A student’s take on studying aerospace

It’s time for another guest post!

I mentioned a few weeks ago that there was a sudden spike of traffic on this site. Well here is the guy who was probably responsible for it. Seems he liked the site, so he told a few friends, who told a few friends, who told . . . . . .

I quickly found myself chatting online with a very switched-on graduate student named Ilhan Akcay. We agreed that he should write a post.

This will obviously be of interest mainly to those approaching or in their university years, and less to those who are post- university. Nevertheless, I’m grateful for his writing this post. Now that I’m in the second half of my ball game, my memories are bound to be a little hazy, and times and technology have changed a lot.

Here is Ilhan’s take on what it’s like to actually do a course of study in aerospace engineering.

Getting Ready for Aerospace Engineering
Aerospace engineering is an exciting and challenging field. You get to work with space ships and aircraft like the F-16 … it can’t get any cooler than that! But it is not a field for everyone and getting through engineering school can be hard. The workload is high and a lot of students quit not because it is too hard, but because they were not mentally prepared for it.

In Germany, where I went to college, every freshman experiences the “Freshman Shock”. Most freshmen coming to engineering school graduated from high school at the top of their classes. They are used to being unchallenged and breezing through coursework. But once they start college they realize it is a totally different ball game. Suddenly everybody is smart and willing to work hard. Additionally, the courseload is high, students have to spend long hours in lectures and at home to understand all the subjects. A feeling of being overwhelmed is very common. Therefore “Freshman Shock”.

When I started college I was hit pretty hard by Freshman Shock. It led to many sleepless nights, desperate study sessions and to an unhealthy general stress level during my first two years.

This post is intended for the high school sophmore or junior who is planning to study aerospace engineering. It will show you how to get ready for engineering school and how to stay calm.

Welcome to Engineering School
If you are in a serious engineering program you will be faced with a lot of math, no matter what. The math will not be overwhelming and it will not blow your mind like some fields of theoretical mathematics, but there will be a lot of it.

Calculus and algebra are the languages of engineering. The simple rule is: if you can’t express a problem in mathematical terms you usually cannot solve it, period. So with the exception of certain niche fields (like design, which still needs more math than you would think) math is at the center of problem solving in engineering.

Be prepared. Especially the first few semesters will have you solving all kinds of different math problems so you can familiarize yourself and get real cozy with Mr.Calculus and Mr.Algebra! Of course the curriculum will include physics and more specialized subjects, however they will always be expressed in mathematical terms. Gone are the days when students could talk about physical phenomena in general without getting math-dirty!

Prepare Yourself
Now that you know that the first few years in any engineering program will be very math heavy what would be the best way to prepare yourself? Exactly, focusing on math and physics classes.

Most high schools offer a wide variety of math classes that you can choose from. An optimal preparation for aerospace engineering would be if you took the hardest math classes that your high school has to offer in your senior year, that way it is still fresh in your mind when you start with college.

You can pepper your courseload with physics classes here and there. However, the physics needed for aerospace engineering is very specialized and seldom taught in high schools. Therefore math classes should always take precedence when in doubt!

Aerospace Knowledge
We have talked about how to prepare for engineering, but how about specific aerospace knowledge?

There are several very good books on aerospace engineering that are fairly enjoyable to read and packed with knowledge. I used to read those books on my 45 minute train ride to college every day and those were some of the best 45 minutes I have spend on a daily basis! Making a habit of reading aerospace and science books on a regular basis will extremely expand your knowledge and give you an edge over all the other college freshmen who did not prepare for aerospace engineering as well as you did!

Two of my all time favorite aerospace engineering books are these:

Introduction to Flight, by John Anderson: This is hands down THE best introduction to aerospace engineering. No overwhelming staccatos of formulas that look like numbers gone wild, but a lot of text explaining every phenomenon and formula.
(Editor note: I ditto this! Introduction to Flight was a great inspiration to me when I was considering switching careers to aerospace. It has some math, but not too much to intimidate a newbie. And the prose is well written and includes some historical anecdotes about the early aerospace pioneers.)

