Is engineering fulfilling? It’s as fulfilling as you make it. The fulfillment level highly depends on why you got into engineering, to begin with.
Like any other career, you take out what you put in. That said, I do find four factors best determine how fulfilling an engineering job will be. These four factors are:
- Passion for engineering
- Attitude and character
- Expectations in the workplace
- Engineering pay
Before we go over these four factors, let’s define what a fulfilling engineering job even is. With the caveat, the definition will vary from person to person.
Now, I’ve spoken with many engineers on this subject. I’ve concluded most engineers classify a fulfilling engineering job as the following:
- Doing real engineering work. This means solving challenging problems while designing and inventing things.
- Applying your knowledge on a daily basis.
- Using math and physics consistently.
- Directly impacting the world with your work.
Then there are the engineers who just want to be a part of a project. Their involvement level doesn’t even matter to them.
Regardless, let’s go over each of these factors one by one now.
#1 Passion for engineering
Ask yourself the following questions, as they relate to why you became an engineer:
- Were you forced by your parents into engineering?
- Did engineering just seem cool to you from the outside?
- Were you following the money trail?
- Did you want some level of perceived prestige by becoming an engineer?
- Do you hate math and physics?
- Do you despise challenges and creativity?
If you answered ‘no’ to most all these questions, then you’re probably in the profession for the right reasons. So, more than likely you’ll find engineering fulfilling.
Because you need to have some degree of passion for engineering to find fulfillment.
#2 Expectations in the workplace
From the outside looking in, you may think engineering is like Tony Stark working in his lab. I’m talking about the Iron Man movies, where Tony invents all types of cools things on his own.
Or, you may think you’ll design the next huge bridge or the next large hydron collider.
But in reality, you’ll probably work on a lot of not so amazing projects.
For example, I’ve designed large substations, water pumping plants, and hydroelectric facilities. At the same time, I’ve designed small dinky water pump stations. Then at other times, I designed EV chargers for electric vehicles in parking lots.
What’s more, you’ll do A LOT of what many may view as boring work. I’m talking about the following:
- Doing endless basic calculations by hand or in Excel spreadsheets
- Running one simulation after another for design work
- Completing mountains of paperwork
- Sitting in long meetings
The point is, engineering isn’t like what you see in the Iron Man movies. Plus, you may never get the opportunity to work on cool amazing engineering projects.
But with the right expectations, you’ll understand even small projects are impactful.
What’s more, you’ll understand how a lot of “boring work” is for the most part required for good engineering. It’s part of the process you can’t do without.
For example, documentation of a design is tedious and very time-consuming. But an engineer who reviews a design you documented 10 years down the line, will endlessly thank you.
“Boring” engineering work compared to pro sports
I compare boring work in engineering to certain parts of pro sports.
You see the athletes on TV for a couple of hours with fans cheering loudly. Most everyone would love to swap positions with them.
But, what goes unseen is the hours of training these athletes do every day. Then how they eat special diets day in and day out. All the while, playing through both physical and mental pain.
The process of great achievements is never sexy. It why flying in airplanes is so safe today. So much grueling “boring” engineering work has gone into engineering airplanes.
I want to point out though, engineering work can become MUCH leaner. All without sacrificing quality.
I’m talking about stripping out a lot of the mindless paperwork and meetings. Then crank up the work speed of projects.
#3 Attitude and character
If you have a good attitude, you can push through any and all levels of bullshit. You can overcome all the perceived shortcomings I discussed in factor #2.
As they say, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
You can’t let anything come between you and your passion for engineering. As you understand how anything worthwhile only comes with hard work and patience.
Because engineering work in the real world is slow, political, and bureaucratic. This is especially the case in large companies.
Your level of ambition
If you lack ambition, you’ll stay at a job you hate that’ll over time eat away at you.
Because maybe you did choose engineering for all the right reasons. You had a deep passion for anything engineering-related.
But then in your first job, you find you rarely flex your mind. In fact, all you do is tweak old designs, which require very little thought.
So, you don’t do what most would define as true “engineering.”
What’s more, the rest of the time you’re only doing endless paperwork mixed in with meetings.
Over time, you find your work becomes less and less fulfilling.
You don’t ever think about switching jobs though. As your pay is decent, and you’ve become too comfortable. Plus, you don’t have the cajones to leave your job.
Without ambition, you’ll never go search for a fulfilling job. You’ll just chain yourself to despair.
The switch from working at a local bank to SpaceX
I have a friend who developed features for a local bank’s mobile app. He hated the work with a deep passion, as the work gave him no meaning. Keep in mind, he lives and breathes code.
But also, he was beyond ambitious. He constantly searched for new job opportunities every free minute he had.
After sending out hundreds of resumes, he finally landed a job at SpaceX.
Now, he’s working on bleeding-edge technology that’s driving the aerospace industry forward. At the same time, behind Elon’s lead, he’s working to make human’s a multi-planetary species.
Sure, there are all still dull times in his work. Again, like sports, the process isn’t sexy.
But overall, he feels beyond fulfilled driving humanity forward. He even enjoys the long grueling hours doing the challenging work. Because again, many engineers gravitate towards challenges.
Important Note: finding design heavy jobs isn’t easy. I’m talking about jobs where you do true engineering work consistently.
To find these types of jobs, you need to really search and be on the top of your game. Because these types of jobs are in high demand.
Otherwise, you may become another cog in the machine and you’ll find your job unfulfilling.
#4 Engineering pay
Not all engineering jobs pay great. In fact, a lot of lower-level jobs have low pay. A big reason for this is because of the increased engineer supply.
I even discuss the question of, are engineers underpaid?
So, even if you love engineering and have an amazing attitude, a low-paying job can still break you.
As eventually, you’ll need money to live. Passion won’t pay your mortgage or put food on the table.
Sure, if you check off factors #1 and #2, you can coast much longer than a normal person in a low-paying job. Also, the lower your lifestyle expectations are, the better you’ll cope.
In the end, unless you start your own successful engineering business, or move up the ranks in a large company, you won’t rake in the huge bucks.
BUT, you can always level yourself up as an engineer. This way you can get a good engineering job that’ll have you living a great middle-class lifestyle. So there’s that too.
“Is engineering fulfilling” wrap up
Engineering is no different than any other career. It doesn’t even matter what type of engineer you are. You make a career as fulfilling as you want.
Because in the end, I find every career is the same. What I mean is, every career has a bunch of shit stuck to it.
It’s why some actors and pro athletes retire at the height of their careers. They could do without money and fame. In other words, they no longer found their work fulfilling.
So, I recommend going into engineering for the right reasons. Also, have realistic expectations of the work you’ll do.
At the same time, never settle. Not all engineering jobs are built the same.
If you hate your job, never quit searching for a replacement. You’ll eventually find work you enjoy. No one said the chase for a unicorn job would be easy…
Is engineering fulfilling to you? What factors do you think most contribute to making engineering fulfilling? Also, what factors make engineering unfulfilling?
Featured Image Photo Credit: David Lusvardi (image cropped)
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Koosha started Engineer Calcs in 2020 to help people better understand the engineering and construction industry, and to discuss various science and engineering-related topics to make people think. He has been working in the engineering and tech industry in California for over 15 years now and is a licensed professional electrical engineer, and also has various entrepreneurial pursuits.
Koosha has an extensive background in the design and specification of electrical systems with areas of expertise including power generation, transmission, distribution, instrumentation and controls, and water distribution and pumping as well as alternative energy (wind, solar, geothermal, and storage).
Koosha is most interested in engineering innovations, the cosmos, our history and future, sports, and fitness.