How should I pursue an engineering degree?
November 27, 2006 1:39 PM   Subscribe

I'm thinking of going to college again for engineering. Is this the dumbest idea ever?

I'm 27, and graduated college four years ago with majors in Math and Computer Science. I'm currently teaching middle school, and enjoy many aspects of the job, but find I miss coming up with creative solutions to difficult problems. I've recently considered enrolling in a program either at NJIT or Rutgers to get a degree either in mechanical or civil engineering as a first step toward a more challenging career.

My inclination is to apply as an undergraduate and pursue an additional bachelor's degree rather than a graduate degree, but I don't know how much sense this makes. My argument is this: a graduate degree is a lot more expensive, won't get me that much more money, and will come with a "bridge program" of undergraduate courses that will only prolong the ordeal and add to its cost. But I haven't convinced myself.

At Rutgers, at least, you can get a second bachelor's degree from most colleges (though I'm not sure about the School of Engineering) just by taking the courses for the additional major provided you meet or exceed a reasonable minimum of credits.
posted by alphanerd to Education (23 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
At most colleges (not sure about Rutgers) even taking undergrad classes as a graduate are more expensive. Be sure to look into that.

If coming up with creative solutions to problems is all that is lacking from your teaching job, why not take your CS experience and do some fun stuff on the side? A friend of mine created a game engine in his spare time... needless to say that did well for him.

Do you want an engineering job? I say put your resume out before going back to school. Lots of engineering firms are willing to hire CS majors. You may have to take an internship, but give it some ambition and you never know what can happen.
posted by blueplasticfish at 1:50 PM on November 27, 2006

I know of at least one software engineer here who was a math major (hell, one of them was a business major...).

If you're looking to be creative through engineering, you need to be aware of what you're in for. I interviewed with the Jet Propulsion Lab right before I graduated from college, and one of the questions they asked was why I wanted to work for them. I replied with the idealistic "change the world, do creative things" answer, to which the interviewer replied, "You realize that only about 10% of an engineer's job is actual engineering, right?" I kind of expected that from global corporations, but come on - the JPL is saying that!

Another point to consider - civil engineers more or less require a Professional Engineer certification, which means you'll basically be in an apprenticeship for at least 3 years after you get your degree.

Maybe you need a technical hobby?
posted by backseatpilot at 2:04 PM on November 27, 2006

You may want to look a bit north at Stevens Tech. It is smaller and more expensive than Rutgers and NJIT, but they may be more willing to work with your situation. Check with the Engineering school to see if they think a BE or ME is more appropriate for your situation. They also have a very strong Engineering Management program with an MBA-like degree for engineers.

They offer the rare Bachelors of Engineering degree. And have a very strong Co-op program.

Due to the BE program, the course load will be much higher than NJIT or Rutgers, but you will receive a correspondingly better education and have correspondingly better job prospects.
posted by b1tr0t at 2:15 PM on November 27, 2006

Your educational background already qualifies you for an engineering position. I don't see why you'd need any more courses.

Start circulating your resume.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 2:23 PM on November 27, 2006

Start circulating your resume. Also, perhaps you could do some consulting or contract work outside of your existing job, so that you can build up experience in the engineering/technical arena. You might also look into positions with companies that create solutions for the education, training and human performance markets.

One of my friends was a school teacher. She used this experience to move into training and technical writing for the systems engineering wing of a company that made software for her country's navy. Then she moved into training and technical writing for general engineering firms. She wasn't an engineer -- and I don't mean to say her work is the same thing. However, she just had an English degree and was eventually able to convince companies to let her work with some fairly technical stuff. So, given your degrees, you would have a good shot at getting into actual technical positions. Many software engineers and product managers have the same degrees that you do. (And you could try training or technical writing while studying at night or waiting for a position to open up.)
posted by acoutu at 2:39 PM on November 27, 2006

In most (probably all but I don't know for sure) states to become a registered civil engineer (PE) you have to first graduate from an accredited school with a degree in civil engineering. Then you work 3-4 years as an EIT (engineer in training). During this period you can do everything a PE does except sign off on drawings and specifications. Your actual responsibilities during this time will vary widely depending on where you are working. I am one year away from being a civil PE and I have done everything from complex design work to low-level CAD support.

As for creativity, there is plenty of opportunity for it in the civil field. However, that creativity is within the context of paving, drainage and utilities. A sculptor or painter would probably find it pretty boring.