Modern Combat Aircraft Design, by Klaus Hunecke: Hunecke artfully explains the different components of combat aircraft, why combat aircraft look the way they look and gives a general outlook on design aspects. Because of the emphasis on design aspects this book is not only interesting in regards to combat aircraft, but to aircraft in general. After reading this book you will be able to look at an aircraft and exactly know what its mission is and why it was build the way it was build.

Don’t Forget the Fun
It is very easy to get overwhelmed with all the math and physics and aerospace. One important thing to remember is this: Never forget to have fun!
(Editor note: This is good advice for everyone, everywhere, in any career. You would think it’s just common sense. But life and work has a strange way of snuffing out the fun when you’re not looking. It’s happened to me. Indeed, it’s why I made a mid-life career switch to aerospace, and why I’m now switching again.)

There is plenty of time to learn everything in college, so do not stay away from classes that you would like to take but feel like you can’t because they are not math or physics related! If you are into music, take music classes. If you love history, don’t forget the history classes. Even if you are not that much into the social sciences, you should consider taking a few. Social sciences are important in the formation of a well educated person.

I hope this article will help you in your quest to become an aerospace engineer. Feel free to ask questions in the comments section!

Ilhan Akcay is an aerospace engineer and graduate student at the Technical University of Munich. He specializes in aircraft design, aerodynamics and aircraft control.

21 thoughts on “A student’s take on studying aerospace”

  1. Well, first of all thank you for putting your ideas up here.

    I am going to enroll myself in college next year and i always knew it was going to be aerospace engineering. I wanted to build powerful tools that travel through the deep oceans of space and somebody get it to carry humans so that we colonize a nearby planet. But there are these lesser minds around me that do not say aerospace is hard but instead say aerospace degree holders do not get suitable aerospace jobs. Is it true that I would have a tough time getting a job at NASA or SpaceX. (I am not an American). Then is aerospace a promising field for my future… How good is becoming a space architect when compared to aerospace engineers? I would sincerely be delighted if your answer would change the course of my life for the best .

    Thank you,
    Akshay

    1. You’re most welcome, Akshay! I’m always happy to hear my thoughts are useful.

      When the “lesser minds” around you say “aerospace degree holders do not get suitable aerospace jobs”, they are both right and wrong.

      Yes, that commonly happens. Not just to aerospace professionals, but to the majority of people.

      However, I argue that the reason for that lies inside, not outside. People who toil years on a course of study often assume that, once they’ve graduated, the world instantly owes them a job that will completely satisfy all their career aspirations.

      Wrongo. It doesn’t, and it won’t.

      And therein lies the problem. They thought it would be easy, that the world would revolve around them. Once they realise it won’t, they lose interest, and revert to cynical mediocrity.

      If you want to study aerospace, you go for it. Don’t wait for a job at the end, and don’t expect one. Create your own. Maybe the world is waiting for you to change things so that there are jobs waiting for those coming after you!

      The lesser minds around you will try to dissuade you. They’ve opted to settle for mediocrity, and don’t understand why you don’t do likewise.

      Seek out like-minded people. (See my recent post about the value of meetups with like-minded people.) Learn how to inspire others who need encouragement, who can fund you, or who can contribute to the vision.

      I recommend this video featuring Alan Watts’ thinking: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qLD0P372xxQ

      1. A heartfelt gratitude once again, sir. That means so much to a seventeen year old. It is good to know that there are believers out there too. And that video of Alan Watt was elemental. Such obvious thoughts that went unnoticed. For some reason my karma says i will meet you in the future.

        Your idea that we should not be waiting for a job at the end of our college not only applies to me, but would apply to my whole country. That was really a deep inside view and I will remember that piece as long as I live and share it with the other dreamers,doers,thinkers and believers.

        There is still one question that remains unanswered.

        ” How good is becoming a space architect when compared to aerospace engineers?”

        As a space architect i will still be able to work in the same field as aerospace engineers and fortunately among them. Sure, I am losing the brand tag of an ENGINEER but look I am not an average architect. I design cottages for space hobbits. Okay, maybe I am exaggerating. But that is the nagging question. It is like when you have to choose between a head or a tail and hope you win the toss.

        So its been heartening that you, sir have lend your ears to me and are gracious to give your word of guidance. I thank you once again for being here and doing what you do.

