“I don’t get no respect!”

These “What People Think I Do” picture montages are popular on Facebook, so I’m glad someone created one for engineers:

Sadly, this is my life.

Except that it’s Excel instead of Word, the last panel is pretty much true.

It didn’t start out like that.  When I started grad school, we got a pep talk from the dean of graduate students. He commented that, “Engineering is one of the oldest and most respected professions known to man: most respected, second oldest.”  I thought engineering was cool (I still do!).  But I don’t think the public shares that perception.

I think that one problem with the perception of engineering by the public at large is there are very, very few portrayals of engineers in popular media. For example, you can’t channel surf for 5 minutes without coming across a show about lawyers, doctors, police, or actors, but there are almost no TV shows about engineers. (Is there one? I couldn’t think of any off-hand.) The same is true of movies, although there are a few exceptions. (“Apollo 13” comes to mind as one of the best.)

Two big differences between those other professions and engineering is that 1) people encounter those professions on a regular basis and thus know a bit about what those people do, and 2) the story lines about those professions usually focus on the interactions of the characters with other people (think, “Gray’s Anatomy“); the law, medicine, etc. is almost incidental to the story.

Engineering, on the other hand, is mostly about solving technical problems. Yes, I know about the people-related issues, but let’s be honest: most of us got into the profession because we liked the science, not because we wanted to interact with people. That makes our profession uninteresting (at best) or incomprehensible (at worst) to a lot of people. Indeed, when people ask me, “What do you do?” I’m kind of stuck: how do explain what an engineer who works for a high-performance ASIC company does? Usually I just say, “I work for a computer chip company”, and move on to another topic before their eyes glaze over.

That’s not the greatest sales pitch for engineering as a profession, but what can you do?

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BTW, the picture for this article came from this blog, where I also posted most of this article as a comment.

Also, my apologies to Rodney Dangerfield 🙂

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