Coming out of high school, I knew, like many, that I wanted/needed to go to college and that was one of the few things that I knew for certainty that I would do in the near future. Beyond the act of attending college, I did not know why or what I was attending college for besides the fact that it was deemed a surefire step to a successful adulthood. There was not a goal that screamed to me as a child that I dreamt of becoming. The idea of becoming a doctor, pilot, or mechanic never struck me or inspired me. There was something, rather someone, that did inspire me early in my childhood and that was my Grandpa. An army veteran, my grandpa was the do-it all person in the neighborhood. He was a welder, plumber, electrician, and mechanic to name a few titles. I wouldn't say Grandpa was a genius or anything of the sort but very observative and willing to learn. A popular and amusing example told by the neighbors was how he took his moped to the mechanic a few times, watched the mechanic intently every time, and then began resolving the later problems himself. I always watched him work on his projects, most of which revolved around helping out the neighbors who also happened to be his coworkers. Every time I was out doing kid things the neighbors would know me because I was the grandchild to the man that helped everyone out. It was fascinating to me as a child to see Grandpa use his niche that not everyone possessed to be a positive influence in the community.
A big time skip later and I was applying for college and declaring a major. Those childhood thoughts and moments slowly trickled back to me. What did I want to be? Scrolling through the options on the Common Application, there was not much deliberation when I saw the word "engineer". The technical definition from Google is "a person who designs, builds, or maintains engines, machines, or public works." However, in my mind, there is a very clear example of what an engineer is. A person, like grandpa, with enough technical knowledge and drive to make quality of life improvements for others, and by that definition was the one that I would set out to become no matter which field I studied. With my major decided, I let my love for tinkering with computers guide me toward a more specific category. So as a freshman, I declared as a computer engineer. Freshman year, I learned the nitty-gritty basics of physics that would be crucial for my understanding of circuits because circuits are at the core of all electronics. Along with the nitty- gritty, I learned the basics of programming or the technical language required to program the circuits to communicate with each in order to perform a task. These technical skills and the ability to grasp them quickly gave me the confidence that I was walking the right path. However, somewhere in there during the spring semester of my sophomore year, I began losing interest in my coursework. The lecture and homework material were not difficult to understand but mastering them became less and less rewarding. Specifically, the class was COSC 130 - Computer Organization. A foundational class focused on Boolean algebra, sequential circuits, assembly language programming, and memory and caching to name a few topics. When taking this class, a few troubling thoughts occurred to me. Are these the tools that I want in my tool belt when I try to make a difference in my future career? Will I truly enjoy interacting and working in my job every day with this skillset? My path to becoming a computer engineer who could make quality of life improvements for others became murkier and scarier and less satisfying. At the end the semester, I had a slight case of buyer's remorse on my major. With the upcoming summer break, I decided that I would use the summer to help further decide the course of my college career.
In the summer, I planned a trip back to China to visit the source of my inspiration. And also in hopes to find a new source of inspiration. Before the trip back to China, I enrolled in two study abroad programs: South East University English Immersion Camp and IE 430 (Supply Chain Engineering) at Zhejiang University. SEU was a nice diversion that allowed me to tap into my roots, but IE 430 would become a major stepping stone in my college career. In 430, we studied topics such as supply chain network, planning demand and supply, inventory management, transporting, and sourcing. Our first project focused on reading "The Gartner Supply Chain Top 25 for 2017" by Stan Aronow, Kimberly Nilles, and Jim Romano and identifying and understanding big company supply chain (Aronow, Stan, et al). The research ranked top companies by the quality and the efficiency of their supply chain ecosystem and more importantly on the company's corporate social responsibility (CSR). Gartner allowed me to peer into what kind of work environment I wanted to work for. I remember clearly after that reading that I had formed a big picture goal for my career. I wanted to become an industrial engineer to acquire the skills that I would need to be competitive in the corporate world in order to back a cause that was greater than myself, as cheesy as that sounds. And I remember being reminded by my professor in IE 430, Dr. Jin, that I could work directly for an eco-friendly agenda or for the profit agenda inside the company. My work on either side would be meaningful in bettering the company thus bettering the company's environmental agenda. Thus, as of now, this is my career goal.