        Akshay

        1. I think the matter of “space architect” vs “aerospace engineer” is probably a function of the level of thinking you prefer. Are you a high-level, big-picture thinker? Or low-level, and detail-oriented? As an architect, you are at least partly an artist, aiming to create a space suitable and pleasant therein for human beings to live or work. As an engineer, your job is to make sure the architect’s concept is workable and safe. The architect is the big-picture conceiver, the dreamer; the engineer, the doer. Which is your natural bent?

          That’s an issue I constantly struggled with as a youngster, and to some extent, still people do. I studied engineering, but now find myself in a situation where I prefer conceptual thinking. If you know yourself well enough, that will answer the question for you.

          is there even a course of study labelled “space architecture”? I’ve never heard of one.

  2. Well, there is one at Houston( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kQY5KKbrahw )..But just an architecture degree will do the job. Space architecture is an emerging field. Who knows what scopes it holds! Visit http://spacearchitect.org/ to get an idea about it. The general people who become a space architect are architects and mechanical engineers.

    But you are right again. I am a high-level, big-picture thinker, as you put it. I dream a lot and am waiting for the chance to reel those things into reality. Aerospace looks adventurous and i am willing to prep myself for taking the course, dedicating my life for this field of science which is going to be the core part of engineering. I am very contented with your reply. It was one question which many couldn’t answer. Four years later I will become an aerospace engineer and have my design for the world ready. If only I could express how grateful I am.

    Thank you, Sir.
    Akshay

  3. hey akshay i am also an indian. i am also very much intersted in aerospace and i am also 17 years old and about to complete my 12th. but there are few people who i know who did aerospace but couldnt get jobs and so took seperate coaching for computer languages and went on to become software engineers. what scares me most is that all those who studied aerospace say that it is very tough. and after all the hard work we put in studying aerospace if we dont get jobs we will be very dissapointed. i have seen people drop out of aerospace just because it is too hard even though they are interested in it. and not only that even after managing to complete the course they are not able to get jobs. i am very much scared to take aerospace engineering. sir any suggetions on this? my future depends on this.

    1. Hi Srinivas,

      You addressed your question to Akshay, but as I’m not sure if he’s still following this thread, I will contribute my thoughts.

      I have two reactions to your question:

      (1) The way the world is changing, I’m not sure that jobs in ANY field can be taken for granted, except perhaps medicine. and to re-quote the philosopher Alan Watts, it doesn’t make sense to pursue a particular course of action on the basis of whether or not you’ll be able to make money from it. There’s not much value in being able to pay the bills while you’re miserable. Better to pursue what really floats your boat, and figure out how to make money from it along the way. A LOT of people these days graduate and never end up working in the field they specialised in, and you know what? They survive, and manage to make a life of it.

      (2) That said, it might be worthwhile to keep your options open. Try mechanical engineering or applied maths, instead of aerospace. A lot of non-aerospace-trained people find their way into aerospace-related jobs. As a mechanical engineer or maths major, you have many other avenues open to you, whereas with aerospace engineering, you have fewer.

    2. I am truly sorry that I hadn’t replied to that for months, srinivas. I was busy with exams and stuff.

      Well, if you look at things from an Indian perspective, you are prone to these doubts and fears. And later, we tend to make a fear based decision. This fear based decisions will let you float through life by which I mean you can survive. But if you got what it takes to do aerospace engineering you should go for it. It wouldn’t be tough, brutal perhaps. Nobody said sending a satellite to Mars was gonna be easy. These are great feats accomplished by great engineers with skill and immense knowledge. Try to admire and become one of them.

      If you think that your interest in aerospace industry will change after four years, choose mechanical. Mechanical engineering has a variety of opportunities. If you want to get into aerospace industry, fine. SpaceX posted Mechanical/Aerospace engineers on their recruitment wall. This is because they don’t care, for entry level jobs. When there is nothing to bias these to choices, you are free to choose. Choose wisely.
      In India, all those astronautical engineering jobs require specialized aerospace engineers with a Masters degree. There are very few jobs for aerospace engineers with Bach degrees and the employers prefer to fill those with the mechanical engineers. Mechanical engineers specialized in aerospace subjects are also called Aerospace engineers. It nothing about the title of the course. Don’t choose aerospace engineering if you’re not going to pursue master’s degree.

