Interior Designer, Mechanical Engineer - Megan Tomasso
“I was hired as an engineer right out of school and worked immediately. I worked for six years and absolutely hated my career and where it was going. All this time, I had a five-year plan, and I was going to be amazing and do all this stuff. But none of that was happening. So, I left and got another Master’s degree and worked for another six years in a different field.”
Name: Megan Tomasso | Occupation: Mechanical Engineer | University and Year of Graduation: Drexel University, BS, MS
Talking to Megan felt like talking to my soul sister. I had a feeling that I would love this girl before we even met, when she sent me an email about her outfit for taking photographs saying: “I totally respect your professional guidance to not wear white, however, I look so fabulous in this ensemble that I hope you'll be okay with it. Let me know!” This woman knows herself more than anyone I have ever met, and it is so refreshing.
Megan and I have gone through the same thing at the same age: we both switched out of engineering in our late 20s to try something new. And now we are both back into it. I had no idea that she went through this before I met her, and so I was eager to hear about all of the details of her story. But before we get there, here’s how Megan got into engineering in the first place.
“I went into engineering because I wanted to be an astronaut and still want to be an astronaut. When I was five years old, my mom told me the story about the first moon landing, and at five, I said I could do that. It’s been a life-long thing for me. Unfortunately, I am a diabetic, so I can’t be one. But I did want to say, and please put this on the record: NASA if you’re reading this, I am willing to be your first diabetic astronaut!” she exclaimed. I squealed in excitement and assured her that this blog post wouldn’t be the same without that note.
She continued. “So then I decided if I can’t fly them, then I’ll build them [spacecrafts]. I looked at engineering schools that had interesting opportunities, and I chose to go to Drexel University in Philadelphia for their BS/MS and Co-op program. I loved it. It was so hard and at times I wasn’t always a top tier student, but I worked really hard to become one and graduated with a BS/MS in Mechanical Engineering. I had to prove myself over and over again to myself. After I graduated I felt like I could do anything. I am still trying to be an astronaut but we will see.”
At this point you’re probably thinking, “Okay Michelle, enough with the fluff! Tell us why Megan left engineering!”
Megan was 27 years old when she left her engineering career. She shared everything with me. As I was listening, I found myself getting emotional and resonating with her story.
“I had known for a really long time that I wanted to be an engineer. I was hired as an engineer right out of school and worked immediately. I worked for six years and absolutely hated my career and where it was going. All this time, I had a five-year plan, and I was going to be amazing and do all this stuff. But none of that was happening. So, I left and got another Master’s degree and worked for another six years in a different field. I wanted to see what else I could do. Totally starting over and trying to do a new career in your late twenties is hard. My career has been all over the place, but I’m thankful for all that has happened. All of my experiences make me who I am today. It makes me a better worker, teammate, and engineer because of it. You lose the ‘tunnel vision’ that I think a lot of engineers have and see how other things work and apply it to your job, “ she said.
For everyone reading this blog post, I want you to understand how difficult it can be to switch careers when you’re six to seven years into it. Yes, you are in your late twenties, and a lot of people would say “That’s the best time to do it because you’re young!” But think about it for a minute. At this age, you are still trying to figure out who you are. If you married early, this might be around the time when you could either be going through a divorce OR having your first child. You could either be buying your first house OR could be moving to another part of the country. And when you’re six or seven years into your career, you aren’t yet an expert in your field, nor are you entry level. The best way to put it is that you’re pretty much in purgatory. To start a new career at this point is really nerve-wracking. For me, I was upset that starting over meant I was going to get a huge pay cut. I was worried that people wouldn’t take me as seriously and think that I couldn’t make up my mind. And I was stressed out about having to learn something that was completely new. It felt great to talk to someone like Megan about this who knows exactly what it feels like and what you’re going through.
So why did Megan go back into engineering? I needed an answer.
“My husband is also an engineer. He was looking for an opportunity to advance his career, and so he applied to where he currently works now and we transferred to Charleston. I spent our first three years here trying to do interior design and architecture, which is what I got my other Master’s degree in. I was actually teaching at the college level at one point and really loved it. It was kind of cool teaching younger people and helping them realize that they had to know math to do their job. Interior design and architecture isn’t just about being artistic and creative. There is a lot more involved with it. Then, there was then an opening at the same company that my husband works at, and it was a good fit for me. I honestly never thought I would go back into engineering, but I think it was time.”
