A Homely Homily

November 1936
The Wisconsin Engineer, Volume 41, Number 2, Pages 26-27
by Leo Sabin Nikora

Well, here you are now. Studying engineering. As a Freshman, just how did you come to choose engineering? Or, as a Sophomore, what makes you continue in the Engineering College? Mayhap you are a Junior — are you still, heart and mind, set on being an engineer? Or, lastly, you may be a Senior; are you satisfied? … or are you suffering?

For the first time in my life, I find myself far enough along to get a good panoramic view of this whole business (even though, I grant you, it is still slightly distorted by the unfinished lens of a youthful eye). Yet, I've not been out of school so long that the vividness of your experiences is lost to me.

So, now that you are ready to rear back and ask, "Who do you think you are?," I am equally ready to admit — "Nobody." But I would like to discuss with you some things I wish had been brought to my mind when I was at your station in life.

First of all, let's consider your most vital interest in life (forgetting, if possible for a moment, the girl friend). Are you really all wrapped up in engineering? For the next fifty years, would you like to eat engineering, sleep engineering, talk engineering, study engineering, see engineering?

When you decide upon the "lucky woman," you will settle in your mind whether you could, without ever becoming overly annoyed, spend the rest of your life with her. You will make certain that those little habits she has … of saying "ain't," of clicking her tongue, of smoking — that all those are as nothing — that any other girl is "as a candle to the sun." With a similar attitude of mind, would you take engineering "to wife"?

College is the place to decide where your interest lies. Across the hall is a fellow "batty about bugs." He begs you to come into his room, to look under the glass, to see the new specimen he "landed" along the lake road. If he did not consider it sacrilege, he'd even eat the darn things. And in the room next door is a "medic." For hours, while smoke streams from his pipe, he babbles on about operations, injuries, treatments, diseases, how your body functions. Does it intrigue you, too? And then there's the fellow who runs you round the enchanting labyrinth of logic — another dreams of drama all day long — and another can rattle off four or five languages with ease and alacrity. Would such things tempt you to forsake engineering?

Interest. Your interest! Something to seriously think about. Neither your father nor mother can decide it for you. Your best friend is little help. No one can tell you what is best for you to do. Advice you will get — oh, yes — in carload lots. But, all to no avail. If you end up doing the thing you hate, if you have to waste a whole life doing that, you were better left unborn.

So, while you are in the university, look around. Join clubs. Get into many activites. Meet people. Try to get a good glimpse of every side of life! Don't miss anything. Else, some day, too late, you'll find something superseding engineering — something which will have for you an all-consuming interest — something which will make you hate yourself for not having looked before you leaped.

More than once, lately, college freshmen have asked me what I thought was THE thing for a young man to study in the engineering field; what has the finest opportunities for him; what pays best. To give a "correct" answer to that is more than I would dare to pretend. However, in the light of my very limited experience, I have made some honest efforts to design some sort of reply.

First of all, the thing of which you, as an engineering student, should be most aware, that of which you should be most appreciative, that which you should keep ever before you is —

That an engineering course:


Any company that hires you, takes you because of that faculty which has been developed in you. You are paying, now, hard earned money to learn to think — industry will repay you many fold, later.

Now then, my conception of an ideal engineering training is a course in Mechanical Engineering, plentifully interspersed with subjects such as Economics, Money and Banking, Commerce, Business Administration, Personnel Management, Speech, Advertising, and Psychology. This particular slant I got through observations and interviews with men from many companies and corporations. You will note — I said engineering training. Because (and this brings me to one of my favorite sallies) it is distinct from an ideal engineering education. An ideal engineering education, I say, includes all the attributes and functions of an engineering training, as above defined, plus the essences of cultural things such as Music, Art, and Literature. Engineering gains you an existence; Culture, a living.

Many men in the field will tell you that air conditioning is a vocation that offers great possibilities. It is, perhaps, the fastest growing phase of engineering today.

With the above two paragraphs, I did not intend for you to dash wildly into commercial engineering. Nor into the air conditioning field. By no means. Nor did I imply that all other phases of engineering are approaching obsolescence or are "devoid of dough." The advance of the automobile, the building of Boulder Dam, Bay Bridge, streamlined trains — these should be sufficient to convince you that every branch of engineering is dynamic, challenging, and packed with potential profits and interest. But I did mean that trainings such as I have mentioned seemed to me some of the very best, as far as money and opportunity are concerned. Indeed, though, there are other excellent engineering interests — sales engineering, for example. It generally lays claim to being the highest paid division of the profession. To be successfully competitive and profitable, almost every large organization today must have a sales department. Small concerns can do, and most of them are, without a well defined research staff — but they must have a sales division. (Which leads me to interject that, if you intend to become a research man — a position which admittedly does not often bring considerable financial return, yet demands much time and effort — a whole flock of university degrees is highly desirable. However, if you prefer to enter into the production, sales, or some other such side of the profession, you would do well to limit yourself to a bachelor's degree. Companies commonly complain that a man with an advanced education is hard to mold, is too observant of trivialities and technicalities — he will "walk rather than think in straight lines." Unless you are going into research, an advanced degree, then, would be an uneconomical investment — it would consume precious time and money.)

Upon being out of school a while, I found that, contrary to popular opinion in college, industry is not crowded with university graduates. But it is crowded with a lot of people who wish they did have degrees. Industry is hiring college men for executive positions. And that is what you should be most prepared for. It seems that industry is in a state such that it recognizes the worth of your training, because it has had just enough contact with university graduates to want more of them. More than that, your promotion in most companies will depend on the fact that you act and think in the characteristic manner of a college man — a manner which, these concerns feel, must accompany the experience and natural brilliance of a man in the executive station!

There is, to this thing, another aspect not to be neglected. Money. As an airplane pilot, you would make a great deal of money. But the health requirements are so rigid that your time of earning would be quite short. Or, you might select a career in the moving picture realm — where fame is flighty, and money-making uncertain. Possibilities such as those, you must consider against a kind of work which would give you a rather quiet, unhurried, and fairly secure life. You see, it all resolves itself into whether you want to run considerable risk, and make much money in a short time; or, whether you would prefer working slowly and steadily to a moderate income. In other words, think of your time of earning power, not just for the amount.

Make this, then, your day of reckoning. If you are not happy in your present work, if even the future looks mighty grim, and if several unsuccessful years in the engineering course lie behind you, don't hang on simply because you will not admit defeat. You're not ashamed if you have no ear for music or no eye for color. And no honest effort followed by failure should cause you embarrassment. Through the trails of trial and error, you come to your "final set." If people chide you for changing your mind about what you want to do for a living, just bear in mind that you are leading your life. Your life is yours — and if you don't do something about it, very few others will — some people never even get a proper burial!

On the other hand, think twice before you decide to set aside engineering for some other profession. An "engineered" brain functions beautifully even in its ordinary thought processes.

Engineering inoculates you ivith a good deal of "common sense".