      “If you want to study aerospace, you go for it. Don’t wait for a job at the end, and don’t expect one.” , remember ?

      Good luck!

      And now, Sir, I’m not sure if he is following this thread. Warm and happy summer up ahead, isn’t it ?
      Cheerio,
      Akshay

  4. I would like to add a quote by Henry Ford following my previous comment, if that’s okay.
    “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, You’re right.”

    I liked that recent “8 way not to make more money doing engineering” post. Had to negate it to understand the original idea.

  5. I think you’ve expressed that all brilliantly, Akshay. I cannot think of anything to add. The Henry Ford quote I’ve heard before, but never tire of hearing it.

    And as for “warm and happy summer”, happy for sure, but warm? This is is the UK, never bet on the weather! If I was desperate for a warm summer, I’d go back to Canada, or maybe join you in India! 🙂

    How are you doing with your plans?

    1. Glad that you ask, Sir. I still have two months to enroll myself into a course. I have to take up entrance exams in the forthcoming month. I am aiming for a college that offers a Bach degree in aerospace engineering and is also situated in my hometown. Went through their syllabus. It was pretty good and I am sure the course is going to be interesting. Still trying to work on a unique design for the world. Reading a lot about space entrepreneurs, for inspiration. Looking forward, I might do my Masters in Europe. I also wish to pickup a double major in astrophysics. I cant wait for the first day of college.

      After all, following my stars and dreams does feel good.

      Thank you,
      Akshay

  6. It is useful post thanks!
    I would like to ask you please .

    I am going to study in Austia and my level is B2 in germany as it is requirement .
    I am not worry about the engineering subject , I just worried if my language can not help me ?
    Whay you think about it?

    1. Hi Hisham, I am not sure I understand your question. Are you worried about your fluency in German? I would have thought that, without reasonable fluency in German, any studies (not just engineering) would be difficult.

  7. I truly appreciate you, sir, for writing this inspiring yet motivating post. It really helpful , indeed.
    I am an A-level student, from Malaysia ( an asean country) and going to finish my a-level nx year, and God willing, I probably going to further my undergraduate study in UK.
    Having tremendous interest in aircraft, spacecraft and other flying things, drive me to apply aerospace engineering as the undergraduate course in ucas application. But sir, I am just an ordinary student, never got A* in phys nor in Math. Just A. Plus, I am a female. Because of that, I somehow doubt myself, whether I can succeed in this field or not. I know that I shouldn’t have that thought, but….I still have it. Do you think I can actually handle, working in man domain environment? I mean, can I actually stand as high and run as fast as man can? Do I need any preparation before entering the world of aerospace? I hope you could help to boost my confidence with your words. Thank you.

    Best regards,
    Layla

    1. Forgive me, Layla, for being so slow to reply. Somehow your post escaped my notice until now.

      Short answer to your question about you being able to succeed as a woman in such a male-oriented environment: YES, YOU CAN, IF YOU WANT IT BADLY ENOUGH.

      As for preparation, you will need as much formal preparation as demanded by the work you aspire to do. That may or may not mean academic study at university level. It depends on the kind of work you want to do.

      But I have worked with plenty of women in my career. Some single, some married with kids. All of them very competent and, in my view, very successful. You can, too.

      It’s quite true, most aerospace people are men. And some, I am sorry to say, will view you with distaste. Some don’t like women at all, some will try to block your progress. Some will make life unpleasant for you quite accidentally, without any malice afore thought, because they have no experience of how it feels for you. You will have these kinds of problems. I wish I could say you will not.

      But you know what? You will have these kinds of problems in a female-dominated environment as well. Or in a mixed one. Difficult people abound. There will always be people who, for whatever reason, will never like you, will constantly throw roadblocks in your way.

      Go around the roadblock. Climb over it, dig under it, drill through it. Don’t allow other people’s mental deficiencies prevent you from doing what God designed you to do.

      Someone wiser than me once said: Obstacles are not there to block your progress. Obstacles are there to reveal to you HOW BADLY YOU WANT IT.

      Go for it.

