Katherine (Pratt) WintersCivil Engineering , Class of 2007
Research Civil Engineer, US Army Corps of Engineers
"Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything." -George Bernard Shaw
My story involves a lot of changes. I started at BYU in 2003 majoring in mechanical engineering with an Air Force ROTC scholarship. After the freshman seminar I realized I just didn’t get excited about ME projects. They were impressive, but not for me. I switched to civil engineering for my second semester and really became passionate about civil projects. I decided not to join the Air Force and dropped my ROTC scholarship. I picked up a minor in English, and spent the spring term between my sophomore and junior years hiking from Edinburgh to London discussing Victorian literature on study abroad. Those months were some of the most formative of my life. Between my junior and senior years I worked for a small engineering firm in Provo and determined that type of work was not what I wanted for my career. Instead, I wanted to enter academia. I applied to pursue a PhD in civil engineering at BYU, and was accepted. One year into my program I switched advisors to the wonderful Dr. Schultz, dropped to the MS program, and earned a master’s degree studying median crossover crashes on Utah interstates. That summer I also learned about new PhD programs in engineering education. I applied to Purdue and Virginia Tech, and was quickly accepted to Virginia Tech with a very attractive assistantship offer. My husband and I both graduated with masters’ degrees in December 2008 and moved to Virginia.
Throughout my undergraduate work, it was often repeated throughout the civil engineering department and in most every seminar that civil engineers can get jobs anywhere. Well, there were about ten of us that graduated with masters’ degrees in civil engineering in December 2008 and only one had a full time job lined up. My husband followed me to Virginia, optimistic that once we were there he could get a good engineering job. He interviewed with all the local firms, they liked him, but the economic downturn meant they were not in a position to hire him. Eventually a friend called to tell him the US Army Corps of Engineers Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) in Vicksburg, Mississippi, was hiring. My husband had done some work with ERDC through a BYU research lab and was interested. In June of 2009 he moved to Mississippi and started working at ERDC while I stayed in Virginia working on my PhD.
The PhD program in engineering education was a great fit for me. I loved teaching, and earned a prestigious teaching fellowship. I was able to attend and present at conferences in the Netherlands, Orlando, Washington DC, Louisville KY, and Vancouver Canada. I originally wanted to study issues related to women in engineering, then identity development in graduate teaching assistants, but finally settled on my dissertation topic: career goals and actions of early career engineering graduates. Throughout the second and third year of my PhD program I was able to set up my schedule to allow me to fly down to Mississippi every other weekend and on school breaks to see my husband. I had a very supportive advisor whose personality worked well with mine.
In 2011 I finished collecting my data and moved to Mississippi just before my first child was born. I thought it would be simple to write a dissertation with a baby at home; by six months old she ended up in nearly full-time child care so I could finish. After graduation, I worked from home as an adjunct research faculty member at Virginia Tech, a GRE instructor for Kaplan, and eventually as a research consultant on my own, all while continually trying to get hired as an engineer at ERDC. I had another child, and we learned that our family operated better when the children regularly had time with babysitters or in daycare.
Finally, in 2013, I found the right fit at ERDC. It was not with the research group I had originally wanted to work with, or lined up perfectly with my prior experience, but it was with the right group of people doing work I was qualified to do. Being the government, there was a full six months between when the first authorization to hire me was signed and when I received an official offer. I started as a Research Civil Engineer in the Structural Engineering Branch, Geotechnical Research Lab, in January 2015. My research focuses on near-surface soil behavior based on laboratory testing, with applications to sensor behavior, blast impacts, and force protection. Currently, I plan to spend the next 10 to 15 years in technical engineering before gradually transitioning over to human capital and workforce development roles.
In my dissertation, I compared senior engineering students’ goals to what they were doing four years later. One large group I categorized as “positive adaptations”. These people were not doing what they expected to be doing, for a variety of reasons, but they were happy with their choices and happy with their work. I am not where I expected to be, and my path has changed many times since I earned my BS eight years ago, but I am definitely grateful for where I have been and where I am.