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Due to health problems, I wasn't able to study well enough during my teenage years + 20s and I did not study or pursue something that truly interests me; instead I just graduated with a degree because it was easier for me at that time. My passion has always been in science - especially Robotics/Engineering or Physics. It has been bothering me for years and I know I can't get this thought out of my head unless I give it a try. I've been saving up money to study again and now I have the chance to do it, but I don't know how or where to start, not to mention I don't even know if it's "wise" to do it in my 30s.

My thinking is to ultimately get into a graduate program at a decent school; but before I do that, I'll need to have a foundation in math and science, and possibly a second degree in engineering or some relevant field. I tried so hard to find a school in the US that offers second degree in engineering but still didn't have luck, except for the ones that are less reputable in this field, and I'm not sure if it's going to be a problem when I try to apply for a more reputable grad program. So I assume it would probably take me 5-6 years. And by the time I graduate, I will be in my late 30s. I'm not worried about how much time I'm going to spend but I need to know if it's a field that welcomes older people to seek entry level employment after they graduate. Is there anything wrong with my "plan"? If so, what would be a better approach for me to do this? Any recommendations on schools/programs and how to go about it is highly appreciated! Thanks a lot!

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    "I need to know if it's a field that welcomes older people to seek entry level employment after they graduate." - This is a question about seeking employment in a non-academic, non-research position, and so is out of the scope of this site (per the help center). (We're experts in academia and research here, not current hiring practices in the workplace.) – ff524 Jun 1 '16 at 3:47
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    As for your plan: many people pursue a bachelors in engineering after a bachelor's in something else. (A handful of students in my graduating class were in this exact position.) Most of them went straight on to the workplace after the B.S., I'm not sure why you're planning for graduate school at this stage. – ff524 Jun 1 '16 at 3:50
  • Thanks for your advice. The reason why I am considering a graduate degree is that I read that it's possible to not have to get a second degree; instead, I can just take all the pre-req courses at a CC or a state college, and apply for a grad program. I'm not sure if that can be applied to my situation because my background is completely irrelevant. I don't mind spending a few more years if needed, as I do want to get the most out of an undergrad degree (since I did not have a chance in the past). Of course I wouldn't want to spend more on tuition if there's another route I can take. – meeeesh Jun 1 '16 at 7:39
  • In my experience, age is almost never a problem. When I was doing my undergrad, there was an older gentleman (late 30s, early 40s) in my year who didn't have any engineering background, and just like you, had been interested in becoming an engineer since his teens. And for what it's worth, he was one of the best students we had, probably because with age come certain advantages. – 101010111100 Jun 1 '16 at 7:48
  • And none of the reputable schools offer second degree programs. I do however feel getting into a reputable college for a grad degree is a bit easier (than undergrad) and after doing some research, there are several grad programs/advisors that I would like to get into or work with. But then again, I will need recommendation letters for applying to a grad program. So it leads me back to considering for a second bachelor's. – meeeesh Jun 1 '16 at 7:51
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You have a Bachelor's already, which already makes you nominally qualified for graduate school! What comes next is figuring out how to make an entrance into the field when you don't have a background in it. The Bachelor's system currently in existence generally requires a basic education requirement, so I wouldn't suggest going for a B.S. in physics or engineering. I would instead suggest one of two things, combined with a healthy regime of self-teaching:

  1. Simply take courses at a local institution
  2. Get an associate's in physics or engineering

Would this make you a non-standard applicant, having your most recent degree be an associate's, or a bevy of post-bac coursework not for a degree? Well, yes, but you're still qualified. You're really quite young within the camp of non-traditional, older students. If you can back up a shorter (cheaper!), more focused set of courses with some experience doing applicable work (volunteer at a lab, try to land a position as a tech at a nearby school), that makes you just another applicant, albeit one with very different life experiences.

There is a guy in my research group who has a wife and kids who transitioned into engineering when he was 30, and he swept right into an M.S. and then a Ph.D. program without getting a transitionary degree after eight years of no classes. It's definitely possible for top programs, as we're at a Top 15, but I would advise trying to get some experience and insight on the field at local institutions.

  • Thank you for your advice! It's very helpful. I never thought of getting a diploma but I'm definitely gonna research more regarding this route. I think the thing I need to do right now is to have a placement test in math. By local institutions, did you mean I can just take those courses at a CC? Oh and about the guy in your research group... Did he have a degree in something completely irrelevant? Thanks again for your encouraging words! – meeeesh Jun 2 '16 at 2:23
  • It could be a community college or four-year institution, whichever has the coursework, as well as potential opportunities to make connections to physics/engineering faculty that may have grunt work or are willing to give you a chance. I think for the latter your best bet is a four-year, if you have a convenient one nearby. I'm thinking your state school, etc. The oldest guy in my research group was a physics major class of 2002, so somewhat related. I thought he was a CS major. The guy with the CS major also came back to school later, at ~28, funnily enough, though. So, still relevant! – Sergio Gucci Jun 2 '16 at 3:57
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My thinking is to ultimately get into a graduate program at a decent school; but before I do that, I'll need to have a foundation in math and science, and possibly a second degree in engineering or some relevant field.