When I returned to UTK in Fall 17', I decided that I wanted to be an industrial engineer. What does an industrial engineer do? In the engineering college, we are often jokingly referred to as the imaginary engineers because the breadth of problems we tackle is so large that it seems like we actually don't do anything but just imagine all the things we could actually do. But for a better term, an IE focuses on the design, management, and control of operational processes while using classical knowledge in physics, mathematics, computing, and statistics to incorporate the human factor, ergonomics, sociology, and psychology (Shtub & Cohen 2). In short term, IEs focus on streamlining processes to make them more efficient for humans utilizing those processes. One of my favorite examples of this is industrial engineers at Disney World. Disney World receives a massive amount of traffic daily and in order to manage the traffic, the job is left to IEs. IEs uses skills like simulation, forecasting, and optimization to direct the flow of traffic so there is not major congestion. This mostly goes unnoticed by the public as IEs work behind the scenes to make these quality of life adjustments. This example is categorized under service engineering; an engineering sub-field on industrial engineering that I am interested in. Some other sub-fields that I am interested in include marketing considerations and inventory management. I will describe the technical skills required to work in these sub-fields.
Service engineering requires the understanding of service systems, systems design, and using tools such as simulation to optimize those systems. An example is the queue system that is crucial in every business. To ensure service quality, queue systems must account for random arrival times of customers (Shtub & Cohen 366). The analysis of a queue requires the understanding of behavioral traits along with various variables like mean wait time, mean queue length, and utilization. An example of this is the queue system at a bank, say the bank manager wants to know how many customers will come to the bank for a given season and wants to ensure that the bank hires enough clerks so that 95% of the time any given customer is in line, they do not wait more than 20 minutes. This is a quality of life and business improvement that an IE can make. I find these problems extremely interesting because little inconveniences gripe me the most, though they may seem like minor problems. One example (project) I always bring up is the elevator wait times in Morrill Hall. As a freshman who lived on the 13th floor, the wait time and ride time up and down each was estimated to cost 10 minutes each day. This amounts to about 1500 minutes or 25 hours an academic year, my freshman year, if we only count the 150 class days. As crazy as that sounds, that is close to what I spent waiting on the elevators. This was interesting process optimization problem, that I, as an IE, could learn to solve. Not to delve too deep into the particular problem, but with the right skillset, IEs could help incorporate faster door speeds or/and a better algorithm for picking up students to decrease wait times. And to know that my major teaches technical skills like service engineering to solve problems like the elevator problem, it helps validate my major choice.
With service engineering, there is another skill that I am interested in obtaining and that is simulation. Simulation is a tool that assists the user in creating a model of any process or event that the user may be studying. This tool helps engineers, and others, visualize a problem while allowing the user to alter any parameters as needed. I have only had basic exposure to simulation, but the projects I did were very eye-opening. Our class used a software called AnyLogic (AnyLogic). With AnyLogic, I could build anything from a bathtub simulation to complex trucking route simulations. With the knowledge to understand simulation software and how to use them, they are applicable to anything imaginable. My favorite example that I take inspiration from is how a team from Northwestern University utilized real-time simulations to help Chicago marathon runners (Fellman). The project was headed my Karen Smilowitz, a professor at Northwestern University who specializes in modeling and solution for logistics and transportation. In short, Dr. Smilowitz modeled visualized critical race data in real time to help the command team make decisions. This simulation allows the command team to see data like where medical tents are in need of more doctors, where replenishments of food and water need to go, and in general, how the race is progressing. To be able to simulate 45,000 runners through 29 neighborhoods while 1.7 million are spectating is a truly daunting task, this further shows the power of simulations.
