How I became an engineer

Settle in, this is a long one!  The end of month summary will be next week, when all the interest is in.  Feels silly to post before the ‘dust has settled’.  This post was inspired by comments to this post

When I was nine, I had a very serious conversation with my mother on her bed, during afternoon nap time in our big Queendlander in Brisbane.  I needed to decide, right then and there, my future career. I didn’t want to leave it to chance. Make the wrong decision. Close doors inadvertently. And I haven’t changed a bit – I still have absolutely no patience!

Childhood home
Childhood home

Mum and I discussed what I liked in life. I loved travelling – I was lucky that my parents saved and took us overseas. In 1992 I was taken to the US to visit my aunt who was doing a PhD there. We flew JAL via Tokyo, and on every leg this cutie asked for an upgrade. Would you believe it, we got one from Tokyo to Cairns! In 1993, my whole family upped and moved to the south of France for 15 weeks, which my parents had their long service leave. So in 1994, when we had this discussion, I already had a taste for travel.

Mum directed me that I’d be best to be a pilot or diplomat.

Image search on diplomats is pretty paltry! Could this be a nine year old pilot though? source:
Image search on diplomats is pretty paltry! Could this be a nine year old pilot though?

Both those are admirable careers, but I struggled with the ‘how to become a diplomat’ question.  It’s not that simple, you might get a law degree, and then get into it, but you just as likely might not.  And I don’t like those odds! So pilot it was.  I dreamed of joining wherever I wanted, and once I got there, enjoying it, unlike the passengers who might have the scurry off to business meetings.  I thought, wow, I can just up and leave husband and kids and take a break and call it work! Cheeky, wasn’t I?

In 2001, my penultimate year of school, I decided I needed to know more about becoming a pilot.  I knew I had essentially two options: self funded, or government funded through the defense forces.  Whilst my parents travelled, they aren’t in the world of wealth that finances a pilot’s licence with private lessons.  So, it was pretty clear to me, at 16, with no real earning opportunities being a boarder, that I would need to go the route of the air force.

I made an appointment with the recruitment office (which is now the Red Cross Blood Bank in Brisbane), and did my hair in the tightest, neatest bun ever.  I knew that whilst this was an ‘information’ interview, I needed to look the part.  I spoke to a someone – I say ‘someone’ for effect – he told me I’d need to learn all the ranks and all the high ranking official in the Air Force.  And all the aircraft.  And all the depots/bases.  And once I’d learnt all that, I’d have a medical examination too.  I’m not the sort of smart that memorises things.  I never really have been.  Certainly not dry military information.  Then, to be told that the medical exam would require me to waddle, in a squatted pose, across the room, to see if I had hip joint issues, I started to think ‘is this all really worth it, and necessary?’  Neither of those reasons are ‘enough’ to not continue, but I wondered if I could endure the 7 years studying, and the further 8 years ‘payback’ obligation in the service.  I loved the idea of being paid to learn, and pretty much living a financially easy life, on the government’s dime.  But could I commit to 15 years with them (or suffer the repayments if I left early?).

There were too many things that I wasn’t comfortable with.  And I decided to listen to that uncertainty, and explore additional career opportunities.  As an Aussie, it pains me to big note myself, but I knew I was academically talented enough to study for almost any career I might be interested in.  But what did I want to study, and make my career and future?  That’s such a hard question to answer at 16, with no experience of Monday to Friday 9-5 pm sorts of hours.  All you know is study, with some sport and music thrown in.

I read the course manuals, and attended open days.  In the end, I decided I would do Bachelor of Forensic Science in Applied Chemistry with a Bachelor of Arts in International Studies.  My other ‘options’, well I wasn’t really sure.  There was some industrial design.  And there was some engineering.  My mother suggested that pilots are engineers. This is not factually true, but hey, what mother hasn’t told a furfy?  And really, I can’t blame her, I’m pretty pleased with where I am in life today!!  My mother, being a teacher, spoke to her school’s career’s counselor  and I met with her in the school holidays.  (My mother and I lived in different states, and I planned to study in the state my mother was in). The counselor offered me a number of scholarship application brochures for various engineering courses.  Her advise was for the cost of a stamp and some time, you could be handsomely rewarded. She was right, it wasn’t that hard to church out some scholarship applications on the long and boring days of school holidays (when the rest of my family was at work and school).

Much to my surprise, most universities rejected me.  I remember the long, bare footed walk to the letterbox at that house.  I got an offer, but the letter wasn’t addressed to my name, but another name at my address (imagine what might have gone wrong there!!).  But, the University of Technology, Sydney did want to interview me!  Thankfully, not during my planned ‘schoolies’ week – the celebratory booze up that students illegally enjoy!