That doesn't really answer your question, but hopefully it gives you a better idea of what is involved.
posted by Uncle Jimmy at 2:39 PM on November 27, 2006

There's no reason why a math/CS degree wouldn't be a good prerequsite for a challenging job -- not a typical civil eng job, per se.

I'm at a school with just as many math/CS grads as there are engineers. From the people I know who've graduated with math degrees in the past few years, they've generally been competitive at being hired for tech sector jobs alongside people with EE and CE degrees. Heck, some companies looking for interns are at least somewhat receptive to math majors with a physics background.

The important part is that you have a degree in something quantative, and as long as you're somewhere where accreditation doesn't matter, you're good.
posted by thisjax at 2:59 PM on November 27, 2006

If you're interested in a PhD, not only will it generally be free, but you'll receive a stipend as a fellow, research assistant or teaching assistant. Even some masters' students get this deal. The "bridge program" of classes is quite difficult -- I was a math major with no computer science background when I started my CS PhD program -- but generally worth it.
posted by transona5 at 4:12 PM on November 27, 2006

Your educational background already qualifies you for an engineering position. I don't see why you'd need any more courses.

Without a B.Eng., B.A.Sc., B.A.Sc.Tech. or the equivalent, he will never get a P.Eng., which limits his career advancement; he might get hired on as a technologist or technician or as the most junior of junior engineers, and never be promoted past that.
posted by solid-one-love at 4:14 PM on November 27, 2006

I've seen many math/comp sci majors go work for technical and engineering companies. Lockheed Martin, Boeing, GE, and more routinely recruit math and CS majors at my school -- even financial groups like Barclays and Goldman Sachs are starting to hire more from these field. With a degree in math and CS you would probably not being doing strictly engineering work, but there's no doubt you could be part of an engineering team and work on the same kinds of problems, albeit from a different prespective.
posted by Aanidaani at 4:43 PM on November 27, 2006

Sorry, I disagree with SOL above. In high tech, a formal "PE" is virtually worthless. I think that in the 25 years I worked as a software engineer doing product development there was only one coworker I ever had who admitted to being a PE, and he was a turkey.

Engineering is a large and quite varied field. Civil engineering is more closely monitored than most other fields because of liability issues. High tech engineering is a lot more "wild west", and I had a very successful career even though I didn't have a degree at all.

Not that my coworkers variously were all that different. One of the best software engineers I ever worked with had his degree in cartography.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:01 PM on November 27, 2006

Sorry, I disagree with SOL above. In high tech, a formal "PE" is virtually worthless.

In geotechnical, civil and environmental engineering firms such as the ones I've been working at, if you don't have a P.Eng., you will not be promoted above junior. The OP was asking about mechanical/civil, not high-tech/computer engineering.

Maybe it's different in Canada. In BC and Alberta, you need a proper engineering degree to get your EIT (Engineer-in-Training) designation, and until you get your P.Eng. -- which usually takes five years of mentored work experience, you don't make any more money than the admin staff.
posted by solid-one-love at 6:09 PM on November 27, 2006

I have to agree with solid-one-love here. I'm a chemist and I work with a lot of civil and mechanical engineers. If you're not considering high-tech, but chemical, civil, mechanical or geological engieering, a P. Eng is pretty necessary to have an engineering job that requires "creative solutions to difficult problems". Otherwise, you're the scut-worker tech who washes the bottles (or dirty probe ends). The engineers are the ones who are responsible to clients, who plan the projects and who get asked the tough questions. The technologists do the donkey work.

An alternative to engineering is a master's in a physical science. Perhaps somewhat easier to get into, and your math won't serve you wrong. Plus it's only two years, compared with (probably) three full-time, plus the year practicum for a P. Eng. A doctorate would be better (and opens doors a P. Eng. won't), but would take twice as long.
posted by bonehead at 7:49 PM on November 27, 2006

I've been an engineer in the auto industry for 26 years now, and nobody I know is a PE. Lots of ME's and EE's, too (I'm a BSEE).
posted by rfs at 8:20 PM on November 27, 2006

Oh, and your CS degree would be enough to get you a software job. Actually, your Math major would probably be hot too, due to the move to "math-based" models in controls.
posted by rfs at 8:23 PM on November 27, 2006

Check your local (state) PE requirements. Here, and in many other states, the PE has experiential requirements that can substitute for education.

