Wednesday, April 3, 2013

There and Back Again: A Journey from Engineering to Arts and Back Again

I love talking to people about the educational choices I’ve made, but I don’t love justifying these choices to ignorant people. Before I start ranting about some of the ignorance I have faced, let me tell you a bit about myself.

At the end of high school when I went to apply to university I was stumped. Most people knew what they wanted to study, so it was just a question of where? Me, I had no clue, I loved physics, calculus, and history, and had strong interests in politics, social issues, and sewing, so where did that put me? Clearly I didn’t fit neatly into either the science box or the arts box, so I applied to a variety of programs at a few different Ontario universities and, long story short, I started studying engineering at McMaster University. One week in, I knew I had made the right choice when I learned about the Engineering and Society Program, that allows you to take a significant number of electives during your engineering degree (and even a minor if you want) and includes specialized courses about how engineering relates to society. So, starting in second year I was studying Civil Engineering and Society with a minor in History and it was great—sort of.

There were parts of my undergraduate degree I loved (my society classes for example), but there were lots of things I hated (basically anything even remotely related to structural engineering). I managed to switch into the environmental stream of Civil Engineering retroactively in order to avoid taking the steel class, but still didn’t really love what I was doing. The main focus of my engineering courses was water treatment and management and after 4 years of undergrad and a yearlong internship, I was pretty sure I hated engineering, so when it came time to plan my next move, I looked for a way out.

After submitting applications to teacher’s college and Carleton’s Public Policy and Administration Program, the strangest thing happened in my final term of undergrad—I finally took an engineering class I didn’t just like, I LOVED. Transportation Planning was the first engineering class I had taken where the subject matter really made sense to me, and I felt like I could contribute to the field of study. It was a fantastic feeling—to love something you are studying. Equipped with this knowledge, but still desiring something beyond engineering (and a chance to understand the policies that often control engineering decisions) I became probably the only Public Policy Student to ever take engineering electives when I took graduate transportation planning courses during my MA here at Carleton. During my MA, I learned a lot about urban sustainability, city visioning, and other concepts that are never fleshed out in engineering, and I had a lot of time to knit while my classmates reviewed remedial math in my economics classes.

It was during the second year of my master’s that I was approached by a professor here in engineering about considering doing a PhD with him back in engineering. After some awkward conversations about my undergraduate marks (I was very close to a royal flush (where you have every possible grade) my first 3 years), I decided to go for it, and was accepted. So here I am, 4 years deep into a PhD in engineering. I’m sure some of my professors from undergrad would fall over from shock if they saw me here, and many people question the meandering path I’ve taken this far, but for the most part I am happy with my decisions. I have been to the dark side (arts), and back and the main thing it has taught me is that more people need to give it a try. My public policy classmates knew little of engineering (and one even told me to my face that because I am an engineer I must be illiterate), and many of my engineering colleagues know little about public policy and yet so much of the content of both are interconnected. Transportation, water treatment, waste management, pollution, buildings—just about every aspect of Civil Engineering is controlled by policy (not to mention affected by psychology, sociology, history, and other disciplines) and yet we all rarely take the time to study beyond our fields. Take my advice, try it out, and even if the dark side doesn’t always have cookies, they do have some different ways of thinking—which is almost as good.


Gail Carmichael said...

Great story, thanks for sharing it! One thing that I love about computer science (my field) is how it can connect to any other area. At least dipping one's foot into the arts is bound to result in a net benefit. If only we could better convey the potential for interdisciplinary work in science and engineering.