less anxious about choosing a path at a fork. The last sentence of the New Yorker's review of a book I'll mention below was this, "The surprise isn’t how often we make bad choices; the surprise is how seldom they defeat us." My experience supports that, and it's nice to keep that in mind when making a tough choice.

An additional worry for me, more so when I was first getting started, was the time I would waste if I choose "wrong" and had to start over or change again. I didn't want to "fall behind" in life. But since we learn from mistakes and from experience and just from additional time on earth, and since we can't know how things would have turned out differently for us if we had taken a different path at some point in the past, I never quite end up feeling that sense of wasted time that I feared I would feel. I just am where I am at any given point and have more choices ahead of me. So these days I try to let go of that fear of putting a foot wrong and wasting life time when facing a tough life path choice.

Part of the problem of choosing something is the regret of not choosing the thing you passed over. This is one of the issues Barry Schwartz explores in his book, The Paradox of Choice, which you may find helpful. He talks about how any choice between two or more desirable options involves trade-offs, because no single choice will satisfy all of your desires (i.e., each has opportunity costs). This, he says, has psychological consequences because it affects how satisfied you are with the choice you ultimately make. The disappointment of giving up something of value can stay with you and detract from the perceived value of the thing you chose and your satisfaction with it. That's buyer's remorse, but there's also anticipatory regret before you even make your decision. There's a lot more to it, but ultimately he illustrates how people who shoot for a "good enough" choice instead of the impossible "best" are happier about their decisions, and just happier in general, as are those who can let go of post-decision regret. Duh, I suppose, on that last point.

I'll leave you with a partially-applicable sports metaphor. I played goalkeeper in soccer growing up. Penalty kicks are awful because the guy is so close and has the opportunity to kick it as hard as he can and you can't move until he does. If he's good, he'll score... unless you make a lucky guess. My high school coach always said, "pick a side and dive". In that situation, unlike yours, time to decide was extremely short. Since the ball came so fast, you didn't have time to wait to watch to see which way it was going before deciding which way to dive (at least at high school skill level). Unless you could predict the path somewhat based on clues in his wind-up or past kicks, you just had to start diving one way or the other just before he kicked it to have any chance of being in front of the ball when it arrived.

The unspoken part of the coach's advice was "...and live with your choice." Rather than be frozen in the middle of the goal line as the ball passes to one side or the other, just pick one and at least give yourself a chance of stopping it. Like Schwartz, he was saying choose decisively and move, and however it turns out, do the same thing at the next opportunity. Advice from both of those guys has helped me make decisions and spend less time worrying about opportunity costs (though I was still formulating an AskMe just like this one for a while). Because if someone scores on me or I make a life path choice that doesn't turn out the way I want, there's plenty of time to recover and succeed, and meanwhile I've moved rather than stood still. And other game/life factors I can't yet know will influence things anyway, so my single choice doesn't decide the fate of the universe.

This doesn't tell you which career to pick, just how to feel better about committing to a decision and leaving one of the options behind you.

Good luck!
posted by Askr at 8:57 AM on September 17, 2009 [2 favorites]

It sounds like you have a choice between doing programming and engineering vs doing just programming. There are a lot of programming jobs out there that don't require much intelligence, and are not really that exciting at all.

It isn't like if you get a masters degree programming computational fluid dynamics simulators it's going to hurt your chances of getting a programming job, in fact you'll probably be able to get more interesting jobs. The only difference is you'll have more debt.

Sitting around writing web pages isn't exactly much of an intellectual challenge.
posted by delmoi at 12:53 PM on September 17, 2009

Sorry so late, I was out of town...

When you say you 'didn't like your job prospects' because they seemed like a lot of paperwork, did you actually apply for any jobs? I am an aerospace engineer, and I have been actively designing spacecraft for 8 years. While some assignments involve 'paperwork' (I'm guessing you mean requirements tracking and such...), someone has to do the actual design, analysis and manufacturing. And if you are a good programmer, so much the better.

Now if you didn't like your prospects because the economy is not great, that might be a reason to stay in school for another year or two. But honestly, I'd send out resumes and interview at a few places. If you can turn up a job that sounds like fun, you've opened up your options: grad school will always be there waiting for you. You can skip grad school...or go back in the evenings...or go back in a year or two.

I stayed an extra year after graduating and got my masters, because those were the fun classes that I slogged through undergrad for. And since then, I've been working full time, and enjoying the freedom of 'only' 40 hours/week--free evenings and weekends feels limitless after school.
posted by lemonade at 8:57 PM on September 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Hello, first time poster, first time everything. :) One of my friends sent me a link to your question, with the comment "This question is meant for you to answer." So I felt compelled to register and add my two cents to this discussion.

Before I begin, I want you to know that paperwork is inherent to any engineering discipline, software or otherwise. Unless you plan on continuously rapid prototyping until you die, you'll always need to do documentation. This is especially true for companies with high CMMI level.

BACKGROUND: I have a Bachelor's and Master's degree in Computer Science (CS), and I am currently pursuing another Master's degree in Aerospace Engineering (AE) as a part-time student. I am a full-time software engineer at a defense company, working on anything from radar displays to camera controls.