Megan currently works as a stress analyst. She’s not doing what she went to school for, but it’s very similar. She told me that she is learning a lot, and it’s really different than her last job.
I asked her how the transition for her was when she went back into an engineering role after being in interior design and architecture for six years. Did she forget things? Was she nervous? Was she afraid that people would judge her?
“I definitely felt that I had forgotten things, but it all came back pretty quickly. I have a very supportive manager and my coworkers have been awesome about it. I ask a lot of questions. Going back into something that I don’t have a background in has forced me to learn. I was nervous at first but things are good now. I have a really great support system here. Unfortunately, I didn’t when I was at my last job. I was there for six years and it was a mess from the start. A lot of people say timing is everything and being at the right place at the right time, but how do you do that? It was just bad no matter how much I tried to put myself in a good position there,” she explained.
I’m going to be honest - where you work can definitely make it or break it for you. Sometimes, it doesn’t even have to do with the occupations that we choose, but with the company that we choose. I’m sure we have all experienced this at least once in our careers. At the point in my career when I just had enough and wanted to leave, I felt like a failure. I said this to Megan and asked if she felt the same. She replied: “It’s hard to navigate that. I’m just very thankful and happy that it is so good right now. One of my previous managers called me stupid, and you don’t think that’s going to happen when you have a higher education and are working for a very elite engineering company. It was awful. I was really upset about that. I knew I couldn’t spend the next number of years working in that environment, so I just left and tried something new. I did feel like a failure because it seemed like I was quitting and just couldn’t cut it. And I have friends who have been at the same company for their entire careers and haven’t seen anything else. So I am glad that I got a different perspective and tried something new. I want to show people why it matters that I have a different degree outside of engineering. There is a lot I can contribute because of it.” I agree with her. And I think Megan would agree with me when I say that changing careers really gives you a different perspective and turns you into a better person.
With engineering now being her focus again, I wanted to dive back into what her experience has been like both as a female engineering student and as a working professional. Did she feel like her male classmates treated her any differently in college? How about her coworkers at work?
“I don’t know that I saw so much of a difference in school. It didn’t register with me until later that there were so many fewer women. Honestly, being in that situation in hindsight, I felt so powerful because there weren’t so many women. I had close relationships with the guys I went to school with and we would do a lot of things together. I never felt dismissed for being a woman I owned being one of five females in my engineering class. I was doing really well in classes and people would ask me for help. As for work, I still say no. There was always a balance at work with females and males. It was more about my age rather than my gender at first. I was confident coming into work as a young employee but later realized I didn’t know as much as I thought.”
I was curious to know if Megan thinks of being a woman engineer as yielding any challenges or rewards. She was very quick to respond and assure me that she hasn’t seen any.
“Not really. I’ve always been a very hard worker, and I do good work. Any reward I’ve gotten is because I am consistently a good worker. I’m in my thirties now, but I work with other people in their thirties who have been in this career for many years now and know more than I do. So, to me, it somewhat feels like I am behind and have to compete. But no one has inferred that other than myself. I tell myself it’s okay, you have other knowledge and will rise in a different way.”
If Megan could go back and tell her younger self anything, she would say that engineering is a team sport and to expect to work with all sorts of different people. Be ready to learn how to work with all of these people. She also made a good point of not taking things personally and rolling with the punches. I personally think that this can be applied to any career - not just in engineering.
“You are the driver of your own success, and there is a balance of being very involved with your own development but also being involved in the success of your team. There is so much more that is involved with defining success than just doing a good job,” she said.
Part of me wondered if Megan switched out of engineering because she got sick of identifying herself with it for so long, like me. I explained to her how I became so wrapped up into all things-engineering that I lost myself in the process and asked her if there was ever a point in her twenties when she felt like this. Her response: yes, all the time.
“That was one of the things I loved in your question when you say how people are surprised when you tell them you’re an engineer. Is it because I’m too pretty? Am I too pretty to be an engineer? Am I exuding that I am not intelligent enough?” she laughed.
But seriously! This constantly crosses my mind. Believe it or not, you CAN be an attractive female and be an engineer. Who would have thought?!