I arrived at the interview holding room, and thankfully put my foot in it there (rather than later, say, in the real interview) with a lady who’d become my boss for all my years at uni.  I said ‘oh yeah, I’d like to do aeronautical engineering’ to which she replied ‘our university doesn’t offer than specialty   We don’t offer it because there’s only 2 jobs per year, and the other two ‘big’ universities both graduate 30 students each per year in that specialty’.  Wow!  Talk about back to reality.  Thank you Betty! You saved my bacon, because, of course, I did get offered a scholarship, if I put engineering at this particular university, first on my preferences. (University admission is centralised, it’s all a bit cloak and dagger, and not very well understood).

The scholarship was perfect for my commitment phobic self.  It was for one year, it was for $10k and it required a credit average in my first year, and my re-enrolment in second year.  As I saw it, I could come away with $5k if I didn’t like engineering, and didn’t sign up for second year.  That would have covered my tuition at the very least. Needless to say, almost every year  (and it took me six years with the Bachelor of International Studies, and failing only one subject four times) I contemplated changing – to law, to forensic chemistry.  Just quitting and becoming a flight attendant and travelling.  Eventually, I’d done more than I had left, so I stuck it out, and man did it take *every single once* of willpower on some days.  Engineering is not easy but it is rewarding!

There’s so much more I could write, but at more than 1200 words, I’ll save it!  Questions warmly welcomed!

19 Replies to “How I became an engineer”

  1. That is a bit of a convoluted path – which is probably the norm with people's careers! I think a lot of people find a career through a part-time or student job and say, "Why not?" You were strategic and knew what you didn't want, which is half the battle. Maybe you could follow this one up by telling us how things went from the time you finished university, to your current job.

    1. I might just do that – though I think (thankfully) it might be a little shorter! I'm pretty 'dull' since graduation – but the number and diversity of jobs in uni was incredible – I had 5 at one time.

  2. That's amazing that it all evolved from a discussion at the age of 9! At what point did you realise that it's still a very heavily male-orientated field?

    1. I don't think I ever really did (like a sinking gut feeling) – I knew the military would be all men. And I knew I was done up to the pussy cat's bow with an all girls' school and the pettiness. So I think I always just took it in my stride. And I love it. It's like a rose among all these thorns – but really, I think I like being hands on and a bit more practical than the stereotype of girls/women can be.

      1. That's fantastic that it wasn't really an issue! Hopefully the proportion of women going into Maths/Science fields will continue to increase!

        1. You can only hope! I spent a lot of time at uni speaking to students – the number of girls who simply have no idea what engineering is, is the first hurdle!

  3. So what sort of engineer did you turn out to be?
    I inquired about the airforce too. I was told I could be a mechanic or something else, can't remember now. Apparently women didn't fly planes then – and I'm not that old!

  4. To bad more kids and parents aren't talking about careers that early. Though we tend to search and change our minds about what we think we want to do you seem to do it at the right time – before college. So many of us wait until we are in school to figure out I don't like this or that. Do you regret not changing to something else? I thought I wanted to be a programmer until I took C++ and failed it 3 times.

    1. Thanks for stopping by Thomas! I actually love what I do, or I think more specifically I like the types of people I work with (and it was the same studying). It's a realisation that these people are like me. Interesting you mention coding, I attempted a software major but ended up in electrical, cause I wasn't that great at university level coding!

  5. I have to ask, which course did you have to do 4 times? I had to redo my first year computer programming course. I technically passed it the first time, but my mark wasn't high enough to transfer. I hated every minute of that course. Grrrr…

    1. Ugh it was circuit analysis. I really can't believe, looking back, I didn't give up or change majors. It didn't help I went overseas between attempt 2 and 3 either. I was pretty average at programming but all the assignments were group and I scraped through the exams thankfully! What did you transfer from and to?

  6. I am surrounded by electronic engineers (father, husband), and pilots (father, brother), with a good friend who is an electrical engineer. At my husband's uni (institute of technology) there were about 4 girls on the entire campus!

    1. Wow you are almost me by proxy of the people you are close to! There weren't many girls in my course either, the highest average number of women is in civil engineering with 11%! Shockingly high it is not.

  7. Great tale. Love the old Queenslander! Did you go to a boarding school interstate from your mother?

    Might be a typo but how were you in Year 11 in 2011 and then finish an engineering degree? Unless your electrical engineering degree has given you the power to time travel in the manner of Hermoine in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. That would be an interesting instalment!

    1. Oh my gosh, what a great editor – it's fixed now! I meant 2001. If only I was Harry Potter-esque!

      Yes, I was interstate from my mother – my whole immediate family actually.

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