Life is a journey. Some people like to have the whole route mapped out in front of them, and others just like to see where the journey will take them. Whatever category you fall into, there are always decisions to be made along the way.
The first major decision probably comes when you leave school. Some people are lucky enough to know what they want to do. Personally I didn't have a clue. But I'd always enjoyed science and how things work, and I was good enough at maths and physics to give engineering a go. So that was one decision made, easily enough.
The next question was what type of engineering. Subjects such as engineering are now introduced in some schools, but when I was at school there was no such thing. So I picked the broadest degree with the best employment rate and highest average starting salary. The fact that an uncle and a cousin of mine had done the same degree and were very successful was a hint.
I thus did a M.Eng. degree in manufacturing sciences and engineering with a diploma in engineering management at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. It was a good degree and I learned a lot, but I didn't need the 5 years to realise that it wasn't the career for me. The reality sank in during a 6-month placement with Procter & Gamble in Manchester. I just couldn't work in this type of industry. Now this has nothing to do with the fact that the part of the plant I worked in made Pampers nappies and the many jokes I had to endure about having to start at the bottom. Placements with other companies only backed up my initial conclusion. Although parents around the world will no doubt argue with me, I always imagined I would make a more meaningful and lasting contribution to the community.
The conclusion that I was not meant to be a captain of industry worked both ways. Not only I did not enjoy doing too many management-related tasks, Procter & Gamble did not consider me to fit their profile for an engineering manager. And of course given the nature of my degree I was always going to end up in management whoever I worked for.
On returning to university to complete my fifth year, I was left with something of a dilemma. I was going to finish a degree to work in an industry that no longer appealed to me. So while everyone around me was busy applying for jobs, I was busy finding out what else I wanted to do.
I knew that I still enjoyed some aspects of engineering, in particular applying engineering principles to solving novel problems. I also knew I didn't want 5 years at university to be wasted. As it turned out, the answer presented itself by chance. At the same time as I received the information for my graduation I also got an invitation from the university's Department of Bioengineering to apply for a postgraduate course. Although I wasn't that keen on staying in higher education, this seemed like a good opportunity to redirect my skills into something interesting and potentially very rewarding. I was given a tour of the department and decided this was what I had been looking for.
Bioengineering--the application of engineering principles to biological problems related to the human body--is a relatively new but very wide field. I completed an M.Sc. with conversion courses in anatomy, physiology, and biology that also emphasised the engineering theory relevant to the area. I had never studied biology before and was just fascinated. My M.Sc. project led me to work on human motor control using electroencephalography (EEG) and electromyography (EMG). These are physiological measuring systems, but they still involve a lot of signal processing and computing that I felt comfortable with given my engineering background.
I knew that if I wanted to make a career in this field I would have do a Ph.D. Well, this was probably the easiest decision I ever had to make. Everyone thought I was mad to want to sign on for another 3 years of student poverty when I could be out there making a lot of money. What they failed to realise, though, was that I was really enjoying what I was doing. It was satisfying and I was working on problems at the cutting edge of human physiology. More importantly, I could see myself always feeling like this. And indeed, if I had enjoyed the M.Sc., I was to find the Ph.D. even more rewarding.
Not having a more traditional background in anatomy and physiology has not hindered me in conducting research in that area. I first had to design novel equipment to study human motor control and movement, and many of the skills I had acquired during my undergraduate degree proved rather handy. My next task was to set up all the data-acquisition and signal-processing hardware and software, again something with which I am familiar. If anything, my engineering background brings a fresh perspective and no preconceived ideas about what to expect. Also, as I go along I find myself picking up knowledge of anatomy and physiology from the people around me.
Of course I am not going to pretend that everything about my Ph.D. is wonderful. At times it can be very frustrating and difficult to maintain focus. But the knowledge that I am finally utilising my engineering skills to contribute to solving important problems is so satisfying that it helps me through the rough patches. Research is not for everyone, and I am lucky in that I enjoy the way research is conducted. The only caveat is that by the time I have finished my Ph.D. I will have been at university for 9 years. Not everyone wants to be a student for that long (nor build up that many debts!), but for those who are sure it is what they want it is hardly any sacrifice at all.
My journey through life to this point has not been particularly planned. Things happened by chance, but having taken a few risks I have still found myself in a place I want to be. Not everyone is prepared to take these risks, but as a good friend of mine says, "If you don't take any risks, you'll end up exactly where you planned to be." It's the people who take the risks who often end up in far more interesting places.