Biochemistry major to aerospace engineer: is this possible?
May 23, 2012 7:52 AM   Subscribe

Recent biochemistry graduate wants to change direction and pursue engineering, specifically aerospace (but I'd settle for mechanical) engineering. Is this possible? And if so, how the heck do I plan to get from here to there, hopefully without bankrupting myself? I'll take any advice I can get.

I'm a 26-yr-old recent graduate who, after years of indecisiveness, finally has a solid idea of what I'd like to be doing for the next 10+ years: aerospace engineering. The wrinkle, however, is that I am two years out from graduation with degrees in biochemistry (BS) and Spanish and >$40k of debt. To further complicate things, I am currently working as an EFL teacher outside the US, so I don't really have the opportunity to research and do informational interviews as I would at home.

I ended up majoring in biochemistry because I liked those classes in high school and I enjoy(ed) a good intellectual and technical challenge. But after graduation, I spent a year working in a research lab (read: master pipetter and cell culture keeper) as a technician only to realize that I'm not really excited about any of my career options as a biochemist. I did do a couple of summer research stints as an undergrad in molecular biology and materials science/nanotechnology. I enjoyed the buzz of novelty and the rush that comes with learning new information and applying it to find answers to interesting questions, but the subject material didn't capture my interest.

What does capture my interest are planes and spaceships. As a kid I loved LEGO, and pretty much the only thing I built (and still build today) were models that fly through space or the air. I started working on my private pilot's license while in high school, but I had to quit because it was too expensive of a hobby to maintain. I get really excited at the prospect of being part of a team that designs the next generation of spacecraft that will explore the solar system or that designs a viable supersonic commercial airliner.

I'm an INTP/J, and finding unique innovative solutions to problems is pretty much the way my brain works. I'm not afraid of math and enjoy mastering computation methods in order to add them to my toolbox. I did pretty well in school (3.8/4.0 GPA), so I'm not too worried that I wouldn't be able to at least pass engineering classes. (overconfident?)

The problem is that I have no idea how to get to studying/working in aerospace/mechanical engineering from where I currently am. Since I already have tons of debt from undergrad, I'm not sure that a second batchelor's is in my best financial interest. Should I be planning to grab a master's in engineering and take some of the missing prereqs on the way? I know that BU has a pretty cool LEAP program (redundant, I know) that is meant to be a bridge to engineering for those that come from non-engineering backgrounds, but it's a pretty spendy program.

Should I find a job working in a research lab at a decent engineering school and take classes part-time? Can I even do that as a biochem major? Should I aim crazy high and apply for a critical skills master's program at Sandia Nat'l Labs to get my foot in the engineering door? Am I crazy to think any of this is even possible, especially without going even deeper into debt? Any wisdom from the hive mind would be greatly appreciated.
posted by escapist53211 to Education (4 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Well, you certainly sound like an engineer to me. I think that a master's in engineering would work for you, but those programs tend to be expensive and not funded well. Your last idea sounds like a good one to me: working as an RA and taking classes part-time. That's essentially what I'm doing, and the classes are covered by my tuition benefit. (Though they are taxed as additional compensation, but if they're applicable enough to your current job, you get it back in your refund.) Before that, you can take undergrad classes to fill in the math/physics gaps in your education. And you don't need to work in an engineering lab to take engineering classes, but a biochemical/biomolecular engineering lab might be within your current expertise.

If you do well enough on the GREs and can get good letters of recommendation (easy if you're in a good lab with a PI that likes you), a Ph.D. in engineering might suit you as well. If you're in school full time, you should be able to defer payment on your loans from undergrad.
posted by supercres at 8:14 AM on May 23, 2012

Best answer: I'm an aerospace engineer. I have some thoughts on this, and I don't intend to dissuade you from pursuing your interests but I do want you to be aware of what the future may hold:

-Working an engineering job involves surprisingly little "engineering". My job is much like most other office jobs - answering e-mails, putting together memos, extinguishing the latest fire. I interviewed for a job at JPL right out of school and interviewer told me about 10% of my time would be actual, rewarding engineering work. That number seems about correct at my current job, but those 10% are very rewarding.
-Many entry-level jobs require only an "engineering" degree. I'm not sure if a biochem degree would apply, but it certainly doesn't hurt to try. Much more important than the actual degree is your ability to quickly absorb new information and be able to apply what you've learned. I'm not really sure how you can prove something like that on a resume or in an interview, but it's something to think about.
-Engineers generally do not pay for advanced degrees. If your employer isn't paying for it, or you're not in a program with grant money paying for your schooling (and a stipend!), you're doing something wrong.

Your question sounds a lot like my attitude coming out of school. I love airplanes, I love thinking about airplanes, and I really wanted to build airplanes. My first job (a co-op at a certain large aircraft engine concern) I thought would be a perfect fit, but the bureaucracy was oppressive and I spent my time applying speed tape to metal pipes hoping to reduce vibrations that were causing cracks. Not exactly fulfilling work. My first "real" job after school I spent writing requirements in a database. No "big picture" work, very little hands-on time. My current job is mostly computer work again, but I do get to make decisions about the configuration of the aircraft. I have never done anything more complicated than some light algebra at any of these jobs, but be prepared for some serious differential calculus at school.

If I may suggest a different tack to take - you may be able to find what you want by getting a job as a "systems engineer" at an aerospace company. The job title is quite a bit more broad than mechanical or aerospace engineering, so they will not generally be looking for a specific engineering degree as long as you can show that you are capable of synthesizing information from a wide range of sources and making decisions based on them. Once at the job, utilize the company's education reimbursement to get your Master's in something that interests you, and then (if you're still interested) transfer into a more pure engineering role.

There are lots of sub-specialties available even in aerospace engineering, so start thinking about where you want to go - fluid dynamics? Propulsion? Structures? Test? Avionics? You could spend a lifetime working solely on aeroelasticity if you really wanted to. One of the nice things about aerospace is that it's still a relatively "young" discipline, and there are plenty of problems that have not been solved yet.

I'm happy to answer any other questions you have if you want to send me a private message.
posted by backseatpilot at 9:04 AM on May 23, 2012 [5 favorites]

At some cost and some investment of time (assumption of risk and delayed earnings) this can be done.

A good idea? Probably not the greatest.

A phd is possibly the worst suggestion imaginable.
posted by rr at 10:38 AM on May 23, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks to all for the advice. I'm still a bit overwhelmed by the task of figuring all this out, but at least there's a bit of validation that it's possible. I'm planning to google-fu as much information as I can out of the internets in terms of aerospace companies and universities that have strong programs. When I return to the states, I'm also planning to try and score a few informational interviews and get some more information direct from the source.

Meanwhile, I'm still applying for biomedical research internships and positions. Just to hedge my bets. Unemployment is not an option, career dreams aside...
posted by escapist53211 at 7:52 AM on May 29, 2012

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