In 2009, at the age of 60 and after spending 6 years in retirement, MABE alumnus Bob Swann did something most retirees would never consider doing—he enrolled in graduate school at the University of Tennessee (UT). Two years later he received his master’s degree in mechanical engineering.
This wasn’t the first engineering degree for Swann nor was this his first time graduating from UT. He also received his bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering in 1972.
After receiving his bachelor’s degree, Swann was hired as an engineer for Martin Marietta Aerospace in Orlando, Florida where he worked in the guided missile division and performed aerodynamics work on programs including the Patriot Missile, Hellfire Missile, and B-1 bomber munitions. During his last two summers in college, Swann had worked as a laborer in an industrial plant where his primary task was swinging a 16-lb sledge hammer 40 hours per week, so to be working as an engineer in the missile division was a huge accomplishment for him.
“My engineering education, particularly with respect to math, computer programming, and problem- solving, enabled me to step into an entry-level engineering position that was heavy in aerodynamics analysis and computer programming,” said Swann.
After three years at Martin Marietta, Swann was laid off due to a downturn in the aerospace industry. He used his severance pay and an assistantship to attend the University of Memphis where he received his MBA. “This degree proved to be an excellent complement to my engineering background and the combination supported many career options,” Swann said.
Swann’s career continued with the position of operations analyst for W.R. Grace Ag Chem Division in Memphis, Tennessee where he provided operations and analytical support for eight mining and manufacturing sites in the U.S. and Trinidad.
In 1980, he was hired by Solvay America Companies in Houston, Texas and held numerous positions within the company including manager of financial analysis and planning, manager of technical and applications services, director of marketing and communications, and director of finance and information systems. He was vice president of finance and total quality management when he took an early retirement package in 2003, after 23 years with the company.
Swann and his wife Mary Ann, who retired from her position as Director of Privacy and Compliance at Baylor College of Medicine, moved back to East Tennessee in 2005 to enjoy retirement. They spent time remodeling an older home they owned on Watts Bar Lake and when the house was finished Swann found himself getting bored. This is when he decided to enroll in graduate school at UT. “After a couple of weeks of thinking about what I really enjoyed doing out of all my varied positions, I realized that I wanted to return to engineering—my first love. I also deduced that my engineering skills might be a bit out of date and was struck by the thought I could just go back and get my master’s to update my credentials,” Swann said.
Swann didn’t let the thought of possibly being the oldest student in class or not remembering what he learned in his undergraduate education stop him from pursuing his master’s degree. He spoke to several professors in the MABE department who encouraged him and didn’t think returning to graduate school was a crazy idea. Swann’s wife also encouraged him and gave him unstinting support.
Once Swann started classes, he noticed some differences in being a student in 2009 compared to 1972. “The professors were so much younger this time around,” Swann said. “Professors and department heads are a lot less intimidating when they are younger than you, too.”
Swann learned quickly to be wary of classes with the word “advanced” in the title, but was pleasantly surprised how much of his earlier education he remembered when subjects were re-introduced to him. He also realized that being older and more mature made a difference in how well he did in class. “I was certainly much more focused and worked harder the second time around, although I must confess that I did not apply myself nearly as well during my undergraduate days,” Swann said. After completing his master’s degree, Swann returned to work as an engineer, first at DCP Midstream and later at Pond & Company.
When reflecting on the jobs he’s had over the years, Swann’s most challenging time was his first year in the marketing function at Solvay. “The job required a great deal of customer contact, industry conferences, etc. As an introvert, I found the people side of the job to be quite a stretch for me at first,” Swann said. His most enjoyable job was his position at DCP Midstream after he received his master’s degree. “Although oil and gas was a new industry for me, I found it fascinating. I served as project manager, project engineer, and engineering manager with a team of fantastic young engineers. Having been out of engineering for quite a few years, I relished everything about the job.”
Swann’s advice for aspiring engineers is simple.
“First and foremost—hang in there and get that engineering degree. An engineering education is absolutely the best preparation for a vast range of career choices, including many which aren’t specifically technical in nature. I’ve spent the vast majority of my career with manufacturing companies, but my positions have included technical, marketing, financial, and even IT roles, and in all of them I used the mathematical and problem-solving skills which are honed by an engineering education,” Swann said.
“Second, after you enter the work force, pay special attention to the folks who will operate and maintain the equipment, facilities, or processes you design. They may not have your fancy degree, but I guarantee they will know more about day-to-day issues than any engineer ever will. They can make you look even smarter than you already are, but ignore them at your peril.”
Swann has retired for the second time and he and his wife are busy looking for lake property to build a new home on and once the construction starts on the home, managing the construction will be Swann’s next project
MABE department head Matthew Mench facetiously suggested Swann could come back to UT for a degree in biomedical engineering so he would have a degree in every program MABE offers. While he is giving that suggestion the consideration it deserves, he will remain open to opportunities and enjoy retirement with his wife.
Swann and his wife currently reside in downtown Knoxville. They have one daughter and three teenaged grandchildren who live in Texas.
By Kathy Williams