Choosing a Major
Students struggling to pick their discipline can overlook important aspects of becoming an engineer: understanding the profession’s role in society and communicating it to the public.
By Henry Petroski
When I think back to the stressful process of choosing my engineering major, I realize that what seemed at the time to be a life-defining decision hardly matters in the bigger picture. All our varied disciplines are united under the single professional term engineering.
I was undecided about my major well into sophomore year, but because my favorite courses, mechanics, were taught by civil engineering faculty, I declared myself a civil engineer just before spring break. That helped me get a summer job with the New York City traffic department, where I learned a lot about signalizing intersections. I also learned that some veteran engineers who worked there saw themselves as trapped in a mundane job rather than as members of a proud profession.
This gave me second thoughts about my major choice. When a field trip to survey a new intersection took me within walking distance of my college, I skipped lunch and went over to the dean’s office to change my declaration. Of course, I should have known that there were also unfulfilled mechanical engineers. In fact, I would meet them the following summer, but by then I would be too far into my new major’s prerequisites to change again.
My degree in mechanical engineering did not prevent me from becoming a professor of civil engineering. And students’ questions have demonstrated that most first- and even some second-year students do not know what engineering is, let alone the roles of the different disciplines.
We can help students by placing their coursework in historical context. Two centuries ago, there were only two types of engineers: military and civil. As steam power, electricity, and other new technologies developed, engineers specializing in them adopted narrower terminologies. But no matter what they called themselves, engineers were still engaged in the essential engineering activity of turning ideas into reality.
For example, the Victorian engineer Robert Stephenson, who designed both steam locomotives and the railways and bridges over which they traveled, could be identified as either a civil or mechanical engineer or both. He was also prominently engaged in British politics as a member of Parliament. In other words, he was a consummate professional. His work was transformative in the advancement of both modern technology and society.
I have also encountered first-year students passionately engaged in their coursework and excelling at it, but sadly unable to continue in any branch of engineering. As they told me they had to pursue a prelaw or premed curriculum or risk their family cutting off tuition payments, some came to tears.
If our profession enjoyed the same social status as law and medicine, parents of aspiring engineers might more easily accept their children’s choice. Engineers better people’s lives by enabling clean air and water; devising comfortable and safe buildings in which to live and work; providing unprecedented travel options; and producing medical instruments, devices, and pharmaceuticals upon which we all depend.
We engineers can help raise the status of our profession by doing what most doctors and lawyers do: speaking out explicitly on matters of public health and safety. Our profession plays a role similar to those others, but we tend not to trumpet it. Medical and law schools inculcate in their students a sense of professional pride; engineering schools should do the same. If engineers participated more visibly and authoritatively in civic discourse and service, no parents should feel a need to discourage their children from entering the field.
And when we help students choose a major, we can serve them well if, in educating them in our various fields of specialization, we emphasize the idea of engineering as being in service to society rather than the name of the department into which we recruited them. Engineers are understandably proud of their discipline and wish to promote it, but they can help the profession as a whole by placing their specialty and its contributions in a larger social and cultural context.
Summer jobs and internships expose students to anecdotal images of engineering. Educational institutions should help them see all branches of engineering from a broader professional perspective. Students should learn that it will be their engineering degree—and not the adjective that qualifies it—that will be most important in the end.
Henry Petroski is distinguished professor emeritus of civil engineering at Duke University.
Image Courtesy of Catherine Petroski