An Interview with Paul Huter

“An attentiveness to detail is the most important trait a student in an aerospace engineering program can possess. Since the aircraft and spacecraft that aerospace engineers design could fail with even minor flaws in their design or construction, students of aerospace engineering cannot afford to overlook small details.”

Paul Huter is a pursuing a Master of Science in Aerospace Engineering at the University of Alabama. He chose to pursue his masters degree at the University of Alabama because its location in Huntsville is near NASA, so the school is very connected with the aerospace industry. He also earned a Master of Science in Engineering Management from the University of Houston in 2008, and a Bachelor of Science in Aeronautical Engineering from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona in 2006.

Paul chose to study aerospace engineering because a vision problem disqualified him as a potential astronaut, yet he still wants to eventually work in the aerospace field. After graduation, he would like to move up to a management position in the company where he already works.

In your own words, what is aerospace engineering?

Aerospace engineering is the scientific study of how to best design and construct aircraft and spacecraft. The aero side of it refers to aviation and flight mechanics. Aviation engineers construct aircraft and aircraft parts. I am more interested in the side of the field which deals with space travel. Specifically, I am interested in how engineers design satellites and rockets.

Why did you choose to study aerospace engineering?

I chose to get a master degree in aerospace engineering because I have always been fascinated by space travel, so I wanted to enroll in a program that would lead to work in the aerospace field. When I discovered I could not be an astronaut because of vision problems, I decided I would like to design spacecraft and assist astronauts on missions.

When you first considered studying aerospace engineering, what were your expectations?

When I first considered pursuing a masters in aerospace engineering, I did not anticipate the amount of hands-on learning that the discipline required. I started by taking classes online at the University of Colorado, but I quickly learned that distance learning is not appropriate for the study of aerospace engineering. I found myself unable to move forward with projects because I kept encountering problems which required immediate instruction that was unavailable to me. After enrolling in a brick-and-mortar program, I could learn more effectively and became a lot happier.

What do you find most and least enjoyable about studying aerospace engineering?

The most enjoyable aspect of studying aerospace engineering is being able to work on fascinating theoretical projects. I recently worked in a propulsion laboratory, designing hypothetical missions to the moon and Mars. I find project collaboration that may one day have real-life applications to be endlessly stimulating.

On the other hand, becoming properly assimilated into the University of Alabama was difficult and frustrating because I was given insufficient information and resources as a new student. My enrollment for first semester classes was delayed, and after I enrolled I had difficulty functioning in class because I had not been assigned a user name and password to allow me access to necessary computers and databases.

What kinds of classes have you taken in your aerospace engineering program?

The masters degree program in aerospace engineering at University of Alabama is generally divided between mathematics courses and courses in engineering mechanics, such as aerodynamics. Currently I am taking classes in project management, legal issues in engineering, and negotiation strategies.

Which of these classes do you think will be most valuable for your future goals?

The courses which teach the interaction of physical forces and moving objects are the most important for my career. For example, my fluid dynamics course teaches how water and air move, while my thermodynamics course discusses the transfer of heat. Finally, my course on dynamic forces teaches about the physics of moving objects. All of these classes will help me to design spacecraft.

I also take a number of mathematics courses, such as calculus and differential equations, which are integral to my overall education and necessary because they help me understand my engineering courses.

What personality traits do you think would help a student to succeed in an aerospace engineering program and what traits would hinder success?

An attentiveness to detail is the most important trait a student in an aerospace engineering program can possess. Since the aircraft and spacecraft that aerospace engineers design could fail with even minor flaws in their design or construction, students of aerospace engineering cannot afford to overlook small details.

Likewise, students who are not thorough or who work sloppily will be hindered in an aerospace engineering program. If a student is designing a craft that will travel to another planet, making even a very small unit conversion error could have disastrous consequences.

What is your weekly schedule?

My schedule is incredibly busy because I work a full time job and take classes almost exclusively in the evening. After 8 hours of work, I return home to brush up on class material, and then I attend classes for a couple of hours, although I only do that twice a week. In total, I attend classes for 3 to 6 hours a week, and probably do an additional 9 hours of homework per week. Unlike my undergraduate education, the majority of my homework is reading.

During a busy period, my time outside of work may be entirely occupied by my aerospace engineering studies. I have little free time, and even when I do it is difficult for me to turn off the engineering portion of my brain and relax. I would recommend that students of engineering attempt to disassociate their engineering work from their personal lives, even though I am unable to do so myself.

What are your plans for after graduation?

After I graduate, I would like to move up to a managerial position in my contract job at the Department of Defense in Alabama. I would like to use both my masters in engineering management and my masters in aerospace engineering to manage a project on a large scale.

In order to advance my career, I will have to put all of my on-the-job training to use. So if aerospace engineering students want to get their careers in the right direction, transitioning straight from an undergraduate program to a graduate program may not be the best strategy. They should know that in any engineering field, work experience is essential to career success.