Non-traditional student: to engineer or not to not to engineer?
September 23, 2017 8:08 PM   Subscribe

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I am standing there paralyzed with indecision. I am at a crossroads in my life. I have held a (basically) dead-end retail job for the last decade. I want to change. I have three basic choices: stay where I am, finish a college degree in Interdisciplinary Studies, or start a degree in engineering with a focus on material science.

I don’t consider the first to be an actual option, so I am arguing with myself about the last two: finish a degree just to have a degree, or start a degree that is completely orthogonal to anything I have ever really studied or been interested in before.

Why engineering, and why material science? This year, I scored an internship-type opportunity within my company to spend a few months working with a materials characterization team (in a non-engineering role) which introduced me to an area of study I had no idea existed and which I find so fascinating I have already re-enrolled in my local community college to take math classes necessary to start the engineering program.

So it sounds like I know what I want to do, right?

My hesitancy comes from a few areas:

My age. I am 34 in November, and worry that I won’t be employable at 40 or even older (after a master’s degree.)

My financial aid. Because I did not understand how college and financial aid works, I am almost at the “maximum allowable credits” for any degree, and all I have is an AS in General Studies to show for it. The engineering degree would mean I would spend about 2-3 more years at my local community college before transferring to a 4-year school to finish my BS. The 4 years school I was accepted to in order to finish my degree had agreed to fund me as long as I was making progress towards a degree (in Interdisciplinary Studies.)

I will be able to pay for community college out of pocket through a payment program they offer and work reimbursement of about $5200/year of tuition. It is the completion of my 4 year degree at a university that I am worried about being able to afford since maximum credits do not differentiate between credits paid for with financial aid and credits paid for out of pocket.

So I am worried that in 2-3 years I will find myself with 55 credits of math and engineering courses but be unable to afford to finish since I wasted everything dithering around following my “curiosity.” (I don’t exactly regret this decade of intellectual exploration, as it has resulted in a lot of positive changes to my worldview and expanded my horizons from the working-class hyper-religious rigid box I grew up in. I just—it’s frustrating to me now to want to finally do something and be confronted with roadblock after roadblock.)

My job. It has excellent benefits, and given the uncertainty of the economy and ACA now, I cannot leave my job to go to school full time. However, it is very inflexible about scheduling which is why I have so far taken online classes I can work in around whatever my weekly schedule is. As I progress down this engineering path, I know that I will have to make a decision about work and school. The Interdisciplinary Studies program is offered completely online; the engineering program at my community college is mostly online, but some are not. And the last two classes at my 4 year school would most certainly not be available online.

My self-doubt. I have learning disabilities and a developmental disability, plus a few other medical conditions that can sometimes make it difficult for me to manage school. However, over the last ten years, I have “grown into” these disadvantages and have learned to mitigate them and take advantage of the disability services department. Also, technology advances like the iPad and Pencil and iOS apps, platforms like Canvas, and then YouTube, and open courses have made it so much easier for me to be “equal” in a classroom setting (plus the advent of online classes in general), and I no longer feel as dumb as I used to for being so smart and sucking so badly at school (I was tested a ton as a kid to figure out my problems, so I know the IQ numbers.). But 30 odd years of believing something about yourself is really difficult to undo, and I find myself asking myself why I should even bother.

What I want is someone to look into the future and tell me it will all work out. Since I can’t have that, I am looking for advice on taking risk at my age, and thoughts on whether I should just accept I screwed up my opportunity at an education and finish the Interdisciplinary Studies degree (or just not finish at all and cut my losses.) I am also interested in how to afford to school as a non-traditional student, and how to even go back to school in a field like engineering as a non-traditional student.
posted by chaostician to Education (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I meant "the last two years of classes at my 4 year school," not just the last two classes.
posted by chaostician at 8:14 PM on September 23, 2017

Engineering no question. If you do well in Materials Science you will be far more employable at a higher wage as a 40-42 year old than you will at the same age with nothing but retail work experience. And it's far more interesting work. I'd do the community college while at your current job then see if you can get a part time engineering technician or materials sci tech job while you complete your studies. I know several people who've done this as adults and it's worked out well for them.
posted by fshgrl at 8:22 PM on September 23, 2017 [7 favorites]

Is there any reason you cannot contact those people you worked with during that material science internship?

