With so many engineering fields to choose from, how do I pick the right one?

Energy, aeronautics, computer science, mechanics, biology — the range of engineering directions can be overwhelming. But what do you like?…

By Sarah Jensen

“Many students look at job statistics to help guide their choice,” says Eric Grimson, MIT chancellor, the Bernard Gordon Professor of Medical Engineering, and former department head in electrical engineering and computer science. Prospective engineers can turn to sources such as the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics and the National Science Foundation for data on fields expected to have the most job openings in the future. Others can look to agencies that identify fields in which significant shortages of graduates are predicted relative to expected demand.

“The problem with this approach,” warns Grimson, “is in making a major life decision-based guesswork about the future.” Given today’s rapid advancements in science and technology, he says, predictions of what the job market will look like a decade or two hence are likely to be inaccurate.

Instead of sending students to the crystal ball for a vision of their future, he advises they focus on the present. “Select your field by passion,” he says. “What gets you excited? How do you like spending your free time? Projections may show a future need in certain fields, but do you want to work very hard for the next four years in order to get a job in an area you don’t really like?”

Identify your true interests, he says, and selecting an engineering specialty becomes worlds easier. Do you like tinkering with devices? Mechanical engineering or aeronautical engineering are good choices for you. Are you passionate about solving the energy crisis? Then you might consider nuclear engineering, chemical engineering, or electrical engineering. And if you spend all your spare time writing code, computer science is an appropriate career path. “If you end up in an area you’re excited about, you’ll be much more likely to excel and willing to put in the hard work needed to be an expert in your field,” says Grimson. “And you’ll certainly enjoy the results of your work.”

Still in the dark? “If you feel that you don’t know enough about the various engineering fields to make a decision, don’t panic,” Grimson advises. “Talk to upperclassmen about their classes and their career plans. Think about global issues you care about, and what disciplines might be relevant to them.”

He also suggests exploring introductory-level courses to learn about possibilities you may have never even considered. You never know — the course you sign up for on a whim might just be the one that sparks the passion that leads to your ideal career in engineering.

Thanks to Chandler Petrovich, 15, from Gilbert, Arizona, for this question.

Posted: September 27, 2011

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