She continued: “My husband and I will wear our company shirts and people will ask us, ‘What do you do for your company?’ and we tell them that we are engineers. People respond: ‘Oh, both of you!?!’ It never stops! Going into interior architecture and design, people told me I knew too much because of my engineering background. The transition wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. And then being back in engineering, some people question why I have a Master’s degree in interior architecture. So, it’s really all about people’s perspectives. I think people tend to put others in a box. If you’re an engineer then you must be ‘this way’. But there is so much more to everybody.”
Yes, yes, and yes! I couldn’t have said it better myself, Megan! That is the purpose of this blog series - to show people that we are much more than our occupations and that you don’t have to stereotype. You see engineers on TV, like in the show “The Big Bang Theory,” which portrays engineers as huge dorks. I mean, I am a dork, but come on! We aren’t all huge nerds that don’t have social skills. This is part of the reason why I really dislike that show. It’s annoying to me.
I shared with Megan that I take pride in people’s reactions to me being an engineer, so much so, that I still feel like I have to justify that I am an engineer now even after I’ve transitioned into being a photographer. She told me that she always felt like she had to do the same thing when she was in interior design: “You tell people what you are doing, but then you’re like ‘But I was an engineer.’ You feel like you have to defend your choices. You feel like you have to qualify yourself. I did it all the time. I got another skill and did something great, and I get so annoyed when people judge me for leaving engineering. So what? I tried something else. What is the big deal? It’s turned me into a better and more well-rounded person,” she said passionately.
I asked Megan if she would recommend engineering to a young girl. She said she definitely would, but thinks it’s frustrating that we are about to enter the 2020’s and are still having the conversation about getting more women into STEM-related fields.
“You don’t have to be a top-tier student to be an engineer, you just have to work hard. If you’re a curious individual and want to learn, engineering is a great field. Everybody should do engineering if they can do the work,” she explained.
Outside of all of this, Megan shared with me all of her passions outside of her career. She loves to travel, read, and paint. She wants to make the land that her husband and her live on more sustainable. She has three cats that she adores. She also wants to go back to school again and publish her thesis. And she still wants to be in the NASA program someday. She has such a love for life and explained to me that there was a time where she wasn’t happy. But she never wants to be that way again.
“I just want to be better now, and I want to be happy. I am trying to live my best life. I know that’s cliche, but it’s true. If I’m not feeling something, then I wonder how I can make it work, or how I can make it better. Before there were all these tiny slights in my career that became such huge things, when in reality, they weren’t worth the time and energy I was devoting to them. It took me a really long time to understand that it’s me who is my driver. If you are positive, things will be positive, but it took me a long time to get to and figure out though. I think you can be hard on yourself if it helps you grow and develop, but I also think that you are your own worst enemy.” Megan is clearly wise beyond her years. I admire her perspective so much.
I wanted to end our conversation with asking Megan what she wanted people to know about female engineers. For the first time, I got a different response that I really appreciated. She was nervous to offend me and my readers, but I don’t think that’s the case. I am grateful for her honesty. Being honest and open is really what this blog series is all about.
“I love that you are doing this blog series. To hear about females in our industry is really powerful and important. To be able to share our experiences and realize that we’re not alone, whatever path we took to get here. I think it’s a powerful thing you are doing,” she said to me.
“One thing I did want to say is that I think that calling ourselves female engineers diminishes our power. because we don’t call men ‘male engineers.’ In this conversation, we are trying to distinguish between the two. It may not always be the case, but I do think a lot of the time our male counterparts are going through the same things that we are. We all have to hustle to get ahead. Many engineers start out in high school near the head of their class, then in college, the class has a lot of talented people - both men and women - and you might not be as far ahead as you initially thought. Then you’re hired into the workplace and the people around you are even smarter and more experienced than your college peers. Now, you’re working with, and in some ways, competing with some of the most brilliant technical people in your field - if not in the world. I assure you, men and women alike struggle with standing out in this environment. We all earned and deserved the right to be called engineers. I don’t refer to myself as a female engineer - I am an engineer. I feel like it diminishes our power as women to separate that. Hold onto that power. Wherever it leads you in life, hold onto that power,” she said to me.