So you want to be an engineer...but don’t have a degree in engineering

academics engineering

I was getting my degree in environmental science, at a school without an engineering program, when I realized I wanted to be an engineer. Engineering first called to me in Cambodia, home to the magnificent Angkor Wat complex of temples. The Angkor people constructed a series of motes and irrigation systems at a scale that rivals that of many modern cities, in the 12th Century. Many of these complex waterways remain fully functional, though not used for drinking water today. As I stared out over these impressive feats of ancient engineering, I wondered how it all worked. And I wondered similarly how more modern drinking water systems work.

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It occurred to me that the best way to find out might be to ask an engineer (besides asking a member of the Angkor ancient civilization itself). Maybe an engineer might know, and perhaps I could be an engineer that knows. But of course I wasn’t studying engineering and my undergraduate institution didn’t offer any engineering courses. As a junior, I didn’t want to transfer, and I was otherwise happy with my degree program. But I also didn’t want to simply give up on exploring this career path, even if the cards seemed stacked against me.

Thankfully, graduate school offers an alternative path to entering a new field...

If any of these thoughts seem familiar to you, I want to let you in on a few things I didn’t know, but wish I had known sitting in Cambodia over 5 years ago:

1. Many graduate research programs include tuition and a stipend

As an undergraduate, graduate school sounded intimidating and really expensive. Still, I began reaching out to potential advisors. I soon learned that many of the research based programs I was interested in included financial compensation. Not only was tuition covered, but most students were further supported with a stipend for research or for teaching.

2. The GRE can help you demonstrate technical skills required for an engineering degree

Many engineering grad programs I applied to had minimum GRE math requirements. In the eyes of these programs, the GRE math section demonstrates critical math skills that might not otherwise be present in a non-engineering undergrad’s coursework. Spending extra time improving your math GRE skills can help your application stand out and ensures that the application committee knows you have the math skills necessary to succeed. That being said, don’t be afraid to ask programs you might be applying to what kind of prerequisites they might recommend. Some of the programs I applied to suggested taking a few higher level math courses the summer before enrollment, while others said I could simply take those courses once enrolled.

3. Not all engineering graduate programs require an engineering undergrad degree

Hopefully this fact is clear, given the whole subject of this blog post but it is an important point to drive home. Some programs DO require an engineering undergraduate degree, but do NOT let this discourage you. I applied to 5 separate PhD and Master’s programs, none of which cared in the slightest that I had not done my undergrad in engineering.

4. Not all engineering jobs require engineering licensure

This final tidbit is a bit in the weeds, but it's still relevant. Many students who earn their degrees in engineering, particularly as undergraduates, go on to take exams to become professionally licensed engineers. These licensing tests allow you to designate yourself as Professional Engineer (PE), which allows you to consult officially and provide engineering guidance to a variety of potential clients, government agencies, etc. More information can be found here.

This can seem intimidating and like an extra hurdle to becoming an engineer. But not all engineering jobs require PE licensure. Many jobs in research, academia, national labs, and government agencies have the title of engineer but do not require any kind of professional license.

An additional important note: as a graduate student, it is entirely possible to study for and take the licensing exams. So not only can you choose not to get your license, but you can also go to graduate school and get your license.

In Conclusion

My hope in writing this is to ensure other potential engineers are not discouraged from being an engineer simply due to perceived barriers. Engineering can be an incredibly rewarding field of study, and hopefully I broke down some of the gatekeeping that occurs when students are told they must have studied engineering in their time as an undergraduate. It is never too late to pursue a career in engineering!

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