  8. Hey, I’m a woman in my last year of school (outside the US) and I can’t decide whether Aerospace Engineering will be worth the efort. A part of me is telling me I’m going to discover a whole new world (a world i’ve always been curious on) and that I’ll be closer to space than i would ever be (I’ve always loved anything space related), but in the other hand a little voice keeps me stuck asking myself is I would be intelligent enough for a world of such brilliant minds. I know I can do it beacuse ones i start something I have to finish it for good, but I’m afriad I’ll et bored. im the type on person that cant stand being in the same place for to long, I’m afraid I would not like my workplace, that I’ll be trapped in a cubicle for years just thinking and writting about math.
    I would love to have some advise as soon as you get this, I’d appreciate it a LOT.

    Natalia

    1. Hi Natalia,

      I quite relate to your fear of being bored! I get bored easily as well. And I have done a good 15 years of aerospace. I managed that by moving around regularly, from department to department, by going freelance . . . .

      An awful lot of work (in any industry) these days is done from a desk and a computer. If that prospect scares you, then aerospace engineering is probably not for you, but then neither are a lot of other career options. A desk job is not so bad if you are doing complex technical thinking that you enjoy. On the other hand, if you far prefer being on your feet, working with your hands, a traditional engineering job will drive you mad. You might prefer manufacturing or aircraft maintenance. Or if you are someone with good social skills and you like to talk, sales would be something to try.

      There is a fairly high probability that you will find yourself in a job you don’t like, at least once in your life. Probably more than once, actually. The solution to that is simple: Leave. Try something else. If that doesn’t work, try something else again. Don’t settle until you find what you’re good at, and what you love. Some people find it very quickly; others, it takes a lifetime. But don’t let fear prevent you from experimenting and tinkering.

  9. Hey, thanks so much for your help, especially the advice to women.
    I am just going to start aerospace engineering in China in September but I’m from Africa and well- I’m female. My main problem is I’m afraid if the Maths and physics I’ve learnt here and the way I’ve learnt them will measure up to those in china and well, everywhere in the world. As a fresher, will the basics be easy to catch up to or is there anything I can be doing in these remaining months that could help me so when I get there, I’m not lost.

    Rahila

    1. Hi Rahila. It’s rather difficult for me to give a concrete answer to your question. I don’t know how good you are at maths and physics, and I don’t know how challenging you’re going to find the course in China.

      I can offer the following observations:
      (1) The course starts in September, so you’ve got some time to play with. Check out some of the online educational sites, e.g. Khan Academy, Udemy, Coursera, and others. Start learning aerospace-relevant stuff now, don’t wait till September. A lot of them are free, and those that are not, are not very expensive.
      (2) A lot of young women suffer from lack of self-confidence entering an industry dominated by men. They fear they might not be made of the right stuff. (Actually, a lot of young men fear this too, they are just loath to admit it publicly. I was like that.) Listen: If you’ve been accepted to a higher-level programme in aerospace, you’re already plenty smart! Accept that. Believe it. Lack of self-belief will hinder you in any walk of life. Choose now to believe in yourself, and you’ll be fine. You might have a few challenges along the way, but you’ll be equal to them. Don’t let anyone, especially any men, tell you differently!

      Hope this helps. If not, please reply and I’ll try to help further.

    2. Hi Rahila, it’s a bit hard for me to give a concrete reply. I don’t know how good at maths and physics you are, and I don’t know the standard of the course and university you will be studying.

      I can however, offer the following observations:

      1. The course starts in September, so you have some time to play with. Check out some of the free or inexpensive online courses available at Khan Academy, Udemy, Coursera, and those other online sites. Don’t wait till September to start your aerospace learning.
      2. A lot of young women entering an industry dominated by men suffer from lack of self-confidence. They fear they don’t have the right stuff. (A lot of young men fear this too, they are just loath to admit it to anyone. I was like this myself.) Listen: If you’ve been accepted to a high-level aerospace programme, you’re already plenty smart! Accept that. Believe it. Lack of self-belief will hold you back. You will have a few challenges along the way, but you will be equal to them. Don’t let anyone, especially any men, tell you different!

      Hope this helps. If it doesn’t, please reply and I’ll try to help further.

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