Help me figure out a career/educational path
August 14, 2013 7:41 PM   Subscribe

I'm current at my first job out of school and have been here almost two years now. It hasn't been what I expected, and sadly, not in a positive way. It's a very niche field with limited cross-applications and, frankly, I have no interest in delving deeper into it. It's definitely time for a job, if not career, change. My dissatisfaction with my current circumstances, however, still leaves me with a myriad of other options that I'm having trouble narrowing down and I'd appreciate it if people could weigh in a bit and maybe resolve this analysis paralysis I'm having.

I, in my infinite wisdom, majored in Mechanical Engineering, reasoning that it would allow me to be a jack-of-all-trades and pursue anything I'd like afterwards. Unfortunately, I think it has left me in the position where I'm not specialized enough to really jump straight into any of the jobs that I think might enjoy working in. I might be unreasonably picky with jobs to apply to, but my current job is boring and has given me limited things to parlay into other fields, so I'm not eager to repeat that mistake.

Anyways, I have two broad options here - I can find another job or go for a Masters (Don't think I have the stomach for a PhD). Out of these two options, I'd view the Masters as a means to an end getting a job I'd enjoy, meaning it's secondary. Of course, if I can't break into a good job without a Masters, I really only have one choice, so I guess what I should probably do is apply for jobs while preparing for grad school. I've looked into the cost will probably have to take out student loans to pay for it; with some work experience under the belt, already paid-off loans from undergrad, and salary increase though, I feel it is a sound financial option.

Now, the tough part is narrowing to what other field I'd go into. I want to stay in STEM, but I don't think I want to continue Mechanical Engineering or any other hard engineering field. I'm considering Computer Science, as I did a good amount of programming in my youth, know I have an aptitude for it, and had a summer internship coding. Another direction that has caught my eye is Operations Research, although I have no real experience in it. Big Data is another direction that looks interesting. Automation is another industry that looks good. The same old concern that kept me from pursuing CS for my undergrad keeps popping up though; namely, most programming tasks are mundane and boring and I didn't want to be stuck being a code monkey doing business logic. As I noted above, I went into MechE for the supposed flexibility it would offer, but now I'm sort of forced to blind pick into a specialty. And if it turns out I don't like it, I'm stuck with a Masters in something I'm not interested in continuing, which would be a pretty big mistake to make.

Man, that was a long ramble. I guess the tl;dr is I have no idea what to pick and was wondering how people have resolved a similar situation.
posted by ndr to Education (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
It's kind of hard to offer advice when all you've done is mention some things you're interested in. What are you actually interested in doing, like, day to day task wise? What are you not enjoying about the field/job you're in now?
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 7:48 PM on August 14, 2013

This is like Career Advice 101 (I know because I've been hearing a lot of it recently), but isn't this what informational interviews are for? Find some people in the fields you're considering- ideally people you already have some connection to, like alumni from your college or friends of friends- and ask them if the kind of job you want exists in their field, and what skills or education you'd need to be competitive for those positions. I'm job hunting right now, and I've been amazed at how willing people are to help me out with advice or offering their connections.
posted by MadamM at 10:34 PM on August 14, 2013

Having been an electrical computer engineer that worked in research on robotics and controls systems for linear motors (aka slow rail guns), having left that, gone into cooking, then left that and gone into business and am somewhere now in the big data / operations research end of things - let me tell you... skipping the step in the middle is an excellent idea (other than I made a kick-ass brine / marinade / basting sauce / and aoili for yesterday's departmental picnic). If I had to do it again, with no kids or responsibilities, I would have gotten my masters in Operations research or applied statistics, or similar fields... but that's me.

I love big data - like love it. like really really. like took a consulting gig just because I wanted access to a disparate data source and wanted a massive sandbox to build a simple vector machine love it. Like, learned python in my spare time so that I could manipulate the data differently love it. Like, say semi-inappropriate things to soft researchers because survey responses generally differ from actual purchase habits (somehow if everyone built cars by survey we'd all have the Homer). Ops research is not for everybody. You tell people how something works, they listen - challenge things on anecdotes and survey data, and then ignore you. Occasionally they don't and 'Hooray!' - you just made a (hopefully) positive impact on your company. There's some great stuff in it. If you do go that route - I'd highly recommend going the business consultant route - they get a lot of ears in corporate america and its a great way to see a lot of data and companies in very short order.
posted by Nanukthedog at 4:25 AM on August 15, 2013

I think you are severely underestimating the options you have with a ME degree. In no way does it trap you in a narrow field. If you have 2 years work experience in engineering you should be able to branch out to many other moderately related fields that need people with strong analytical skills. Also, you are what, 23? Your next job doesn't have to be your last career. In fact, the odds are strongly against it. Go try something different.
posted by COD at 5:12 AM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'll share a bit about your CS concerns. When you go into computer programming, you might end up being a coding monkey who does nothing but business logic. I know lots of people who do that, and I used to be one myself, but it was because I love doing business logic and the system I worked on was so big that every day was a new problem to solve and I knew enough about the business to be able to solve it, so it never got stale for me.

