How can I become an aerospace engineer?

The question How to become an aerospace engineer is best preceded by the question:

Why become an aerospace engineer?

I go into this in more detail in this post in the Kickstart Your Aerospace Career. Suffice to say, you need to know why you want it. And to know the answer to that question, you need to know yourself, what makes you tick, what gets you excited, what gives you energy . . . . . . . and what doesn’t.

Answer those questions first. The How to become an aerospace engineer question will then be easier to answer.

The traditionally available options have been:

  1. University, as a civilian. Optional graduate degree. Apply to aerospace firm, and get a job.
  2. Military post-secondary training, as a commissioned officer with one of your national military services.
  3. Apprenticeship through a college with an aerospace firm, or group of aerospace firms. At the end of your apprenticeship, you are in the employ of one of those firms.

Each has its advantages and disadvantages.

Option #1 . . . 

Works for people who are blessed with money (enough to pay your way through a 3- or 4-year course of study), lots of connections to company insiders, naturally extroverted social skills, or such amazing technical genius that companies fall over each other trying to hire you. 

But it’s rarely that straightforward for most of us. I had enough money to pay my way through university, but none of the other natural advantages, so had to blaze my own trail over a much longer period of time.

Option #2 . . .

Works if you live in a country with significant military activity (e.g. the USA, China, many European countries). Even them, you are very much at the mercy of the military service to which you are indentured. They pick you (or reject you) using their criteria, they train you as/where they choose, you are locked in to working on military aircraft only, and you are locked in for a pre-determined period of time. You also don’t really ever get to do any design work. Your function will be very much tied to the operational; flying, supporting and maintaining the aircraft the military provide you with.

And, you stand a somewhat increased chance of being killed.

The advantages? You stand a high chance of working hands-on with the aircraft! And when you leave military service, all that training and experience (which the government paid for), you get to take with you! It stands you a fair chance of winning civilian aerospace employment.

Option #3 . . .

Is probably the best balance between the two worlds. You get hands-on experience and training early on in life, and some (small) level of income while you’re in training! You’re not locked in to any company or for any period of time, although you also have no guarantee of employment at the end of your training. (In practice, neither is a problem. Unless you’ve hated the experience, you’re going to be eager to apply your training in a paid aerospace job, and the company is not going to want to see go down the drain all the money they’ve invested in you.)

In hindsight, and had the option been available to me (it wasn’t), I’d go for Option #3 if I was back in my teenage years and trying to get started.

There are, of course, other options I haven’t explicitly listed, some of which are mixtures of Options #1-3. You can, for example, get good aerospace experience just by enlisting with the air force. Your training, however, will be almost all hands-on, and you won’t finish your military service with a degree that you can wave in front of an aerospace employer.

Other options . . . .

Are slowly beginning to materialize, which weren’t open before! It it now possible, for example, for anyone to design their own unmanned drone, or modify an existing drone for a novel application, without spending more than a few hundred dollars and as much time as they choose to invest. If you come up with a really cool aerospace idea, you can crowd-fund development of the idea into a viable and profitable company of your own! These options did not exist for aerospace engineers until just 4 years ago.

So, if you are the one asking the question How to become an aerospace engineer . . . . you stand at probably the best time in history. The number of options open to you is growing. And because of the ageing nature of the world’s aerospace work forces, you are greatly needed. So go for it!

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