Engineering Roles

Why is engineering so hard to explain?

As a young engineer, I had no doubt in my mind that engineers designed things, and fixed things, and analyzed things. I never thought for a moment about the difference between engineering and science… or the difference between engineering and anything else for that matter. Yet as I set about explaining the engineering profession to non-engineers (and young non-engineers at that), there grows a great mysteriousness about engineering duties.

Koen [1] notes that engineers are known by the products over which they toil:

Because the connection of the engineer with his completed design is so enduring and the connection with his use of method so fleeting, a person insists he is an engineer based on what he produces, irrespective of how he goes about it, instead of insisting that he is an engineer based on how he goes about it, irrespective of what he produces. In a similar fashion, the historian uses the existence of dams on the Nile, irrigation canals in various parts of the ancient world, gunpowder, and pottery to infer the existence of engineers and craftspersons in past civilizations. But behind each chemical, each road, each pot hides the common activity that brought it into being. It is to this unity of method that we must look to see the engineer in every man.

So while Koen would have us see each person as an engineer, Petroski [2] tells us that there are distinct differences between engineer and scientist:

Although there may be commonalities in principle and similarities in method, neither science nor engineering can completely subsume the other. This is not to say the self-declared or designated scientists cannot do engineering, or that engineers cannot do science, In fact, it may be precisely because they each can and do participate in each other’s defining activities that scientists and engineers—and hence science and engineering—are so commonly confused.

And perhaps most disheartening, is the assessment of Williams [3] that:

… the establishment of an autonomous engineering profession oriented toward ideals of broad social responsibility … has not happened and is not going to happen.”

At the very least, engineering is a “niche-y” profession. My experience has been that no two engineers carry out the same duties, even if they work for the same company. So my quest continues; I’ll keep reading, and attempting to sift out commonalities among the world’s multitude of engineering roles!


1. Koen, B. V. (2003). Discussion of the method: Conducting the engineer’s approach to problem solving (Vol. 198). New York: Oxford University Press, p 8.
2. Petroski, H. (2011). The essential engineer: Why science alone will not solve our global problems. Vintage Books USA, p 26.
3. Williams, R. (2002). Retooling: A historian confronts technological change. MIT Press, p 80.

Engineering Roles

Mulling over potential book chapters

All right, so if I’m to author a book about engineering careers (intended for high-schoolers and their non-engineer parents), I need some sort of rough outline to serve as a starting point. To that end I’m mulling over some potential chapters topics (all of which currently come to me in question form…):

  • What is engineering?
  • What do engineers do?
  • What aptitudes are found in engineers?
  • Which engineering sub-discipline should I choose?
  • Is engineering a good career choice?
  • What training do engineers require?
  • Will I need to be licensed to work as an engineer?
  • What earning power do engineers possess?
  • Are engineers happy?
  • What is the future of engineering?
  • How do I get into a good engineering school?
  • What are employers looking for in engineering candidates?
  • How do engineers think?
  • What are the downsides of an engineering career?
  • What are the social implications of being an engineer?
  • What will drive me crazy if I become an engineer?

There are a lot of existing references about engineering careers, but it turns out that few people have really investigated what engineers do in the workplace. Therefore, many descriptions of engineering responsibilities emphasize design and analysis, even though a small percentage of engineers participate in these activities on more than an occasional basis. (See “Are we accidentally misleading students about engineering practice?” [pdf] by Dr. James Trevelyan, 2011 Research in Engineering Education Symposium, Madrid.) I’d like to provide a more realistic view of engineering practice, and to emphasize the value of engineering problem solving in fields outside “traditional” engineering vocations.

Potential references:

  • Educating Engineers: A listing of engineering schools by state, as well as a description of various engineering career opportunities.
  • Discover Engineering: Site established by DiscoverE (formerly the National Engineers Week Foundation) “to sustain and grow a dynamic engineering profession through outreach, education, celebration, and volunteerism.”
  • A Career in Engineering: Description of an engineer’s professional responsibilities, written by the Wall Street Journal.
  • Engineering Careers: A long list of engineering sub-disciplines provided by
  • Architecture and Engineering Occupations: Data on engineering employment and salaries provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Feel free to use the contact page to provide me with additional chapter topics and/or career planning resources!