I agree, it's somewhat useless for most EE's anyway, unless it's explicitly required by a job you are seeking. Some government and industry jobs DO require it.

Our joke is that it means you can be sued.

I work with dozens of EE's. Few are PE's. Many are senior engineers. I work with one idiot who IS a PE and has an Associate's degree and who is a lousy engineer. Oddly, he isn't invited to our company's once-every-two-years engineering symposium EVEN with the PE because he hasn't a 4-year degree.

My company employs 1,100 engineers and scientists. Lots of civil, mechanical, chem and EE types and is typical of the companies that I have worked for, which also include RCA, Texas Instruments, Martin-Marietta (a.k.a. Lockheed), Raytheon, and Tektronix. Much of industry is performance based, not credential based.

You are probably already very capable of contributing with a CS/Math background. Float some paper and see what happens.
posted by FauxScot at 9:45 PM on November 27, 2006

I just wanted to point out that I said, "Your educational background already qualifies you for an engineering position," not "Your educational background already qualifies you for any engineering position", nor "Your educational background already qualifies you for every engineering position." If a specific kind of engineering job is at stake, more training/education may be necessary. But, FWIW, I don't know any high tech engineers in BC who have P.Engs. Perhaps my world is small, but I know lots of successful non-P.Engs who makes >$100k a year.
posted by acoutu at 11:22 PM on November 27, 2006

I just wanted to point out that I said, "Your educational background already qualifies you for an engineering position,"

I just wanted to point out (again) that his question appeared to be directed towards mechnical and civil engineering, because he wrote "I've recently considered enrolling in a program either at NJIT or Rutgers to get a degree either in mechanical or civil engineering".

Sure, you might well be correct -- for someone else's question. I know several software engineers who make more money than God, too. Wasn't the nub of the OP's question, tho.

My admittedly hasty survey of non-hightech staff engineers making $100K or more working for municipalities (such as City of Vancouver, Coquitlam, etc.) or for consulting firms (such as Golder, amec or URS) reveals that 100% of them have P.Eng. designations, which you need an engineering degree to get (in many jurisdictions).

So, to the OP, no, it's not a bad idea. If you want to spend several years after you get your degree digging boreholes and writing reports on slabs-on-grade or other equally meaningless stuff until you get to the fun problem-solving work, natch.
posted by solid-one-love at 12:05 AM on November 28, 2006

SOL, the point many of us are trying to make is that there is plenty of opportunity for working on creative solutions for challenging problems in fields where a PE is not required. Yes, the OP said "mechanical or civil engineering" but what we're trying to do is suggest that there might be other choices besides those, especially in areas where the OP is already qualified and wouldn't require any further schooling.

Excessive pedanticism in question answering is undesirable. (Clearly a sign of a PE's mentality. :-)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 12:18 AM on November 28, 2006

Usually, at an engineering firm ( as opposed to an industrial engineering job) only ONE PE is needed for oversight, incidentally. Of course, that one poor SOB has to review the work of the non-PE. Ick.

Again, I can't imagine any of the industrial jobs I've held not taking a CS/Math degree seriously for a technical slot... it's just too damn useful and a good indicator you are dealing with a decent intellect.
posted by FauxScot at 4:20 AM on November 28, 2006

The easiest thing to do is go for an engineering masters. The first two years of a bachelors is all math and science courses that you've probably already taken, so all you really need to do is take the courses that are prerequisite to your chosen grad specialty.

In my state, Maryland, you don't necessarily have to have a engineering degree to get a PE, but you have to pass the EIT and have 4 years of engineering work supervised by a PE.

I'm a civil engineer and a newly minted PE. Feel free to email me if you have any questions.
posted by electroboy at 10:53 AM on November 28, 2006

The engineering master's + PE is an excellent idea, if that's what you want. Worth thinking about. Occupational and Industrial heath has a lot to recommend it too.

By the way, all of the smaller engineering firms I've dealt with (of both civil/environmental and OH&S diciplines---some of the ones solid-one love-mentions above) are all owned and operated by the PE. If you want to work for someone else (and make less money), you don't need a PE. If you want to run your own company, be an expert witness, or sign your own reports, you need that certification.
posted by bonehead at 3:01 PM on November 28, 2006

Excessive pedanticism in question answering is undesirable. (Clearly a sign of a PE's mentality. :-)

Naw, man, I'm an editor -- I can't *help* being pedantic. ;-)
posted by solid-one-love at 7:03 PM on November 28, 2006

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