Of all the technical skills, these two mentioned above are the ones I would like to focus on for now. I currently do not plan on going to graduate school but rather completing a master's program somewhere. However, if I were to go graduate school, I would choose to focus on simulation and service engineering. For this purpose, I will be looking at two schools: Northwestern University and Cornell University. Factors that will influence my decision will be tuition, location, faculty specialty, job availability, and personal factors.
First, I would like to consider Industrial Engineering & Management Sciences at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL. The program is consistently ranked top 5 in industrial engineering programs nationwide (U.S. News). Ranking aside, the close proximity of Evanston to Chicago is a major bonus. Chicago provides many opportunities for IEs with companies like United Airlines and Mars Inc. I have always been a big fan of cities so residing close to one is a personal bonus. At NWU, I would also get the opportunity to be on Dr. Smilowitz's team, the professor I mentioned early. With my interest in simulation, the possibility of being on Dr. Smilowitz's research team will provide invaluable skills utilizing simulation. Her development of modeling and solution for complex systems in logistics and transportation is an area that I am interested in. Her research interests and results fit my goals to learn more about simulation along with service engineering. The engineering department alone is funded with a budget of $1.5 billion each year so Dr. Smilowitz's project will one of many opportunities available to a NWU student. However, there are also few points of consideration when deciding to pursue NWU. One major point is that the estimated tuition is ~$69,000. Without scholarships, debt will be a huge turning point for me attending with NWU. A smaller point is that program information is only available upon request so I barred from a lot of info. Admission will also be very selective as it is most likely lower than the undergraduate acceptance rate of 11%.
Next, I would like to look at Cornell Financial Engineering Program in Manhattan at Cornell University. The major appeal of this program is that there are financial data science courses integrated into the curriculum of stochastic modeling and optimization modeling (Cornell University). The courses alone are not the only options for learning as the research topics are plenty. The topics include algorithms, financial engineering, information technology modeling, optimization, and supply chain; I am interested in all of these projects! The program seems very flexible with options choosing courses that fit with my professional goals, being modeling intensive. Not only flexible, the program is a short 2-year program with internship placement. Short program time means a quicker entry into the job market and Cornell also states that 95% of their students who completed their studies before December 2017 had received employment offers. With the close proximity to New York City, the IE jobs opportunities are countless so this is a major bonus coupled with the big city personal bonus. NYC is also where most of my family lives and where my parents want to move to so this calls for a family bonus. The tuition at Cornell is also manageable at ~$29,000 with the program only be 1.5-2 years. Cornell's undergraduate admission rate is slightly higher than NWU at 14% so it may or may not be reasonable to guess that admission rate will be more likely.
I also looked at a few other universities but found the program or location did not fit due to personal preference or the lack of complete information on those programs. In the future, I think if I really plan on going to graduate school I would make campus visits a top priority. In my search, I found two universities that I was fond of due to different reasons: NWU for the research and community impact that I saw through Dr. Smilowitz and Cornell for its superb stats and location. In the end, I think NWU will come out on top if the program information impresses me more than Cornell's. Through my search, I actually found my big picture question or rather my career goals and did a lot of reflecting on what I actually wanted them to be. This actually occupied my mind for the better half of the past two weeks. I am glad I did the search as this is just a slight dip in the water if I were to really pursue higher education.
If I were to drop everything I'm doing and pursue archaeology, I would do archaeology survey/field reconnaissance. I imagine it to be mind-numbing work at times, but the other day I sat to imagine walking into Tut's tomb as the very first team. That feeling sent shivers through me. Of course, not every discovery will incite such feelings but if they were a fraction of that I would find being an archaeologist possibly appealing. There is also the reason that I love being outdoors, though my pollen allergy is limiting. This would give me another reason to be on a survey/reconnaissance team. I would also really be open data studies because I always find myself gravitating toward numbers. I have really never considered careers outside of engineering as I have always been good with my STEM classes. This exercise was interesting and gives me the incentive to explore!
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