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11/25/2004: "is it a mistake?"

Many years ago I had a small hobby of creating pictures or recreating logos pixel-by-pixel in Windows Paint. Typically, I'd then use these images as the basis for a tiled background wallpaper on my computer. I was pretty good at it, enough so that one friend of mine that I've known since highschool opined out loud that I was "in the wrong program", meaning that perhaps I should have gone into fine arts instead of engineering. I scowled at him, and sarcastically thanked him.

Now I'm wondering if he wasn't on to something 12 years ago that I'm only now recognizing.

I'm starting to realize something that's been a skeleton in my professional closet since even before I graduated. Back in university, I wasn't a great student. Heck, according to my transcripts, I wasn't even average. I was a passable student, but that's about it. Unfortunately, I think that's followed me into my professional life.

When you look at my major - mechanical engineering - it encompasses a mind-blowing spectrum of jobs, industries, and facets of life as we know it. There's thermodynamics, the study of heat transfer, which is what you study if you want to design engines or turbines. There's fluid dynamics, the study of how fluids move, which can lead to just about any industry that involves moving fluids in or around something. Mechanics of deformable solids - courses that I actually took - can lead to being a structural engineer, or at the very least ensuring that structures are strong and safe enough for their intended purpose. Materials is the study of the structure and properties of metals, composites, plastics, everything. Need I go on? Mechanical engineering is a huge field, with dozens of specialities, and literally hundreds of paths for a career to take.

So, what did I do with my degree? I became a product design engineer. I figure out how best to make and manufacture things you, or other industries, use. Heating appliances. Consumer products. Lawn and garden products. Furniture. Typically, it's items that have less calculations done to them than marketing and beautification. I have done strength calculations in the course of my work before, but by and large it's much easier to make something look strong enough, and the truth is that it's many times stronger than it needs to be. (Of course, if it doesn't look strong enough, a customer might not want it.)

What's my point here? I've done the professional equivalent of taking a multifunction graphical calculator and used it to add up my tax return. I took a degree in engineering, and I'm barely using it. The reality of the situation is that I think I took the wrong degree for what I'm doing. Instead of going through nearly five years of school, I could have taken a four-year college course in Industrial Design, which would have given me less of a theoretical technical bent and much more of an artistic lean. That would have been fine - I enjoy sketching, and love exploring concepts and ideas.

The other way of looking at this situation is that the career path I landed in has lead me away from the potential that my degree allowed me. If I had found a different job than the one I got right out of university (which was pretty much product design), perhaps I would have been calculating enthalpy values of power transmission systems, or trying to figure out how best to use or avoid resonance in handling fluid systems. Instead, I'm making pretty shapes with metal and plastic, and making them both functional and manufacturable at the same time.

And the worst part, I'm not even doing that now. Last time it took me 13 months to find work like that. How long is it going to take this time?? Do I really want to do this still? Am I limiting myself?

It's official - I'm having a full-blown career crisis. Merry fucking Christmas.

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