Engineering school in college is tough. Anyone who has been through it understands the long days and nights, the hard work, the stress, the never ending homework, the failed tests, and the pride of passing. You can’t do it alone and I was lucky to be in college with several amazing people who have become life-long friends.
One of my friends who helped me survive engineering school is Alicia. Our chemical engineering class was very small, so we formed a tight-knit group of friends because we had almost every class together for the final 2.5 years of college.
I think going through something as difficult as engineering school together gives you a bond that is hard to describe. Since college graduation I’ve been lucky enough to catch up with Alicia about once a year. Every time I see her it feels like no time has passed since the last time we caught up, and I love the ease and simplicity of our friendship.
Although neither of us planned it, we both ended up taking a very similar career path in the oil and gas industry and our children are very close in age. But while I have chosen to take a career break to be a stay at home mom with my kids, she has continued to work full-time while her husband stays home with the kids.
I hope you enjoy getting to know Alicia and are inspired by her story below.
Engineering Emily (EE): What is your name and occupation?
Alicia S. (AS): Alicia, Production Engineer
EE: How and when did you decide to become an engineer?
AS: In high school, I was good at math and enjoyed chemistry. The summer before starting college, based on my ACT scores, I was asked by my University’s School of Engineering if I wanted to be directly enrolled when I enrolled in the University. The benefit of that was I could place out of a few entry level math classes. I said why not, figuring if I didn’t like it I would find something else. That hasn’t happened yet.
EE: What was your college major?
AS: Chemical Engineering
EE: What was your university experience like as an engineering student?
AS: I was an average student, not the top of the class but not the bottom either. Most classes were challenging and I remember feeling lost in a few of them. I had a great group of engineering friends and study groups that forced homework and study time, which was very helpful.
EE: Did you do any engineering internships during college?
AS: No, I didn’t. Throughout college except for my last year, I worked full-time unrelated to engineering and summers were the busiest time. I had a scholarship to cover tuition but worked to pay for everything else. Internships would have helped when looking for a job after college. But when I graduated, I was happy to do it without any student loans.
EE: How did you find your first engineering job?
AS: I started looking and applying for jobs in the fall after graduating in the spring, which is very late compared to most graduates. I spent the summer working at my previous job, then got married and traveled a bit. In the fall, a friend invited me to dinner with her and her dad who worked for an oil and gas company. After the dinner her dad took my resume and I was called for an interview. That was my first introduction to how important networking is.
EE: What industry do you currently work in?
AS: Oil and Gas
EE: What has been your career path from college graduation up to today?
AS: My career path includes roles in research in a geochemistry laboratory, as a reservoir engineer, and a production engineer focusing on formation damage and well stimulation, all with the same company.
EE: Have you travelled for work, and if so how often and to where?
AS: Currently I travel for work to offshore facilities 1-2 times a year usually for a duration of 2-3 days. I also occasionally travel from Louisiana to Houston for meetings, anywhere from 1-2 days.
EE: Have you had to move for work?
AS: Yes, I have moved for work 3 times, all within the U.S., in New Mexico, California, Texas, and Louisiana. Moving is always a stressful time and every time I do it say that is the last time, but I am very glad to have had the experiences in each location both for my career and for my family. For example, during my time in California I learned a lot working in a field office with the pumping units within minutes from the small office. At the same time, my husband and I traveled all throughout California (this was pre-kids).
The move to Louisiana was a great opportunity for me to learn different reservoirs, and how to treat formation damage in the much more expensive, more complicated completions of the deepwater wells in the Gulf of Mexico. Meanwhile, my kids are experiencing a Cajun lifestyle, which includes crawfish boils and Mardi Gras.
EE: What has been your best experience working as an engineer?
AS: A lot of times my work is a small part of a large work project and after my portion is complete, the work gets moved to another team and I don’t know how the project turned out, if my work was incorporated and how it contributes to the big picture. But my best experience has been witnessing years of my work testing and preparing for a deepwater stimulation treatment being pumped and then seeing the results.
EE: What has been your most challenging experience working as an engineer?
AS: The most challenging experience is related to the moves. While every move has been an opportunity to learn and develop my career, that comes with completely being out of my comfort zone. Being the new person on a team and having to prove myself as an experienced engineer can be challenging.
EE: Do you feel women are treated equally to men in engineering?
AS: No, I think it has gotten better, upper management is actively trying to treat employees equally in aspects that are reported, hiring and base salary. But on the team and individual contributor level there are discrepancies. Fairly recently, I worked on a large, high stress project. My work level was very similar to that of a male colleague. The project was successful and we were awarded a bonus. My bonus was a third of my male colleague’s.
EE: How do you balance career and home life?
AS: This is a struggle. I have 3 small kids (4yrs, 2yrs, and 4 mos) and I try to manage my time as best I can.
At work I do my best to meet deadlines, so work is rarely brought home. At work I focus on work, I can accomplish this because my husband stays home full time and cares for the kids. Knowing the kids are well taken care of and not having to schedule meetings around doctor’s appointments, or working from home if a kid is sick or there is a day off from school has been extremely helpful.
When I am at home, I focus on my husband and kids. If I must work, which really is rare, it is after the kids are asleep. Recently my kids have been able to help more and I include them with the household chores. Both older 2 kids love to help and we are spending time together while we vacuum, or separate the clothes for laundry, or cook dinner. It takes longer and more patience to get things done but I found the kids enjoy this and look forward to helping.
EE: What do you consider the challenges and advantages of being a working mom?
AS: The challenge I face is the guilt about not being with the kids while I work. I am not able to leave work in the middle of the day to help with the Valentine’s Day party, or whatever else they have in preschool. I also feel guilty about traveling and not putting them to bed at night. But being the only provider for the family, I acknowledge the guilt and try to move on.
The advantage of being a working mom is the feeling of accomplishment I get from work. I enjoy most of my work and I think that makes me a happy more well-rounded person and mom. I also hope to be a good role model for my daughters that a career and a family can be done, however I feel that it requires having a support system, whether it’s a partner or family. I also think it’s good for my son to see his dad take care of the kids.
EE: What advice do you have for girls interested becoming an engineer?
AS: • Pursue what makes you happy and feel fulfilled whatever that may be.
• Build a strong base education, there are so many different applications of engineering but if you are a strong engineer, while it may be a bit uncomfortable to learn a new industry your engineering practices and work ethic will carry you.
EE: What advice do you have for working moms?
AS: Create a network of other moms either working or not. I find it so helpful to talk/commiserate with friends or colleagues about whatever new phase or stage we are going through and to know that I’m not alone.
EE: Would you still become an engineer if you could do it all over again?
AS: Yes, I would. My time in college and early in my career has helped me to become more confident and an overall stronger person.
Thank you Alicia for sharing your story with us today. I am personally so inspired by my friend. I really admire how she has been able to continue to work the job she loves and be a great mom to her three young children. Engineering really is a great career for anyone, male or female, but to balance career and family you need a great support system. Alicia is lucky to have the support of her husband who stays home with their kids.
I love how their family is the opposite of the typical single-income family dynamic (mom works, and dad stays at home with the kids), and they are all happy and thriving in that dynamic. I really admire how Alicia talks about the working mom guilt: she acknowledges it and tries to move on. Meanwhile, she is setting a great example for her kids by working hard and being successful to provide for her family.
Please feel free to comment below or contact me if you’d like to share your story in a future interview on the blog.