You are blowing the requirements a bit out of proportion. If you want to be a bonafide engineer, what you really need is a B.E.: an engineering diploma accredited by ABET or another respected accreditation agency. A B.E. generally takes about a year or a year and a half, not counting the prerequisite material. Generally speaking, the pre-reqs aren't that bad, if you are a naturally mathematically inclined person and can work hard: you'll need about 2 terms of multivariable calculus, 2 terms or so of college level physics, maybe a term of chemistry, and probably a computer science class. You can complete all of this and the B.E. in 2.5 years or less if you work hard - I know a number of people who have done it.

Let's say you're dead set on graduate school, but you want to get there as quickly as possible. You realize that once you're in grad school you'll be there a while, but you don't want to wait a long time to get there. I recommend the following:

  1. Apply to the B.E. program at an accredited college. For expediency, you won't want a liberal arts college. Maybe a decent state college with a fair sticker price and a staff willing to work with you to get you in and out as quickly as possible. You are not applying to do an A.B. or a B.S., just the B.E.
  2. Do you want a Ph.D. or a Master's? There are many 5-year B.E.-Master's programs out there, such as this one, this, this other one, and this, and also this, among many others. If you want a Ph.D., then do the B.E. and then apply for a Ph.D. program somewhere. I'd bet they'd appreciate that you are more adult, and experienced.

One last thing. When you think about what you want to do in life, it's important to think about what you want to do, as opposed to what you want to be. Do you want to be an engineer, or do engineering?

I am a mathematics major, and I think my future occupation(s) will be what most people would call "engineering." In my case, an undergraduate education in mathematics is, I think, more useful for the "engineering" which interests me than an orthodox engineering diploma would be. The trodden path is not always the best one, and especially when forced into unconventional positions as you are, thinking outside the box is a good idea.

I'd definitely encourage you to reflect on whether or not spending 1.5-2.5 years on a B.E. and another 1-3 on a Master's or 3-6 on a Ph.D. is necessarily the path to a job and life where you will be able to do the sort of engineering you want to do. You can always find awesome learning material for free online. A good diploma will do 2 major things for you: prove that you know a decent amount about something hard to learn, and teach you a decent amount about something hard to learn. Once you have those two things, you can always learn hard things on your own, and prove to anyone who asks that you do indeed know how to learn hard things without help.

Good luck!

EDIT: Apparently the "BE" program, or at least the BE nomenclature, is not as common as I had been led to believe. That said, in much the same way that there are licensure requirements for "pre med", there are licensure requirements for meeting the criteria of a Professional Engineer in the US. I think that if you can figure out what those requirements are (for example by asking any engineering department), you could probably take those specific classes but not complete an entire bachelor's and then apply to graduate school. That said, I'm not in graduate school yet (I'm an undergrad), so I'm not sure. I know people who have taken that type of route, but it may be a result of an unusual system at my college.

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    I have never heard of a university in the US offering a short "B.E." like you describe, and my Google search has turned up only one such program. Are there others that you are aware of? (Also, the programs you linked to that you called B.E.-Masters programs all seem to actually be B.S.-Masters programs or similar.) – ff524 Jun 1 '16 at 5:20
  • @ff524 the BS = BE + some liberal arts stuff + some more science. Basically, the BE just means "the minimum requirement to be a licensed engineer". Colleges don't formally offer the BE alone, but in instances where people have already completed an undergraduate degree, colleges often make exceptions. I go to Dartmouth, and you can see our BE description here. I know multiple people who have done just the BE described there without anything else, after getting other undergrad degrees in STEM fields. – Max von Hippel Jun 1 '16 at 5:34
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    I'm not sure that exists anywhere in the US besides Dartmouth (or at least, not by that name), which probably limits its usefulness to the OP. (This answer implies that the BE degree is a standard offering, which it definitely isn't, so it seems a bit misleading to me. You specifically suggest applying to a BE program at "a decent state college with a fair sticker price" and I don't know if such a thing even exists, since Dartmouth seems to offer the only BE and it's not a state college.) – ff524 Jun 1 '16 at 5:36
  • Edited to reflect your very fair point @ff524 – Max von Hippel Jun 1 '16 at 5:57
  • Also note that I say "not counting the prerequisite material." The pre reqs are most of the reason engineering bachelors degrees take so long but many schools let you test out of them so if OP learns material solo first he/she could skip pre requisites and go straight to the material for the major. – Max von Hippel Jun 1 '16 at 5:58

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