• Nandini Shiralkar

7 reasons why I chose engineering over maths

It is that time of the year. With UCAS deadline just around the corner, you are probably wondering whether you made the right decision in choosing between engineering and maths. Although there is no right answer to this question, read on to understand why I chose engineering!

1. 80,000 hours – doing good

As an effective altruist, this was perhaps one of the biggest factors in my decision-making process. Roughly speaking, we spend about 80,000 hours working in a lifetime. My aim is to maximise the impact of any work I do and improve as many lives as I can (c.f. longtermism)

Now one might argue that mathematics focuses more on longtermism than engineering does. Although this might be true, maths research on its own does not have much of a positive impact. Engineers build upon the work of mathematicians and bring those ideas to life.

In my personal opinion, engineering is more of a high impact career pathway than mathematics. As discussed below, engineers develop a versatile array of skills and they can adapt a lot more easily to changing circumstances, which is super important in today’s world.

Transformative technologies encourage growth and change. In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a much greater focus on GCBRs. As they say, history repeats itself and if anything, the risk posed by GCBR will only increase. This is also partly why engineers are quite high in demand.

2. The pure vs applied conundrum

School maths is very misleading – e.g. calculus is anything but pure. To get a taster of what real pure maths is all about, check this out.

For me, the pure maths at university gets far too abstract and it is difficult to keep motivated whilst working with things that I can’t feel or see. Mathematics, as I know it so far, is more of an intellectual exercise than a career pathway. Research is definitely super important – especially pure maths. Number theory was once considered to be “useless” in real life; however, almost all cryptosystems now depend on NT research. But there has traditionally been considerable lag in between maths research hitting the academic journals and actually seeing it being applied in real life.

If you would rather learn about category theory than bash out a spicy integral, you should go down the maths route. But be sure to explore what real analysis is all about – I have heard rumours that mathematicians take about 3 pages of letters to just prove that 0 = 0.

3. Versatility

If I said “I am an engineer”, you would have no idea what that actually meant. Popular opinion would jump straight to “oh wow so you build bridges”. However, engineering is so much more than that. I could be working in healthcare, energy, software-y stuff – absolutely anything. I could be doing a desk job, or be out in the wild using my duct tape to fix things, or I could be doing a blend of the two. Engineers are by far the most versatile people on Earth – they can change industries about as quickly as they can change light bulbs!

The same is not true for mathematicians. It would indeed be a rare sight to see a mathematician out in the wild testing a bridge. And perhaps, with the constantly changing circumstances, having the skills to do something (versatility) will be far more important than knowing the subject matter.

4. Bursting the academia bubble – theoretical engineer?

There is no way to sugar coat this – I am not a big fan of the entire “hands-on” thing. Perhaps slightly counter-intuitive, but I am a theoretical engineer. Even more counter-intuitively, this is one of the reasons why I chose engineering.

The academia bubble is my comfort zone – I would much rather sit in my bed and come up with an elaborate roadmap to zero carbon than get my hands dirty to actually implement it. I did not do Design & Technology GCSE partly because there was a “make something” aspect to it. But this just means that my practical skills are immensely under-developed, and I would rather pop the academia bubble right now than later in life.

University is a time to try new things and come out of your comfort zone. I already know that I would very much enjoy a career in research. But if I don’t at least give industrial engineering a chance, I would never know whether it was a better fit for me…

5. It’s fun!

Contrary to popular opinion, engineering isn’t the easy course; it is the fun one! Sure, we might not cry over STEP III or be heartbroken about not getting 42 in IMO. But we know how to have fun. Although labs are making me scared right about now, there is something satisfying about seeing the experiment come to life. Engineers are the most creative of the bunch and there is nothing more exciting than seeing some weird and wacky projects come together.

6. Earn to give

An engineer’s job is tough. If we make mistakes, people die. It is a stressful responsibility day in and day out. And so as expected, we are quite generously compensated. This doesn’t mean that “Engineers are only after the $$$”. If anything, engineers are generally far more charitable – look at Bill Gates, James Dyson, Elon Musk, etc. As some of my friends regularly remind me, money brings power and it could be a consideration in choosing a career path. The beauty of engineering is that you can earn decent $$$ to give back to the charities whilst having a net positive impact through the actual job.

7. “Switching” later in life

Undoubtedly, it is easier to switch from maths to engineering. Although the hard engineering skills might be time-intensive to develop, it is definitely doable with enough dedication. It is quite widely believed that the switch from engineering to maths is difficult. This is probably true in terms of pure research – the jump from engineering to exploring something like group theory at a research level is challenging to make. But as an engineer, it is considerably easier to jump onto some of the jobs that mathematicians typically do (finance, CS, etc.)

Something to bear in mind: some engineering jobs require accreditation. This could mean that – as a non engineer – you are more limited in what jobs you could do. In that respect, the engineering to maths switch later in life is far less challenging.

This is by no means an exhaustive list and there were many other factors which nudged me towards engineering. My biggest advice is to just go with your gut instinct – do what you enjoy! If you dislike what are known as the more admin-y bits of engineering, go for maths.

But if you can get past the “memorising properties of 100 different materials”, I can very much assure you that engineering is worth it. Yes, it is worth the all-nighters and 3am breakdowns. Purely because it is an extremely rewarding career with so much flexibility – you can be whatever you want to be and have a tangible impact on those around you.

Of course, this doesn’t really mean that I am not a closet mathematician – most of my friends know that I am. Far too often, I can be found reading The Napkin instead of Feynman Lectures (hey, engineers can also be closet physicists!). And yes, sometimes I do use pi = 3.14 if I feel like it. I am as much an engineer as I am a closet mathematician.

If you would like to know about anything specific or just want to have a chat, I would love to hear from you and please feel free to contact me!