Three Things I Wish I’d Known About Engineering When I Was Sixteen

Many people still, consciously or by default, rule out career options while they’re still in high school.

Aged 15 or 16, we start choosing subjects in earnest. We can drop maths for art, or art for maths; we can take psychology instead of economics; we can keep going with music or leave it as a hobby.

And yes, it’s always possible to go back and make up for it. There are people who go and work, then go to university in their twenties or thirties or seventies.

But.

It’s actually not easy to do that. It’s hard to leave a job that pays you and start paying to work.

Here are the things that almost – but not quite – stopped me studying engineering at university, and why I’m so, so glad I did.

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1. You need calculus and physics

Most universities will insist on these subjects, but even if they don’t, you’ll be putting yourself at a massive disadvantage if you haven’t done them. You can’t just do any maths; statistics won’t help you get into engineering courses and won’t be a whole lot of use once you do. I did two weeks worth of statistics in my second year maths course and didn’t use it again for the rest of my degree. Biology is even more useless (for this degree). Chemistry might help for certain types of engineering.

And – almost forgot – you might want to keep up English as well…

2. But it’s not all about maths

I thought I might get bored of engineering because of all that maths.

Other people I know took engineering gleefully, believing that they’d never have to write another essay.

Ha ha ha ha.

The thing I find strangest about my job is that, after all the work I did on maths and physics at university, I only actually use them for about 10% of my work. The rest is research, negotiation, compromise, communication, and a healthy dose of common sense.

We did a course in Communications in my second year of university. How we scoffed. ‘I already know how to use Microsoft Word! How many times if my life am I going to need to know how to structure a 50 page report? Who cares about this stuff?’

Sorry, everyone – it was probably the most useful course of my degree.

3. It’s OK to be a woman

As of 2009, 23% of undergraduate engineering students in NZ were women. That’s not many. But it’s a massive improvement on the range of 2 to 7% among more senior engineers.

So, yes, we’re doing badly. Which is strange, because there’s no reason for women not to become engineers.

All I can say is – go for it.

Men aren’t scary (even when they do outnumber you 10-to-1). The vast majority of people in engineering will either treat you exactly the same as a man or they will say something along the lines of ‘it’s so good to see a girl doing engineering!’

It doesn’t get boring. It doesn’t feel pointless. It does occasionally get muddy or cold or wet.

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End of the day – if you have any skills at mathematics, if you like to solve problems, if you’re interested in making a difference – just promise me you’ll consider it.

Thanks.

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