HISTORY: While I was a student on the computer science track, I have considered several times to transfer to aerospace engineering. I've always loved airplanes, but was told that aviation is a dying field (oh, they were so wrong...). One of the many problems I faced at the time, was that the difference between AE and ME at my college was two classes. I felt that the curriculum at that college was lacking for AE, and at the same time I was so far down my CS path that to change major would've meant at least two years of delay. For me, this was financially infeasible.

After I started working full-time, I took advantage of my company's education program, where they will pay for my tuition as long as I made a decent grade in my classes. When I was accepted to this new college that has a pretty decent AE program, I was crestfallen by the amount of deficiencies that I need to fulfill before I can even START my MS program. The math and science requirement for AE can be quite different compare to CS. FYI, I will list the AE undergraduate deficiencies that I have to complete:

- Applied Mechanics: Statics
- Applied Mechanics: Dynamics
- Fluid Mechanics I
- Fluid Mechanics II
- Mechanics of Materials
- Thermodynamics
- Experimental Aerodynamics
- Control Systems
- Aircraft Stability and Control
- Air-Breathing Engines
- Rockets and Missions Analysis
- Aerospace Structural Design
- Materials Science and Engineering
- Materials Laboratory
- Electric and Electronic Circuits

This list DOES NOT include math classes required to take some of the courses. Statics and Dynamics are more or less Physics I and II. The closest thing to CS on this list is probably Control Systems, and even so the focus is closer to Computer Engineering/Electrical Engineering. For fluids, aerodynamics and stability/control courses, you will need to have taken Partial Differential Equations (PDE), and in order to take PDE, you'll need to take Calculus III and preferably have a background in Ordinary Differential Equations (ODE). Very few CS majors, including myself, have taken math classes beyond Calculus III. Calculus II was mandatory for my CS degree, and for my high level math elective, I chose Linear Algebra because of its direct link to my CS focus at the time, computer vision/pattern recognition.

Remember also that the list contains strictly undergraduate courses. I will have plenty of required graduate courses to take once I officially start my MS program. I am also restricted to at most two classes a semester, because I am still, after all, a full-time employee.

I started my AE track in 2007, and as of September 2009 I have completed only three deficiencies. This is because I am taking a lot of supplemental math courses which are not listed. Currently I am also taking a CAD course, which is not listed but is a very important skill to have. Working with CAD is necessary for anyone who wants to go into AE/ME, because you will be modeling parts and assemblies (analogous to coding classes/libraries for a software engineer). To be an effective CAD user, you'll need some background in work/machine shops in order to effectively communicate your requirements to the machinist. Even if you want to just work in computational fluid dynamics, you will still need the math background.

SUMMARY: Recently, I submitted my resume to my CAD instructor for him to critique and suggest ways to make it more appealing when I apply for aerospace positions. My CAD instructor is a full-time employee at NASA as a physicist with a background in ME, and teaches CAD once a week at my college. Just last Tuesday, he sat down with me after class, and told me the following:

- To become an AE who models parts/assemblies, you will need to have co-oped for several years at a company doing exactly that before your experience will be considered valid. Unfortunately, you are too far down the road for co-ops, therefore this path is infeasible for you.

- You have a great background to work on computational fluid dynamics, but you'll need to have more math and aerodynamics background before you can go into that area.

After that session, I've decided that earning the degree is secondary. I will take as many courses as I possibly can in AE. Whether I will eventually get the degree in the future is uncertain, I can still make it as a software engineer with an aerospace background.

If you can quit your job and go back to college full-time as an AE student, remember that you will not only have to retake most of your courses, but that doing a co-op is very important to get your foot in the door. A co-op can also delay you at least two semesters, depending on the company.

Personally, I think computer science is a more flexible field. You can tailor your CS background to be aerospace oriented, but this is not true vice versa. From my professional point of view, most aerospace/mechanical engineers can construct models using CAD and/or FORTRAN/Matlab, but when they try to convert their models/algorithms into C or C++ code, it can be difficult for them to program effectively because such tasks require thinking in a level of abstraction that can be foreign to such engineers. As a software engineer, you may not know materials or stress fractures as well as aerospace engineers, but with a proper background supplementing your CS degree, you can work on (aside from computational fluid dynamics) control systems and avionics, both vital components in the aerospace field.

I hope this helps, and I wish you the very best. :)
posted by vnvlain at 1:33 AM on September 27, 2009

vnvlain: I already have the bachelor's in aerospace engineering, and have indeed taken most of the courses you listed, although at my school there is quite a bit of overlap with ME, so I've only taken a few of the more-specialized ones. My choice is between dropping out of a master's of aerospace engineering (and if I do, what career path to pursue), or sticking with it. I'm in my first semester, taking just two courses, so if I decided later to go back, it wouldn't be that much to retake.

Thank you everyone for your thoughtful answers. I'm still struggling with this decision, but lately I've been leaning toward dropping out and seeing where it takes me. Quite honestly, while I enjoy some aspects of this program, I don't feel like it's quite worth the considerable sacrifice I'm making to sustain it. At the end, all I get is a degree to pursue a job that I may not like, and that may not even exist. I'm also not super-excited about working for the military-industrial complex so directly, and have found that my other programming work allows more room for creative outlet.
posted by !Jim at 10:18 PM on September 28, 2009

I quit school (though I could get back in next semester if I wanted to.) I'm pretty sure quitting was the right choice, but I'm still not sure what's next. At least I have money while I decide now.
posted by !Jim at 10:25 PM on April 5, 2010

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