It’s May. Seeing students parade all over campus in caps and gowns has me thinking about the future. I have another year of classes under my belt, and though I still have three years to go, the caps and gowns remind me that, however slowly, time is marching on. I’m not going to be in this safe little cocoon of “being in school” forever. I’ll have to go out there and prove myself, do what I said I was going to do, save the world…or something.
Or something. What, exactly? Having a break from classes frees me up to actually think about my life (dangerous). Embarking on a more-than-five-year journey toward a degree makes it easy to look at the future through rose-colored glasses and think about how idyllic the whole thing will be when I’m done. But as I creep closer to the real world at the end of this journey, I have to start thinking about what I actually want to do, and what I realistically can do.
Is it realistic to expect to find a job doing the kinds of things I want to do, in the places I want to live? I’m not sure. I expect there will be jobs I want to do in places I don’t want to live and places I want to live that lack jobs I want to do. Hopefully there will be a sliver of overlap. But what do I want to find in that sliver? What exactly is my main objective?
I’m trying to figure that out. I decided to become an engineer for many reasons:
- I want to contribute to solving the “big” problems.
- I want a job that is based more on facts than on opinions.
- I want to use my math and problem solving skills.
- I want to make enough money to have my dream kitchen. (Shallow? Yes. True? Yes.)
There are a lot of routes I could take. Most engineering jobs are going to be more based on facts than opinions. Most will use math and at least some problem solving skills. But certainly not all will allow me to contribute to solving the “big” problems. There’s a lot of money to be made at oil companies. I could have a very nice kitchen. But that’s not going to make me feel good about my life.
It’s unlikely that a typical mechanical engineering job is going to allow me to directly come up with solutions to the “big” problems. I would feel good about working for a company that manufactures high-speed trains, for example, but it’s unlikely that I’d be inventing a new kind of propulsion system. That’s why people go to graduate school. Should I go to graduate school? It feels like a ridiculous notion. I will be 35 by the time I graduate with my bachelor’s degree. I need to start my career. I have that kitchen to build, you know.
What to do? Part of me would be very happy just getting a mid-level job with my bachelor’s degree doing work that, overall, contributes to solving the big problems, even if my role is just a small piece of the larger puzzle. I want to live my life, build and cook in my dream kitchen, travel, learn to play an instrument, work on my writing, take a pottery class. That route would allow me to do those things, at least in theory.
The other part of me wants to dive head first into the problems and not come up for air until I’ve found the solution to something. Get down with my idealistic, naive self that thinks she can make trains go faster on less energy or find a new way to harness the energy in the ocean. Go to graduate school and dig and dig and dig until I find a way to make the world at least a little better than how I found it.
This post isn’t going to conclude with the unveiling of my hard-won decision tied up with a pretty little bow. I didn’t start this story knowing how it would end. Frankly, I have no idea what I’m going to do. Some things, like the decision to go back to school, or the reasons graphic design hasn’t been an ideal fit for me, I’ve been chewing on for years. I’ve turned them over and over in my head, looked at every surface and dent. But this story is just unfolding. We never really know what life has in store for us, but it’s times like these when you’re just standing at the edge of the cliff and the “not knowing” becomes tangible. I’m on the edge of the cliff. I’m gonna jump. I just need to pick: bungee cord, hang glider or parachute? Or maybe something that hasn’t even been invented yet.