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Becoming a Good Metallurgist or Engineer

Dr. Luis R. Carney, 04/28/2019.

Becoming a good metallurgist these days follows the same path as becoming a good engineer.  In most cases, the field of metallurgy is contained within the discipline of Materials Science and Engineering.  A candidate ends up having to make the same considerations and trade-offs during his development.  

The initial phase of becoming a good metallurgist starts early on during the high school years.  Important activities and course work that will prepare you for more advanced subjects are introduced at this stage.  All high school courses are important and will serve you well as the foundation for what comes next.  Many technically minded students will focus on math and science at the expense of other subjects.  That, in my view, is a mistake.  An aptitude for math and science is an absolute requirement for becoming an engineer, however, so is the skill to write good reports, the ability to articulate your thoughts and having a broad innate curiosity about how things work.

While in high school develop your math and science skills.  Study physics, chemistry, algebra and calculus.  Get good at it.  Ask questions of your teachers--practice (i.e. do your homework).  At the same time learn to write and speak clearly.  As a technical manager I will tell you that if you cannot be understood, your value to an organization decreases.  You do not want that.  You want to be able to articulate your thoughts and opinions quickly and concisely. This also takes practice. Seek out opportunities to speak or present before your peers and learn from it. Think about what worked well what did not.  It is a lot easier to learn these skills now than starting to do so in college or at your first job.

High school will help to develop your thinking skills but, sadly, they do not do much to develop practical hands-on skills.  This part of your development you will have work on yourself.  You can begin by getting advice from the adults around you.  Ask for and receive simple machines, toys and devices you can take apart and figure out how they work.  Toasters with timing devices, electric fans, lawn mowers etc...  Work your way up from simple devices to more complex ones.  Work under the supervision of an adult whenever possible.  Some of these devices can be dangerous.  Understand how to remain safe and protected while you develop your curiosity.  

Read a wide variety of magazine articles from Popular Mechanics, Car and Driver, Aviation Week & Space Technology etc...  Almost all scientific fields have dedicated monthly magazines.  Pick something you enjoy.

If at all possible, join a school or outside club that deals with things of interest to you.  One of the first things I ask for in evaluating candidates for an engineering position is what hands-on skills do you have and how did you develop them.  When you get a car, understand the basics and do as much work as you can yourself.  Always know how to do things safely before you do it!

Assuming you have developed excellent math and science skills, have done well in the majority of your courses, have actively participated in a couple of meaningful extracurricular activities and have put together a compelling application describing this background, you will have an excellent shot at being admitted to many of the nation's finest engineering schools.  If you have followed my advice, you are also likely to better understand the coursework that comes next.

What school to choose?  There are too many factors to list but here are a few important ones to look for.  All good engineering schools are recognized by the American Board of Engineering and Technology (ABET).  That accreditation is important. If your favorite school has it, you should be in good shape.  Beyond that, look at rankings fromU.S News and World Report, talk to engineers in your area and maybe visit a few schools.

My preference in a school is one where the instructors have developed a program that is focused on the students and what they will be doing with the skills they acquire once they graduate.  That is, how close can the school come to preparing you for the real world.  Recent graduates are a good resource.

Most schools teach similar courses out of the same or similar books.  The most experienced professors may or may not teach the classes you would want to take from them.  Many of the biggest names are terrible teachers.  Where I see the biggest important differences is in what equipment, software and resources are available for the students.  A school with significantly dated equipment or equipment you are not allowed to use is a sure sign to look elsewhere.  Your school needs to be able to teach you on the equipment you will be using once you graduate.  This is important.  The outside world favors prepared and experienced students.

Do not be enamored with big names.  Many are definitely good but you can get just as good an education from a small school as from a big one.  It is OK to go to a smaller school.  What is much more important is what happens while you are there.

I have worked with excellent engineers from many schools.  I can highly recommend my alma matter the University of Florida.  You will also do well at Auburn, Alabama, N.C. State and Georgia Tech.  One of the very best engineers I ever worked for started with a chemistry degree from tiny Spring Hill college in Mobile, Alabama.  

A good college career is similar to your high school years but at an obviously more advanced and accelerated pace.  You should be taking and seeing similar material--just at a greater depth.  You should also be understanding the material better and seeing things you may have missed the first time around.  If at all possible, go see a college of engineering counselor or professor that deals with junior students early.  Get advice on courses to take and in what order.  Study, practice, study...

Continue to participate in extracurricular activities.  Do yourself a favor and find clubs and positions that really interest you.  Build a resume containing evidence of technical activities and substance.  Materials or mechanical engineering clubs, car racing, robotics competitions.  There is a lot out there you can be a part of.  Be a leader.  It is a great time to expand your mind, gain experience and make life-long friends.

Do not forget to develop socially.  Take on speaking opportunities.  Volunteer to speak to STEM students or newer, junior students.  Pass along your own experience and advice.

As you get ready to graduate take the first exam for obtaining a State Professional Engineer designation. The first exam is known as the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam.  You will never be more ready for this exam than in your senior year of college or shortly thereafter.  Four years later, after working as a junior engineer, you will be ready to take the Professional Engineer's (P.E.) exam in your field.  This designation is required to practice engineering independently for the public in many States.

As a potential employer I want a technically sound, well rounded person. Someone who can speak, write  and present clearly, seeks help when they need it but can otherwise reason and handle technical issues with confidence.  With the insight provided above, and your own unique talents, you can have a very good shot at becoming an excellent engineer..  

Best of luck!

Dr. Luis R. Carney, P.E.


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