Today is my last day at work for 2016. It’s rainy outside, but not too cold, and the office is empty. We are running a skeleton crew today, just enough engineers and inspectors to cover an emergency if there is one. We don’t suspect there will be, of course, and the general mood is informal and light. I am happy, and genuinely grateful, to be here. 2016 was a hell of a year. Aside from the world going completely off the rails, it was a great year for me professionally.

I started this year at a job that looks impressive on a resume, but was awful in reality. I was the only engineer on a team that did not want an engineer, far less an engineer who was younger than they were and not from around here. Being hated just for showing up was an interesting experience, and distinctly different from being disliked for a reason. Even so, I learned a lot in that job, and I managed to walk away with good references, and bosses who were sad to see me go.

My departure was in the least likely way. I had been applying for jobs that closely related to my experience since just a month after beginning the bad job. It was less a matter of hating the job at that point than it was that it was a contract position, and I didn’t want to live for too long without health insurance and paid time off. I’d been to a lot of interviews, but all were near misses. I felt like the second choice of every firm in town. I decided, around this time last year, to cast a wider net.

This led me to apply for a position as a structural design engineer at the state DOT. I didn’t expect to hear back. They get tons of applicants, and I presume most of those would have more structural experience than I did. Mine was limited to acing all my structural courses in college while expending as little effort as possible since I was mostly focused on my research in pavements. Nobody was more surprised than I was when I was called for an interview.

On March 9, at 9:00 in the morning, in the rain, I came into my interview fully expecting to bomb it. I was pleasantly surprised that my interview panel was mostly women, and that all of us seemed to get on well. I didn’t feel nervous. I answered all the questions easily, and talked a bit about how my experience in construction management, original research, and materials, would be relevant in a structural capacity. I made everyone laugh at least once. Then I walked back to work, and second guessed my answer to every technical question for days.

Three weeks later, I got a call back, letting me know that I had not gotten the job, but encouraging me to apply again because there would be another posting. They liked me, but they weren’t able to hire as many engineers as they had wanted. It was another near miss. I wasn’t even mad.

A week later, on April 9, they called again, offering me a job. They’d been able to hire one more engineer than they had originally been told, and they’d like that engineer to be me. The salary was fantastic, but I counter-offered anyway. They accepted, and I set my start date to May 9. At this point, I was still nervous. Could I really design bridges? I thought back on every lecture I’d ever attended on reinforced concrete, steel, and analysis of structures, and tried to remember what I’d done to make A’s on everything relevant to those subjects. I was nervous that I had never taken prestressed concrete class, because I knew that bridge girders were prestressed. I googled bridge design standards put out by this agency. I read every one I could get my hands on. I still didn’t know if I could do it, but I had to try.

As it turns out, the job I applied for and subsequently accepted because I’m extremely passionate about having health insurance and paid leave is more amazing than I ever could have imagined. As it turns out, I can do this, and I have designed seven structures this year, ranging from multi-span bridges to subterranean drainage structures.

I have the best boss I could imagine, and she genuinely wants her engineers to be their personal best in whatever specialty they’re called to. That means I get to study geotechnical engineering, foundation design, and things that relate most closely to my previous work in pavements, and allows me to tie that to my current work in bridge design. It all ties in, and even though I miss the asphalt lab, I know that structures are where the money is, it’s drastically less likely to give me cancer, and the working environment could not be more positive.

When I signed my tenure agreement, I realized that for the first time in my life, I am not looking for what is next. I see the senior engineers who have been here for decades, and they are still happy to be here. I see that there are many possibilities, and most of it is my choice. I don’t have to aspire to lead people. I can design increasingly difficult structures, and that’s respected just as much. I can see what the future will probably look like for me, and for the first time in my life, nothing about it seems remiss. I will stay where I am, and move up in design. This is where I want to be, and for the life of me, I could never have guessed it before I ended up here.

There’s no moral to this. I think I’m more shocked than anything that the trite advice, “Work hard, take opportunities, and you’ll do well” actually worked for me. In today’s world, one does not expect that, so I appreciate it for the glorious fluke that it is.

I’ll be a busy engineer in 2017. I begin the classes that lead up to the PE exam prep courses. Most of the year will be about procuring manuals and building my reference library for when I take the PE exam in 2018. By this time next year, I will be registered for the exam. I will also design as many structures as they’ll give me, and I’m hoping for my first steel truss, although I don’t know if that will happen so soon. Whatever next year brings, I’m here for it, and I’m honored that they chose me. 2017 is going to be great.

And now, with my design notes tucked safely away, I’ll now do something I’ve been wanting to do since shortly after I got out of the Army…. Take a week off work WITH PAY!!

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