I’ve always been an awkward mix of artsy and science-y so finding my niche in engineering was inevitably going to be difficult. If I were into construction and the built environment, Architecture with Engineering would have been my go-to pick. However, over time I discovered that it wasn’t the largest or boldest engineering projects that captured my attention. It was the most subtle and overlooked engineering systems that really fascinated me.
What fascinated me most of all was the myriad little buttons, switches and levers scattered like constellations around the cockpit.
For some time, I was convinced that aerospace engineering would be my first choice. I’ve always loved flight and aeroplanes on the cutting edge of technology. However, after reading The Design of Everyday Things by the cognitive scientist and usability engineer Don Norman, I realised that the part of the planes I was most interested in wasn’t the engines, wings, or computer systems. What fascinated me most of all was the myriad little buttons, switches and levers scattered like constellations around the cockpit. How they feel to press and flick. The sound they make as they move between states. The feel of their tactile interfaces under the fingers. This is where the fireworks were for me. And when Don gave me a name for this area of study, ‘human-centred design’, it was cool relief to realise that my passion had a name!
I’m interested in design and engineering with human beings at the epicentre of decision making. And what really gets me giddy is tactile human-machine interfaces, and how they are implemented into larger engineering systems. And if those human-machine interfaces integrate compliant or soft mechanisms into their design, even better. Put them on a musical instrument and you'll blow my mind. At last, I found an area of study that made a lovely link between my arty and science-y sides. So, when I found a subject with both ‘engineering’ and ‘design’ in the title, I was hooked immediately.
How should you find a niche in engineering?
Start to make a list of all the things that really light a fire in your heart and excite you. The things you studied at school that you genuinely found fun. Videos on YouTube that are 40 minutes long but feel like 15. Books that compel you to read them rather than them feeling like an assigned task. Really get a feel for which topics or subjects bring you joy. Whether it’s planes, trains, cars, chemicals, computers, cricket bats, bridges, buttons, boats or basically anything you can think of, there is an engineering degree for your obsession.
However, do expect some zigzagging when it comes to finding what area of engineering is your perfect cup of tea. I initially thought about starting my engineering journey with a tried and tested mechanical engineering degree. Then after more research, my interest switched to aerospace engineering, and then systems engineering for a short time before finding my comfy spot in integrated design engineering. Don’t be surprised if your adventure into industry and your interests takes you on an equally winding path.
This is the wonderful interdisciplinary tapestry of 21st-century engineering.
But whatever kind you pick, an engineering degree is only going to open up opportunities for you in the future. That’s the great thing about engineering: just because you’ve done an aerospace engineering degree, don’t think you’re closed off from projects or companies that are primarily based around civil, automotive, or any other kind of engineering. This is the wonderful interdisciplinary tapestry of 21st-century engineering.
An engineering degree is an opportunity to take your first massive step in becoming one of the few people privileged enough to design, engineer, develop and build new and superior things in our world. As an engineer, you are limited only by your imagination and the laws of physics. And, of course, your budget.