If you enjoyed it and showed a talent for it, that's a huge in.

There are leagues and legions of people who got their job by experience and not education. Coding people, IT people, many many tech people. Even me.

Going back to college and starting from the bottom up is certainly one way. But it seems like you have some insurmountable limit in funding? Like the student loan limit? Either way you have already been shown another way, at a viable company. Ask about it.

I understand that the people running that place have big degrees, but they need great technicians running the place too. If you are logically stuck, you can still have a great life doing what you like as a technician.
posted by sanka at 8:31 PM on September 23, 2017 [4 favorites]

If you can in any way financially swing it, I would definitely say go for it. As a full-time student, will you qualify for health coverage through your school? Does your company hire engineering student interns? Will you have summers off? IME even as an intern you'll be making at least as much as you would in a retail job, if not more.

I think I mentioned this before in someone else's question - I know several people who did something similar when they were around your age, and by all appearances they seem to be happily employed as engineers now. In particular, one person actually took extra time to do his degree, spacing out his school terms so he could do longish internships (8-12 months) to both get experience and save up some money for living expenses. Sure, it took him markedly longer to finish, but from his perspective he was already making more money than he was before, and his problem went from "how am I going to fund 4 years of school" to "how am I going to fund the next 4-8 months of school". YMMV, of course, depending on the exact details of your program. (I also note that one of the reasons this was possible for him was because he was, in fact, a returning/non-traditional student - the people hiring him seemed to regard that as a positive/selling point, for various reasons, which made it easier for him to find a job when he needed it.)
posted by btfreek at 9:01 PM on September 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

There are leagues and legions of people who got their job by experience and not education. Coding people, IT people, many many tech people. Even me.

Engineering doesn't work that way though, to be able to stamp designs and be a PE you need education and experience, like an apprenticeship. You can get a job as an engineering technician but again with no education if you get laid off, it's hard to find another job.
posted by fshgrl at 9:37 PM on September 23, 2017 [3 favorites]

So none of your existing credits whatsoever are transferable to the engineering degree?
posted by windykites at 10:48 PM on September 23, 2017

Consider that, in your situation, it might be cheaper in the long run to just start at the university (assuming you are accepted), rather than the community college. You need to speak to a materials science engineering advisor at the university.

I'm a community college professor and advisor. Don't assume that your credits from the cc will transfer, and even if they do, don't assume they will transfer as the specific requirements needed for the materials science degree.

And fwiw, my non-traditional-college-age students are almost always my best students.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 5:27 AM on September 24, 2017 [5 favorites]

Can't speak to the financial part, but having a Mechanical Engineering degree, I had to take a couple of Mat Sci courses, and it was the most fascinating thing ever. And very relevant in the world right now. I wish I had switched - I might still be an engineer! Definitely go for it, and don't worry about your age.
posted by bluesky78987 at 2:41 PM on September 24, 2017

Most fields of engineering don’t require a PE. The few exceptions are safety critical things like civil engineering and railroad signaling.

A masters degree is definitely worth having. Go for it!
posted by monotreme at 5:57 PM on September 24, 2017

Best answer: Bit late in responding to this, but from my own experience I'd say go for the engineering degree. I had three and a half years of a film degree completed and had been working a dead-end job in retail for six years. I went back to school for physics at age 32 and got my bachelor's degree at 34. I now work at large government science agency and am getting my master's degree in applied physics. I definitely racked up debt from going back to school and it was so time consuming that I ended quitting a different dead-end job and living on grants and loans. But, I consider the endeavor worth it not only for the job I have now, but for the fact that I actually have a career that I can be proud of.
posted by runcibleshaw at 8:02 AM on September 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

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