A while back I had the pleasure and honor of being interviewed by a senior high school student completing a Career Research project for one of her classes. I found the questions relevant to anyone young in their collegiate journeys questioning if Engineering is right for them. My hope is that others will find value in the perspective shared:
Q: What motivated you to become an engineer?
A: It was ultimately my enjoyment of delving into the mysteries of life through science and math, but I’ll be honest and confess engineering was not that straight-forward for me. I entered Georgia Tech as a biology major with my sights set on medical school and eventually pediatric neurosurgery. Then in my second year I had a gut-check. That desire to command a scapel was not strong enough to offset the apathy of remaining in school for another 6+ years then working through 9 – 11 years of residency. So I surveyed what engineering had to offer and found Chemical engineering resonated best: I could still explore medical school if I chose to, but if not, I would have a degree that would land me a well-paying job after graduating with no further schooling necessary.
Q: What challenges have you overcome as a woman in engineering?
A: The challenges in engineering overall, let alone being a woman, are what resonate first. In other words, attaining an engineering degree is incredibly challenging regardless of gender. But with incredible challenge comes incredible reward. Engineering is about cultivating of a way of thinking. A part from biology or chemistry or literature which one could feasibly attain by mastering route memorization…engineering is about learning key principles across many different academic disciplines (physics, calculus, fluid and heat dynamics, etc.) and then learning how to apply those principles to solve problems. As an engineer, that’s what I do. I solve problems.
Now, what I will say about being a female in engineering is that I mostly worked with men while in school. And to be honest, mostly white men. I was typically one of a handful of women in my engineering coursework and then once in industry it wasn’t uncommon for the me to be the only woman in the room. But ultimately, I didn’t allow it to pose challenge but rather viewed it as an opportunity. An opportunity to show up while centered in the limelight of being ‘the only one’ or ‘one of a few’. That’s my advice to all women or minorities in STEM majors or working in STEM-driven industries. Just being who you are enables you to stick out amongst your peers so use it to your advantage! You’ve got people looking at you, wondering about you, maybe even questioning your abilities. So show up and show up BIG! And how do you do that? By over-delivering on your assignments or professional work plan and openly sharing your thoughts and perspective. Because the fact is, you don’t view the world exactly like anyone else in the room so by sharing your thoughts, your school or business teams will land in a better place with stronger results. Your diversity, who you are, is one of your biggest assets so leverage it fully.
Also, I would be remiss without saying that I was fortunate enough to spend my professional career with companies who view Diversity & Inclusion as a competitive advantage. As a result, I’ve had no shortage of mentor support to help foster of my career as a woman in a Technical industry, for which I am immensely grateful.
Q: How long did it take for you to become an engineer?
A: 5 years to attain an engineering degree. 5 long but very fruitful years that I look back to fondly: Division I athletics, 4 internships with 3 different companies, I don’t know how many parties, all-nighters followed by delirium, and 1st prize in my Senior design course (bottom-up design of a citric acid production facility).
But I think I’ve always had the makings of an engineer because I’ve always enjoyed solving problems and exploring mysteries. I started asking why things work the way they do in elementary and middle school. I’ve come to find asking questions, having an inquisitive nature is step 1 to becoming a ‘degree-carrying’ engineer.
Q: How do you think becoming an engineer has affected you in general?
A: The doors of opportunity are WIDE open. Having an engineering degree can take you in so many different directions career-wise. I attained my degree in Chemical Engineering and have leveraged that degree in the world of consumer products. I have traveled the world scaling up process designs, working with raw material suppliers, and improving manufacturing operations. I have co-led consumer focus groups asking people what is important to them in the products they use. I’ve then translated those responses into winning technical solutions for that consumer base. I have colleagues that have gone from R&D to Marketing to Sales to Supply Network. I have other colleagues who have gone from Engineering into the medical field (doctors, surgeons, pharmaceuticals, etc.). Others have gone on to attain their Masters of Business Administration (MBA). Becoming an engineer has enabled a very rewarding and lucrative career for me and it serves as a rock-solid foundation for nearly anything else I wish to explore. The beauty of the degree is that it transformed the way I think and gave me the training to become a rock star problem solver.
Q: Do you have any advice for me throughout my college years?
A: Let me break this one down in bullets:
- Have fun. Have fun. And then if possible, squeeze in some fun. Attaining your degree is ofcourse of utmost importance. But my advice is avoid getting overly bogged down and subsequently risk missing the life opportunities that are rampant during your college years.
- Landing an internship/co-op is extremely important. Gaining full-time employment after graduation is becoming more and more competitive. I have spent many years in the world of both undergraduate and graduate recruiting, and to be blunt those resumes without hands-on experience go to the bottom of the pile. Build a network. Leverage that network. And find some place in the ‘real world’ to apply what you’re learning in school.
- As a recruiter, I look for students who exemplify leadership, collaboration, intellect, and personality. The first two are best shown through real-life work experience, though they could also be exemplified through on-campus extra-curriculars. Intellect through GPA and course work. And personality ladders back to that fun I mentioned.
- Above all else, follow your urges, stay true to who you are deep within, and enjoy life!