NACME Career Center

Engineering as a Vocation


October 6, 2015


We recently took a survey of our incoming NACME Scholar freshmen and asked them why they decided to choose engineering as a college major. The top two answers the students submitted were ‘Because I am good at math’ and ‘Because I like to solve problems.’

At the same time, parents often tell us they are encouraged by the employment prospects and starting salaries of engineers. A response we hear less frequently is ‘Engineers change the world,’ or ‘Engineers improve people’s lives.’ Choosing a career path to help others or to benefit the larger society has often been associated with phrases such as ‘life calling’ or ‘vocation.’ Perhaps, if our goal is to bring more underrepresented minorities into the engineering profession, emphasizing the vocational aspects of the field might be a great way to attract the next generation.

In a recent book entitled, “The Purposeful Graduate: Why Colleges Must Talk to Students About Vocation,” author Tim Clydesdale argues that all colleges, not just religiously affiliated ones, should talk to their students about choosing a career path that aligns with a sense of life purpose.

A focus of Clydesdale’s book was a wide ranging experiment at 88 campuses, funded by the Lily Endowment 15 years ago. The purpose of the experiment was to see what happened when colleges and universities engaged students in a dialogue about how they might lead meaningful lives. Clydesdale points out that many years later, long after the funds from the Lily Endowment have run out, the programs are still going strong. The reason? Students and universities prize these programs and have reported both personal and professional gains from them.

We recently heard from a student who decided to study engineering at college after being introduced to the field at one of our Academies of Engineering in High School. He told us of the personal rewards that he has experienced from designing prosthetic limbs. We meet other engineers who have worked in the Peace Corps or with other international relief agencies. And, of course, engineers who work as part of large teams to solve many of society’s most pressing problems must also feel the personal rewards derived from their work.

University programs with a technical bent may shy away from these conversations. And we may fall into the old trap of saying discussions about ‘life purpose’ are better directed towards students in the social sciences or humanities. But engineers and those in STEM fields more broadly have a lot to feel good about.