Once I realized I wanted to be a professor, grad school felt inevitable. It was a question of when I wanted to spend at least five more years in school, not if I was going to do so. I spent my last couple years of college deliberating whether I was going to apply to graduate programs for aerospace engineering or positions at aerospace companies. By December of my senior year, I had accepted a position at Boeing as an aerodynamics engineer. What follows is an outline of the factors that helped shape my decision.
I Needed a Break
After four years of undergrad and many many years before that of unrelenting school, I was burnt out and ready for a change. The idea that I could come home after a long day of work and not have the looming stress of unfinished homework or research was downright dreamy. I longed for some work/life balance, and a 9-5 job seemed like it would, at the very least, provide the separation between my personal and my professional life. One of the great highlights of this year of my life was having my weekends all to myself. Looking back on it now, this year of creating space between my work life and my private life was an incredibly valuable experience for my graduate school career, where those boundaries can be much more hazy. I have tried to carry the hard-to-maintain skill of leaving my work in the lab/office/school whenever possible, and have found great relief in the evenings when I leave everything in my lab (even my laptop!) before heading home to make dinner for some friends.
Often Undervalued: the Money
I knew I would be leaving college in debt, and the idea that those loans would continue to accrue interest while I attended grad school, unable to make payments on them, was troubling. A decently paying engineering job and living a somewhat economical lifestyle, allowed me to pay off a large part of my student loan debt before I resumed my education. Obviously, plenty of people go into grad school with loans and everything works out fine, so don’t take this as the only way of successfully paying off college loans quickly, but it is one way to not get trapped under that steep interest rate. Personally, I am thankful for this foresight now, as I am not burdened by college loans and can spend my money on much more interesting things like travel, exploring Boston, and saving for a house someday.
In Search of Real-Life Aerospace Experience
A huge appeal of industry was real and undeniable aerospace engineering experience. Outside of a couple summers of research, I did not have the opportunity to explore my interests in aerospace engineering, since I was limited by the offerings of my small liberal arts college. My year at Boeing allowed me to develop areas of interest within the field and equipped me with skills and knowledge beyond my general engineering degree. For example, I had never had exposure to computational aerodynamic methods in undergrad, but found myself unhappy to be sitting at my desk at work running analyses on my computer all day. The most interesting points of my year at Boeing was getting testing experience; from flight testing out in rural Texas for a cool Disney program to acoustic testing in a large anechoic chamber.
I was nervous to enroll into a PhD program directly following undergrad since I was not sure what topics I wanted to explore in my research. My time at Boeing opened my eyes to the parts of aerospace that I liked and, more importantly, parts I didn’t like. I could then better identify the grad programs and research groups that would be the best fit for me, as I knew I wanted hands on rather than computational work. Plus, I learned real-life skills, such as how to pay rent on time and cook for myself — skills that should not be undervalued.
A Now or Never Moment
I also recognized that this might have been the only chance I had to work in industry, as upon leaving graduate school I planned to look for jobs in academia. I took the year at Boeing to get involved in a range of projects and talk with many people about their experiences at the company. Many professors never work in industry before accepting faculty positions, but I hoped to spend some time getting to know the unique challenges folks in the field are facing. Not only did returning to industry make me a more competitive candidate for graduate school, it has provided me with industry experience and connections that will hopefully make me a more competitive candidate for faculty positions someday.
Retrospectively, perhaps the greatest outcome of my time in industry was realizing that working at a large aerospace company is not the job for me. I thought I would work for three to five years before I went back to grad school, but within the first few months I could tell it wasn’t the right fit. I changed my plans, applied to grad schools, and within a year of starting the job I gave my two weeks’ notice. I came back to school filled with longing to be back in classes and so very excited to be learning again, which would not have been the case if I had rushed right into grad school. Although I did not particularly enjoy my time in industry, I needed to spend that year working to feel excited about being a student again.