I'm a third year electronic engineering undergraduate in a fairly good (by international standards) degree program at one of the top universities in my country, South Africa. I originally wanted to follow some creative pursuit like music and actually got into one of the top music colleges in the United States but ended up studying engineering in my own country due to financial reasons and due to the fact that music is not a sustainable career path here.

Whilst I think I have done well in this program for someone that isn't naturally gifted in math and science, I am not a straight A student by any means. I consider myself an average student at best and often worry about how I will do as an engineer in the workplace. I think I have all the necessary skills to make a good engineer but it generally takes me much longer to solve engineering problems than my peers and I fear that I may not make a desirable employee from a technical point of view.

Outside of engineering I enjoy learning languages, reading extensively and writing. Actually writing up engineering reports is one of the few things I am very good at and enjoy immensely in this degree. I've began thinking that I would not like to become an engineer after my degree but maybe do something like become a technical writer?

My question is - how do I go about positioning myself for a career in the technical writing field, or any other related but more creative field, coming from an engineering undergrad program?

  • 1
    Not an answer but still might help you. Data science is coding and communication and you can get a data science job fairly easily with an engineering degree. (source: my job search)
    – Joe S
    Apr 25 '19 at 13:18
  • Related: writing.stackexchange.com/q/3505/1993. Questions about specific careers, as opposed to careers in general, aren't a good fit here, but I'll bet this question can be edited to fit our site. Apr 25 '19 at 23:28

You have strong soft skills and ok math skills, be an engineer

I have been doing civil engineering for the past 12 years, you are vastly underestimating the value of the skills you have presented.

In the US (and presumably everywhere else) Engineers have to wear A LOT of hats. We have to complete technical calculations, develop technical drawings, we have to write technical reports. It's all very technical. When you are a junior engineer, this is a huge part of your job. If you're not the fastest, that's not necessarily a problem as your billing rate isn't as much as the project manager's, you're there to learn how to do the process and what it means in the grand scheme.

But as you get past the junior engineer part of your career (2-4 years), you start finding out what our real job is. We balance budgets and evaluate costs, we talk with clients, find out what they need and explain how that can be achieved, we meet with members of the community and explain to them how and why the project works. In summary, the rest of your career is focused on taking the technical information that you (or your subordinates) created and making it accessible for non-engineers and it is the single most important part of the job.

For example:

  • If the client is a municipality, they're often very concerned with project cost, so it'll be important for you to explain to prepare an engineer's estimate (technical skills) and explain to them what their available funds will actually get them (non-technical skills).
  • If the client is a private developer, they may have a strict timeline they need to meet and are willing to spend money to meet that goal. You will need to reach out to all the parties with permitting authority for your client's project and find out how quickly they can respond to permit applications. Knowing who to contact will be a combination of technical and non-technical skills as you'll need to discuss the project with the client and determine exactly what they want to do (non-technical skills), identify what permits would be required for that project (technical skills), reach out to permitting authorities and figure out how quickly they could respond (non-technical skills), figure out where overlaps occur and identify a critical path (technical skills), and then present the whole thing to the client in a way they can understand (non-technical skills).

To summarize, your soft skills are what will make you a good engineer. Taking technical information and making it accessible is the single most important thing you can do as an engineer. Some engineers are are only good at the technical skills and their careers peak very early, you can only do the calculations so well.

Other engineers possess strong soft skills and become project managers, client managers, vice presidents, and CEOs of engineering firms because they have the skills to convey their technical knowledge to the world. They may not be the best in their company at the technical skills, but it doesn't matter because they understand the technical information and can explain it. Furthermore, they don't need to be the best because someone else in their company can do the technical work for them.

I think you may have what it takes to go far, you just don't see it yet.

  • Half a engineers job is to, have the skills to determine if something is correct or incorrect, you don't have to have excellent math skills to do this. You just need to be able to, have enough experience doing the math, if you can detect if something is incorrect. Different engineering skills might require better skills, but a software engineer.
    – Donald
    Apr 25 '19 at 16:18
  • @Ramhound are you suggesting an improvement or making a statement? It seems like you trailed off in your last sentence. Apr 25 '19 at 17:10

Couple of knee-jerk reactions (US-Midwest perspective)..