But I also know folks who started at the same time I did in the same group doing the same mainframe business logic, and over the years they grew their skills and then branched out to do systems architecture, DBA, training, management, project management, build manager, etc. Some of them stayed on mainframes, some of them crossed over to web-based or distributed languages, some of them do both, and many of them have multiple language capabilities under their belt. Some of them moved over the to customer side and are doing Requirements Liaison back to the technology group; one is managing a team of CSR's at a call center.

My point is that a career that starts with programming doesn't have to stay there. It's a "foot in the door", and it pays a really good salary. Once you are in, you do your best, show off your skills, and look around to see what other teams are doing, and if you'd like to do that then you talk to your manager and find out what it would take to jump over. If you work for a big company, there are lots of other places to go. If you work for a small company, they often let you wear multiple hats so you are doing something different every day - you become a jack of all trades.
posted by CathyG at 7:26 AM on August 15, 2013

Response by poster: My current position is Junior Engineer. That said, it's a bit of a misnomer - I want to be creating things and solving interesting problems, but most of what I do ends up being very paperworky. I sit down and review drawings and specs and test plans etc - mostly domain knowledge that I'm not interested in and can't take elsewhere. Then maybe a few weeks later we'll get a reply, at which time we'll take another look at the same thing, etc. I know a common refrain is there's always paperwork that you can't expect to do fun stuff all the time, you're just starting out etc, but this really does make up 90% of what I do. My office is very small as well, so I really don't have any room for horizontal movement. The pay is wanting for a major metropolitan area and won't go much higher any time soon. Just about the only thing that's kept me as long as I've been here is the relaxed small office environment and a good boss.

Nanukthedog, if you don't mind me asking, how did you get into your current position?

I do feel very versatile with my degree in ME and up to the task of picking up new things... the problem is convincing HR and Hiring Managers that I can do the job and beating out the other candidates who have more experience (however slight) in what they're asking for.

I guess one option I forgot to mention was to just start building a portfolio in software, analysis, whatever.
posted by ndr at 5:04 PM on August 15, 2013

I know this post is a few days old, but I just stumbled on it.

I'm in almost the same position you are in. I'm currently working at my first job out of school and have been for a little over two years now. I majored in mechanical engineering as well.

I work at a small company that makes industrial equipment and mechanisms. It is also a niche market. I'm also ready for a change. I don't think ME is what I want to do in the long run. It's not that my job is boring. For the most part, it isn't. I don't really do any paperwork. I get to work on a variety of projects. But for some reason I just don't get super excited about ME.

I've always liked computers, and I've done a bit of software in my current position, specifically user interface programming and design (HMIs). My plan at this point is to move into web development and design. I'm doing quite a bit of studying on my own right now; hopefully I can start doing some freelance work. Through a post on MeFi I found Dev Bootcamp (, which I may try at some point. This might be a good field to check out if you like computers and software.

Also, I wouldn't be totally discouraged by ME because of your current position. If mechanical engineering is what interests you, it's possible to find an interesting job at a small company like mine where you get to learn a lot and actually do engineering. I don't have a master's degree, and whether or not I had one was not a factor in my company's decision to hire me. I've seen my company's hiring decisions first-hand, and your education and GPA don't matter nearly as much as what you actually know and can do. If you want to talk more feel free to PM me.
posted by nel at 1:48 PM on August 24, 2013

If I were you I would seek another job before going for the grad school. Finding a good job is a lot of work but in my experience, those who are willing to search hardest for a position can find something they enjoy.

I don't think specializing your education is going to increase your employability as much as you might think. I would say that just being a young mechanical engineer will in fact make you eligible for a lot more positions than a more specialized degree. All of the big engineering industry companies are hiring ME's and if that environment doesn't suit you there are also a lot of start-ups and business consulting firms hiring engineers.

Don't consider the ME degree a limitation, its just very very hard to find a position that you want to "jump into," but I think it will come if you dig deep enough. Even if you think you don't know many engineers, your best source for job opportunities is often your social network. Get the word out.

FYI, I graduated with an ME degree two years ago and am in a similar situation with my current employer.
posted by PeterKlayton at 1:06 PM on September 12, 2013

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