Chapter 1

About Engineering:
What in the World Am I Getting Into?

“What is an engineer anyway?”
For starters, we are not talking about the sort of engineers that drive trains. We are talking about the sort that practice engineering, or applied science. According to Webster’s, engineering is “the application of science and mathematics by which the properties of matter and the sources of energy in nature are made useful to people.” An accurate description, perhaps, but it skirts what I’m sure is your real question…

“What do engineers do?”
Engineering is a surprisingly broad field, encompassing any area in which the principles of pure science have been demonstrated as useful to society. This includes such diverse examples as building bridges and tunnels, replumbing dying wetlands, inventing advanced prosthetics, building ever-faster processors, fabricating new materials, mathematically modeling real-world problems, constructing earthquake-resistant buildings, developing space vehicles and designing safer and cleaner cars. Most consumer goods and services have engineers behind them, somewhere down the line. Almost anything you want to do, you can do with an engineering degree (except perhaps translate 18th century French literature, but that’s beside the point).

“Am I cut out for engineering?”
Engineers are grounded with rigorous amounts of advanced mathematics and applied physics. They also spend many hours in the lab and at the design table putting those ideas to work. If you are prepared for four years of demanding course work and enjoy dealing with the practical as well as the fundamental aspects of math and science, then engineering may be for you.

“Are there any good reasons not to be an engineer?”
Don’t do it if you aren’t interested, fascinated, and inspired. Engineering can be a difficult field, and it helps immensely to actually enjoy the work you are doing rather than merely tolerating it. Certainly, don’t do it for solely for the job security and comfy income, or because your parents seem to think it’s a good idea. If these are your only motivations, you’re setting yourself up for a miserable experience.

“I’m not sure I will want to be a professional engineer when I graduate.”
Engineering is a great foundation for other fields. In many, including pre-law, business, and medicine, your technical background would be considered an asset.

“What’s special about engineering at Princeton?”
Engineering studies at Princeton tend to be more fundamental than at other institutions. Students find themselves in broad, flexible studies rather than narrow courses filled with detailed applications. Design courses and independent work, which encourage students to put ideas and concepts to work, complement the fundamental emphasis. Students also round out their studies with a broad selection of liberal arts courses.