For many students, selecting a major is an intimidating proposition. What if I end up disliking what I chose? Will I be doomed to a career in a field I can’t stand or, worse, one that is increasingly obsolete? Such questions are not uncommon and even selecting a highly-marketable major like engineering doesn’t fully resolve the quandary. After all, there are numerous disciplines within the broad field of engineering and even more particularized specializations within each discipline. Should I investigate aerospace applications for engineering or try my hand at new network solutions? It can be overwhelming.
How can students evaluate their numerous options in a way that takes into account their interests, life experiences and educational opportunities? Members of the faculty in the UK College of Engineering have related the various ways in which they discovered what they wanted to immerse themselves in for the rest of their professional lives. We have organized their reflections into five categories.
BE CURIOUS: David Puleo, Director, Center for Biomedical Engineering
For most of his youth, David Puleo wanted to be a surgeon; however, upon entering high school, he realized his strong interest in medicine was matched by an equal fascination with technology and engineering concepts. One day, while reading, he came across the words “biomedical engineering.” Intrigued, he began to conduct research and discovered an organization called the Biomedical Engineering Society. He wrote them, asking, “What is biomedical engineering and where can I study it?” After examining the literature they sent him, Dr. Puleo knew the career path he wanted to take. “Biomedical engineering was the marriage of the medical and the technical that I had wanted,” he says. “And it still offered the potential to go to medical school if I ever desired to pursue it.”
Following your curiosity can lead you into new fields and communities you might not have known existed. With the wealth of information available through internet research, it has never been easier to discover previously unknown career opportunities.
REFLECT ON YOUR BACKGROUND: Nikiforos Stamatiadis, Professor of Civil Engineering
Growing up in Greece, Nikiforos Stamatiadis was fascinated by public transportation. The ability to accommodate large groups of people within a networked infrastructure drew him to study transportation engineering. During his undergraduate studies in Greece, he helped develop efficient bus routes and systems. Upon beginning a graduate program in the United States, he quickly discovered that, broadly speaking, the U.S. doesn’t rely on public transportation. As a result, he shifted his attention to other aspects of transportation engineering, such as driver licensing, driver education and highway safety; those issues, like public transportation, affect thousands of people every day. “At the end of the day, if I design a safe highway that serves the needs of the community, accommodates mobility concerns and is conscientious of our impact upon the environment, I consider that time spent very rewarding.”
When connecting your experience to possible career options, don’t overlook your childhood, adolescence, geographical location, hobbies, etc. They may provide clues as to what subjects naturally keep you interested.
ACCUMULATE EXPERIENCES: Christine Trinkle, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering
Christine Trinkle obtained B.S. and M.S. degrees in mechanical engineering right here at UK, but it wasn’t until she was pursuing her Ph.D at Cal-Berkeley that she began to see the shape of her future research. She recalls, “When I went to Berkeley, my interest wasn’t on the biological side, but one day I decided to grab some coffee and head to a talk with some friends. It was on the interface between the mechanical engineering side and the needs in the medical, pharmaceutical and biological areas. I remember sitting in this talk and thinking, ‘This is amazing! This is such an interesting and unique part of mechanical engineering that I had never seen before and had never guessed was there.’”
Attending lectures, visiting trade shows and taking advantage of student travel opportunities to annual conferences is a great way to accumulate experiences, some of which will influence your course of study and future vocational choices.
SEEK OUT PROFESSORS WHO LOVE THEIR WORK: Braden Lusk, Assistant Professor of Mining Engineering
Like most young boys, Braden Lusk enjoyed setting off fireworks and creating small explosions, but never planned on becoming a professional blaster until he sat in professor Paul Worsey’s blasting seminar while an undergraduate student at Missouri-Rolla (now Missouri S&T). Lusk recalls: “Paul came in and played a video called ‘Dance of the Detonators.’ It was nothing but mine blasts set to classical music. The whole time, he was in the back of the room, laughing like he had never seen it before, and I thought, ‘Man, this is crazy…I’ve got to do this!’” As a result, Lusk began taking as many of Dr. Worsey’s classes as he could.
Most professors relish the chance to work with students on research—especially undergraduate students. Take advantage of office hours and other opportunities to connect with professors. The satisfaction they find in their research may become infectious.
SEIZE OPPORTUNITIES: Thomas Novak, Alliance Coal Chair Professor of Mining Engineering
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, Tom Novak was recruited by the U.S. Bureau of Mines in Pittsburgh, where he first began to research mine safety. While with the Bureau, an unforeseen opening emerged. “The Bureau of Mines offered a program where I could earn a graduate degree while working for them. I already had an electrical engineering background, so I got a master’s degree in mining engineering from the University of Pittsburgh,” he recalls. After that, the educational opportunities continued to present themselves. “Once I had my master’s degree, Penn State contacted me about being an instructor of their mining technology courses. In return, I got time off to pursue my Ph.D. coursework and research. I jumped at that chance.”
Novak chuckles when he thinks about his diverse professional experience. “There’s really no such thing as long-range planning,” he says. “If, when I was in high school, you would have told me I would be a university professor for over 30 years, I would have said you were nuts! But I took advantage of opportunities when they were there.”