  • Don't sell yourself short in your math skills, as doing it in the classroom is a very different animal then doing it in the real world. You might find at your first job that there are some aspects of the industry that you like and do better in, and that you can avoid the tasks that you're not doing well in school.
  • Technical writing is a lower paying skillset then engineering, and whatever field you end up in you'll need to write and communicate well anyways. In my career I've encountered a lot of technical people that couldn't communicate well, so by having excellent writing skills you'll stand out. Excellent communication skills also opens up Project Management and Account Management to you once you get some entry-level engineering experience.
  • If you enjoy learning languages then there are a LOT of programming languages out there that you might excel at. So an entry-level engineering job will pay the bills plus give you the experience to know what's out there that you'll never get in the classroom, and once you have that experience you can plan future moves into something that really motivates you.

Good luck.

  • Learning to code is always a great idea. But I want to stress that learning (human) languages and learning programming languages are quite different tasks, and there's no reason to assume that interest in one should transfer to interest in the other. For example, one reason many people enjoy learning languages is the opportunity to interact with people from different backgrounds.
    – Max
    Apr 26 '19 at 1:20

The other perspectives so far from Pyrotechnical and Jim Horn are quite good.

I'll say bluntly I don't think technical writing as a sole endeavour is generally well respected in the United States, even though it can be quite valuable and crucial. My perspective is in the software industry.

Tech writing is something in which I've seen the work offshored, headcount reductions, changed to contract only ... and the writing still needed to get done, and was no simpler afterwards.

It's certainly possible to do OK with it but I don't see it being prosperous.


Be a software engineer.

I think I have done well in this program for someone that isn't naturally gifted in math and science, I am not a straight A student by any means.

Take it from someone who double majored in Computer Science and Environmental Engineering, the math for traditional engineering is a lot more difficult than Computer Science.

Outside of engineering I enjoy learning languages, reading extensively and writing.

In Computer Science, you'll learn the language of computers. I find that writing a program is just you communicating with a computer. I personally wanted to major in English or Creative Writing, but I find reading and creative writing more enjoyable as hobbies and not as my profession. It's difficult to find a good paying job in these areas and that stress takes all of the fun out of it. I find that the skills for both reading and writing actually translate to Computer Science really well.

How do I go about positioning myself for a career in the technical writing field, or any other related but more creative field, coming from an engineering undergrad program?

Having worked with some technical writers, I don't find having a technical background necessary. You could do just as well with a communications degree or degree, because typically you'll be paired with an engineer or product manager who will explain the technical aspects.

  • I like the idea of being a software engineer. I've always enjoyed programming and I think my technical skill set plays more to the software side than the hardcore electrical engineering side. So maybe my question should then be how do I start positioning myself towards a software engineering career than an analogue electronics one? Or do companies generally just hire engineers regardless of the discipline?
    – Blargian
    Apr 26 '19 at 3:02
  • @Blargian In the US, companies hire software engineers from all kinds of educational backgrounds. I generally see the educational preference is for computer science first, followed by electrical or computer engineering, then any engineering, mathematics or physics. But I personally know a Linguistics major working as a Software Engineer at Google. I'm a software engineer and my current Tech Lead was a Music major. I work with another Tech Lead that had PhD in Comparative Literature and a senior engineer that has a Juris Doctor degree (lawyer in US).
    – jcmack
    Apr 26 '19 at 5:31
  • For software engineering more broadly, we tend to hire for skills -- programming, algorithms, data structures, software design and architecture, etc -- rather hire a specific degree.
    – jcmack
    Apr 26 '19 at 5:32
  • +1. Also I know a whole lot of technical people that did not have technical college degrees but transitioned into a technical role. The best BI Architect I know is a Theater major.
    – Jim Horn
    Apr 26 '19 at 12:17

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .