Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Ten Things About Engineering You Don't Learn in College

They say experience matters, and it does. In fact, knowing what I know now I would say that twelve months of experience, such as during a co-op, is a great idea and huge advantage to an engineer's career. Well here is a non-exhaustive list of things they don't thoroughly teach in college.
  1. Cost drives everything. You can make a great design that lasts for decades, but if it survives the warranty period that's good enough, and it probably costs less.
  2. There are many right and many wrong answers, but no grades. It's really a pass or fail world. Of course, defining fail is another reason engineers get paid so much.
  3. The expectation is to get X amount of work done in Y amount of hours. It usually takes .5Y or .75Y or .9Y to do X amount of work. But there are days when it takes 1.5Y hours of work to do X.
  4. Seniority is based primarily on age and years of experience, not necessarily education or performance although they do account for something. 
  5. There is a lot of monotony. Instead of taking four different classes you are doing one thing or perhaps two, nearly all the time.
  6. Few people use calculus. I know a lot of math, but most of the time I don't use any of it. Most of the important calculations have spreadsheets or macros (small computer programs or additions to a computer program). Simply plug in numbers and receive a result. 
  7. Microsoft Excel is probably the most used engineering software in the US.
  8. You are likely to get hired if you already have a job in that industry. It is harder to get a job if you are unemployed or changing fields. 
  9. Successful engineers must keep learning to stay current. If you thought education ended when you got a job, you are wrong. Standards and expectations are always changing. 
  10. The things that we do and choices that we make in our offices costs others millions of dollars and can determine life or death for some people. If a roll over protection system fails, someone will likely die. Engineering can be isolating. We don't always see the manufacturing process or the operator using our product. A "win" might be a part that weights 30 pounds less (when measured on the computer) or seeing yellow (moderate) strains instead of red (high) strains. At the end of the day the bridge is not 10 feet longer or the building one story higher, the pictures on the computer simply have different shapes. 
Those are a few of the things I have encountered. I could expand on most of those, but I will leave it as it is. I am so fortunate to have the job that I do! This is such a great learning experience for me. One of the things that I like to do as I am encountering these new situations is ask, how could we do this better? So often, I really don't have an answer. It is great to be working to improve something and not have a cut and dried solution already in your head. It keeps it interesting. It keeps me thinking.

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