Engineering Roles

A Quote from Freeman Dyson

Somewhere along the way, during the past six months or so, I saw a quote about engineers attributed to a 1979 book written by Freeman Dyson, titled Disturbing the Universe. As I am too frequently apt to do, I found a used copy listed on Amazon and had it shipped my direction. This particular book managed to escape the piles of books I am hoarding in my office, and found its way to my bedside stand. As a result, I have been working my way through it for the past week or so.

Dr. Dyson is perhaps best-known for showing that two competing descriptions of quantum electrodynamics were equivalent. In particular, he matched the diagrams of Richard Feynman with the mathematical methods of Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga. His description of how the solution came to him sounds like something from a Hollywood script:

For two weeks I had not thought about physics, and now it came bursting into my consciousness like an explosion. Feynman’s pictures and Schwinger’s equations began sorting themselves out in my head with a clarity they never had before. For the first time I was able put them all together. For an hour or two I arranged and rearranged the pieces. Then I knew that they all fitted. I had no pencil or paper, but everything was so clear I did not need to write it down.

I’ve had an insight or two in my time, but never anything quite this substantial. And I can’t tell you how many good ideas (or at least what seemed to be good ideas at the time) slipped away because I failed to immediately write them down. But it appears Dr. Dyson’s memory is a good deal sharper than mine. Alas!

Between 1957 and 1961, Dr. Dyson worked on a project to use nuclear pulse propulsion for space flight. During this interval, he worked with engineers in designing spaceships, aiming for “Saturn by 1970.” In describing this period of his career, he notes (on page 114) that:

I particularly enjoyed being immersed in the ethos of engineering, which is very different from the ethos of science. A good scientist is a person with original ideas. A good engineer is a person who makes a design that works with as few original ideas as possible. There are no prima donnas in engineering.

It’s not yet clear to me where such a quote might fit into a book about engineering, but I love that final sentence: “There are no prima donnas in engineering.”

Engineering Revision

Rebooting Engineering Revision

Its been exactly three years since my last post on this blog, Engineering Revision. During that interval I finished up my PhD degree, and have spent a considerable amount of time sharing engineering knowledge in the college classroom. Teaching is a challenge that I truly enjoy, and I hope to continue improving my ability to share critical concepts in a concise and meaningful manner.

The podcast I started three years ago with Chris Gammell, The Engineering Commons, continues to chug along as well, although Chris is no longer co-hosting the show. However, I have three new co-hosts with whom to discuss the day-to-day joys and tribulations of an engineering career. It’s a thrill to share interesting conversations about the engineering profession with Adam, Brian, and Carmen, as well as our frequent guest experts.

My purpose in rebooting this blog is to start sorting out ideas for a book about the engineering profession. In particular, I want to provide practical advice for high school students (and their parents) who are considering engineering careers. I’m increasingly fascinated by the small incidents of happenstance that lead people into successful engineering careers, as well as the inability of most engineers to explain exactly how they add value to their respective organizations. I’m also concerned that the current emphasis on increasing the number STEM graduates is going to result in a boatload of unemployed engineers over the next five years. I’ll have to look it up, but I think the statistics are that 50% of engineering graduates are no longer working in engineering (or never worked in engineering) just five years after graduation. Will this only get worse with an increasing number of engineers in the workplace? And is an engineering degree to remain a job ticket, or will it become more of a philosophical degree; a lens through which to view and interpret the world?

So for a while, I want to make comments about books and articles that I’m reading (or more accurately, that I’ve been intending to read). I’ve accumulated a sizable collection of source material over the past three years; some of which I’ve actually read multiple times, but much that I have yet to crack open. As I’ve not yet found anyone summarizing such content, or attempting to pull these ideas together in a single location, I’m going to give it a shot.

My apologies if you’re shocked at seeing a new post from this site suddenly pop up in your feed reader after all this time. I’ll try to be more frequent in my future updates!