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Final Thoughts: When Did You Choose Your Career?

Robert Schickel on May 27, 2019 - in Column

Some people have known all their life what their chosen profession would be, perhaps because of a particular skill or because a relative was a successful example. Others may postpone that decision until later in life, perhaps during college, because they’re just not sure. Some choose second careers much later in life when the first choice proves to be no longer relevant.

A few weeks ago, I listened to someone address people of various ages ranging from retired to young children, but his focus was on a group of college students in attendance. He asked them how they decided what major they were studying, and he brought up the issue of choice. Did they choose their major because they really wanted to study in that field? Or did they choose that major to please someone else?

The Math Path

Personally, I always thought I became a civil engineer because I was “good at math.” In high school, I enjoyed those classes and seemed to achieve my best grades in algebra, geometry and calculus. I also liked all the science classes, and although I did well in history and English, those subjects didn’t hold my interest at that time.

It seemed like a natural choice, and my guidance counselor agreed. I spent most of my study time on math and physics. I was even able to take calculus in high school for two hours every day (before you could get advanced placement or college credit)—we math geeks were having a great time! (Once I got to college, the calculus classes, which were sometimes used to “weed out” early engineering students who weren’t quite sure they wanted to make the effort, turned out to be a breeze.)

However, now I’m not so sure I chose civil engineering because I was “good at math.”

A Story or Two

When I was in elementary school, I was fascinated by road construction. If my memory serves me well, our street would get reconstructed every year just after school was out for the summer. Spruce Street hadn’t yet been paved with bituminous material; it was a mixture of gravel and tar that would get dug up like a farmer would do to his field in the spring. Then it was graded and compacted, sprayed with liquid tar, and sprinkled with sand. The street was good for another year. I remember watching that process with my brother all day long for as many days as it took. I loved the machinery, the smells and the results.

Often our playtime consisted of smoothing out the dirt in an area in our backyard so we could build a town. A popsicle stick was the grader, some tool from the basement was the roller, and some garden hand tools were used. When available, firecrackers were employed for “major” excavations. We would mark (survey) some lots, and construct houses and buildings. This would last for hours every day until, of course, the neighborhood baseball game would commence (on the newly reconstructed Spruce Street baseball field).

Using a Force?

So now I wonder if I chose civil engineering because I was good at math or if it was something inside from when I was a young child. We have all read about kids who can play the piano or violin at a very young age or can sing beautifully before anyone has given them lessons as well as children who can play chess at a high level or run faster than any of the older kids.

So why can’t some force have guided some of us to choose a particular career? I believe that’s what happened to me (and perhaps my brother); the career chose me. I can’t tell you any specific time when I decided to become a civil engineer. I can’t point to a specific event that caused me to move in that direction. And although my parents always set an example of service to others, neither of them had a career remotely similar to civil engineering.

I think it’s more like a vocation than a profession. One often thinks of a religious connotation for vocation, but one definition of vocation according to Merriam-Webster is “a summons or strong inclination to a particular state or course of action.” This is more like what I think about when I look back at my chosen profession.

How did you decide? Was it a definite choice? Did a relative influence you? Or did you just have a strong inclination like I did?

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About Robert Schickel

Robert Schickel was born in New Jersey and received his BS in Civil Engineering degree in 1971 from Valparaiso University in Indiana. His career started as a bridge design engineer and expanded to include design of various transportation facilities, including highways, bridges, rail lines and stations, and airport runways. Mr. Schickel managed engineering offices ranging from 20 to 140 people. He also served as a consultant to a large utility company. Mr. Schickel currently resides in Indiana and serves as Adjunct Professor for the College of Engineering at Valparaiso University. He enjoys his retired life at his lake house, playing golf, listening to music and spending time with his family, especially his grandchildren.

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