How can I use my degree for helping fix policy?
November 14, 2016 11:16 AM   Subscribe

I'm going to be finishing my MEng in mechanical engineering in the spring. Originally I was going to continue with a PhD, but recent events have killed that plan and I find myself needing to go into the job market. I'm seriously considering going into some kind of non-profit advocacy or policy field, but I'm at a loss for what I'd actually be useful for with this skillset. Where are some places I can look that might need an engineer?

I've tried working in the corporate world and ended up hating it to the point of misery. That's why I went back to grad school. The thing is, though, that a lot of the jobs I'd be interested in are funded by the DoD or oil companies. And I was more okay with DoD funding when I knew someone sane was going to be running things. But I know myself and if I'm not doing something I can deem "worthwhile", I get bored out of my skull and miserable. I want to do something useful, and the part of me that was on the board for a student volunteer org in undergrad is kicking me in the head.

I still have another semester where I can pick up some skills via classes, so advice there might also be useful. The areas I'm probably more qualified to work in involve clean energy, non-traditional robotics (think search-and-rescue), and anything involving control systems or fluid dynamics. I've also got experience in medical devices thanks to 4 years in neuroscience technology labs.
posted by ultranos to Work & Money (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Not sure how close it is to your specializations, but does Practical Action have any US equivalent?
posted by lapsangsouchong at 11:30 AM on November 14, 2016

Do you want to do advocacy, or do you want to make use of your engineering skills? When I think 'advocacy' I think 'networking and public speaking,' and I can't tell from the question if that's what you want to do.

It seems to me that clean energy is only going to keep growing as a field, and a skilled engineer could contribute substantially to improving peoples' lives in that field.

I know that there are also nonprofits which provide low- or no-cost prostheses to indigent people. I'm not sure if there's an ongoing need for engineers in that field but it couldn't hurt to look.

There's also the field of appropriate technology, which I personally find very interesting, and I think you might, too. It's a form of sustainable development that creates simple and cheap technological solutions to problems in either the developing or developed world. "In some contexts, appropriate technology can be described as the simplest level of technology that can achieve the intended purpose, whereas in others, it can refer to engineering that takes adequate consideration of social and environmental ramifications." The water roller is a great example of how this kind of tech can improve peoples' lives. The Wikipedia article lists several nonprofit and advocacy groups which work on it.
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:32 AM on November 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

Consider "earning-to-give": Take a high-paying job that may not directly advance your ultimate goals but which you find intellectually engaging and does not do any harm, and pays you a good salary that allows you to make substantial financial donations. For some people, this is the path to doing the most good.

From the linked article: "The conventional wisdom that 'doing good means working for a nonprofit,' in our view, represents an 'easy way out' – a narrowing of options before learning and deliberation begin to occur. We believe that many of the jobs that most help the world are in the for-profit sector, not just because of the possibility of 'earning to give' but because of the general flow-through effects of creating economic value. Considering both nonprofit and for-profit jobs means that one will (hopefully) end up with a better-fitting, higher-impact (and more personally satisfying) job in one area or the other."
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 11:44 AM on November 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

Clean energy done simply and cheaply.
posted by mareli at 11:54 AM on November 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

have you considered the monitoring / regulatory side of industry? keeping the bad guys in check, so to speak.
posted by andrewcooke at 12:01 PM on November 14, 2016 [4 favorites]

I work in clean energy on a team that does a combo of technical policy advocating (e.g. set up the regulations to put distributed clean energy and utilities on an even playing field), developing additional revenue streams for clean energy (i.e. biz dev), and straight-up engineering work (mostly power systems) to remove barriers to interconnecting more clean energy and expanding the role clean energy can play on the grid. We're about half economists, half engineers, and the engineering side of the house is crucial for the work we do.

