Making the leap from amateur to professional - engineering
September 6, 2016 11:09 PM   Subscribe

I've been looking for some time now for a new career path - beyond just "whatever job I can get right now" and into something secure, with a future and where I've got a genuine interest. I've worked in the non-technical side of radio broadcasting in the past, and radio technology (through ham radio) has been my hobby for many years. I'm wondering about turning RF engineering into a career but I'm unsure where to start. Help!

I've been a licensed and active radio amateur since I was a teenager - I've designed antenna systems, built stations, organised DXpeditions to remote parts of the country, built my own kit and so on. At present I'm playing around with SDR and GNU Radio and building my own receivers in software. I really enjoy it and I've got a lot out of it over the years, but I've never thought of engineering as something I'd be able to do for a job. I never went to university to do anything, because at 18 I had no idea what I wanted to do and had pretensions of being a writer or a journalist or something. Now I'm 30, and older, and wiser.

I like having a goal at work rather than just bumbling around shuffling paper and wondering if I'll have a job tomorrow. For example, I've enjoyed working at a busy local radio station which has to put together 16 hours of live broadcast a day more than at a public-sector office where the work is far less focused on a goal and far more to do with "soft" social skills. I like workplaces where there's an end goal of a tangible product or end result. Administration isn't scratching that itch for me. Nor is bouncing around insecure jobs going to keep me sustained for the next 30-40 years.

I kind of feel like it's been staring me in the face all this time while I've been struggling to get out of generic administrative work and into something resembling an actual career. I've looked at lots of potential career paths but never this thing that's been on my metaphorical doorstep all along. My brain hasn't quite been able to make the connection between "this is a hobby thing that you enjoy doing" and "this is something that could be a marketable skill given the right qualifications and experience". It seems from my relative layperson's point of view that radio technology is a field with a definite future, both in terms of economic potential and continued innovations and challenges. I'd love to be able to make the transition, but am I too old?

Are there any particular EE or RF engineering fields that are crying out for workers and people to get into them at present? As far as I can tell, SDR seems to be one of the major areas of research these days, but my knowledge might be a little out of date. One of the things I'm prioritising at present is learning to code, because it seems like that's a prerequisite for 99% of roles in engineering and technology these days. Aside from my existing friends and contacts in amateur radio, are there places I can go (online or offline) to learn more and to meet people already involved in the field?

From my own research, the academic route seems to be to get a BSc in electrical engineering or a similar field followed by an MSc to specialise in the RF field. Is academia the only viable route? (I know nothing about the actual process of "going to university".) Are apprenticeships still a thing and are they appropriate for someone my age? Is it still possible to get into the field at entry level and work your way up, or is that a thing of the past these days? So many questions! I hope that someone with more engineering experience than me can help out. :)

I am happy to receive MeMail or to post clarifications if required.
posted by winterhill to Education (3 answers total)
There is a difference between moving into a professional engineering type career (i.e. one where you get paid to do a job in a technical problem solving field) and a career as a Professional Engineer (i.e. one where you are certified as a Professional Engineer by the appropriate board(s) in your area).

The specific details of the latter vary across jurisdictions; here in Canada the most practical route is a BSc and four years experience as an Engineer-In-Training (EIT). An engineering BSc is a math-heavy degree, particularly in the first couple of years. From there, a MSc is a minimum requirement to head into pure research, but most engineering isn't pure research. Again, that's Canada, your jurisdiction may vary.

What you may be interested in is an engineering technologist / technician sort of position; the education process for these tend to be shorter, and more hands-on and focused on practical technical material. Again, the certification processes for these vary across jurisdictions, but would tend to involve two years at a technical college sort of institute for a certificate or diploma. The careers on the other hand tend to be lower paid than engineering careers.

As an example of one of the differences, in my engineering BSc, we were taught the basic underlying physics around a capacitor, the underlying equations governing the electrical field and flux and so on. I think a technologist just needs to know what they actually do in a practical circuit. (Sorry for the vague description, but I sucked at electrical stuff and became a Civil engineer.)

PS: I don't think it's ever too late to change careers, particularly when the career is something reasonably in-demand that you have a passion for!
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 10:31 AM on September 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm an EE in RF design and manufacturing. I double down on what Homeboy said. You can look into a technologist diploma and if you pick the college right, upgrade to an engineering degree later on if you find the work enjoyable. As a technologist you would work in the lab testing and assembling circuit boards, possibly troubleshooting any issues you find. As a designer you would work in a cube using software to simulate your designs.

Are they crying out for workers? Yes and no. Skilled, knowledgeable, responsible, organised people with good communication skills will find work. Once you have a network under your belt it is easier to find work as well. The pay is good too!

It takes time to become a skilled RF designer and not everyone rises to the top. Many have advanced degrees (masters or PhD). There are other adjacent careers like test engineer or product engineer that are more on the manufacturing side of things and don't require an advanced degree just a bachelor's. If you like equipment and coding then look into high speed test engineering. (You don't study for this, you just become a general engineer with a specialisation in semiconductors and test equipment design).

It's not too late, especially if you can be OK being an intern in your 30s. People may find it odd at first but I imagine they'd see it as a neat novelty and you'd grow past being an intern very quickly anyways. Good luck! Me-mail me if you need more info.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 9:34 PM on September 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Hello, I'm an EE who is more on the digital side of the fence, but I work with RF guys every day.

I agree with St. Peepsburg, in that design jobs require at least a Masters (most of the recent hires in RF design at my workplace are PhDs). From what I've seen of big companies, BS holders tend to get hired into the 'back end' of the process: testing, verification, etc. If you want to do design and can afford to spend a lot of time in school, maybe there's a program out there that has a substantial co-op component?

As for becoming a tech, I will say that a good tech is worth his weight in gold. On the other hand, the techs I work with have been with the company for decades, so you will want to find out what the job market in your area is like beforehand.

Also, not to discourage you, but personally I find it harder to work on my electronics hobbies after a day at work spent working on electronics (go figure). Making your hobby into your career can reduce your enjoyment, but of course it's a living. Therefore you might see if you have an affinity for software, since that field tends to have a lower barrier to entry.
posted by Standard Orange at 4:44 PM on September 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

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