We aren't hiring, but there are definitely similar sort of roles around the country in other clean energy companies for this sort of work. Or you could even go inside a utility and advocate for good change there - half of our work is convincing utility engineers with old school mindsets that clean energy isn't the devil, and that if they update their operating procedures we can all move the grid forward. Third-party consultants who can help the regulators make sense of the back & forth would also be great, as would having engineers in the regulatory role to begin with.
posted by Jaclyn at 12:05 PM on November 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

Have you heard of Engineers Without Borders?
posted by suelac at 12:12 PM on November 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

Do you want to do advocacy, or do you want to make use of your engineering skills? When I think 'advocacy' I think 'networking and public speaking,' and I can't tell from the question if that's what you want to do.

This is a...strange conception of what advocacy and public policy work entails. A significant share of people working in advocacy are subject matter experts and use their technical expertise to develop policy recommendations. Many do little/no public speaking, and some are primarily research-oriented and don't have to do face-to-face with actual policymakers all that often.

OP, check out think tanks and research universities and policy organizations that have a science and technology bent. There are jobs out there for people like you, who are subject matter experts and want to use that knowledge to improve public policies. Clean energy is especially hot right now. There is a LOT of uncertainty about what a Trump Administration (sigh) will bring to health policy, particularly the ACA, so it's hard to say what demand for medical devices work will look like.

Good luck!
posted by schroedingersgirl at 1:31 PM on November 14, 2016 [1 favorite]
These engineers are working to make the world a better place and their lives sound pretty enjoyable, too.
posted by zdravo at 1:34 PM on November 14, 2016

MeMail me please. My company might be a good fit for you.
posted by olinerd at 2:58 PM on November 14, 2016

Zdravo- I work for an ngo that both provides direct services and also works to enact policy changes by working with governments and civil society organizations, and all our funders draw a very clear line between our 'program activities' and 'advocacy activities,' to the point where some funders specifically state that their funds may be used for one but never for the other.

I say this not as a refutation but because in my nonprofit experience, 'advocacy' has a very specific meaning, and as the OP looks for jobs he may come up against the same distinction. In my experience, it is not odd at all for 'advocacy' to refer only to advocating for the use of a specific service or product, rather than offering the service or producing the product.
posted by showbiz_liz at 3:05 PM on November 14, 2016

This is a wonderful question. I've given a bunch of responses to similar questions in the past because I, too, took my academic training and hopped out of the lab and into policy and advocacy (the two frequently overlap).

The best way you can judge how and where you could imagine applying your skills is to make a list of organizations and advocacy groups that do work that you admire, then getting in touch with their HR departments with a very general letter of interest. Something like: "Hello, I (will) have these credentials and would like to use them to help your mission, do you have a department head with whom I could discuss opportunities currently available or potential opportunities in the future?" Even if they don't have immediate openings, if they like you they may help you find other opportunities you weren't aware of.

I did this after a period of disgust with academia and federal research. Of the six orgs I was interested in, three wrote back immediately. The work done by one of them was so ingenious and appealing that I accepted a job offer from them within a month, despite a huge pay cut. I'm still here, albeit with a different title (and significantly improved pay) almost a decade later.

Do you have a list of favorite orgs? If not, you've got time to brainstorm and browse. For example, if you're motivated by disability rights and would like to contribute to policy related to the engineered landscape as it relates to the ADA--or even work on solving issues faced by people with disabilities--then each out to NCIL. Lather, rinse, repeat.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 3:13 PM on November 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

showbiz_liz: I'm only just starting to really dive deep into looking at this stuff, so I might be using the word "advocacy" entirely wrong. Prior to a consulting job going after some DoD-backed SBIRs that I hated (partially because my boss was an asshole who didn't actually listen to me), I worked in research labs and loved it. So my experience with nonprofit is very much tied to academia, and I expect the outside world is an entirely different beast. I just think I have a very diverse skillset and expertise that can be used towards something better than, well, guidance systems.

I'm clarifying this because even "what keywords to throw into google" is helpful.
posted by ultranos at 4:15 PM on November 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

Come to CA and work for the state regulating our environment and clean energy. In 2012 or so we decided we'd have nice things regardless of the GOP in DC. So we're full steam ahead. Tons of big projects here, private, public, and mixed.
posted by persona au gratin at 12:05 AM on November 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

« Older Eating in Paris at Christmas   |   When does ST:DS9 start getting good? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.