What tips would you give an engineering student just starting out?
A friend of mine's son is heading off to college in a couple of weeks to start on a degree in mechanical engineering. The scary part is that I remember going to his preschool graduation. Of course, the time between then and now has been something of a blur marked by a few high points (the Boston Red Sox’ World Series wins, the invention of the Slapchop, the availability of the leopard-spotted Snuggie, the emergence of the Kim Kardashian empire… Oh, wait, that last one comes under the heading of signs of the apocalypse.)
Especially in today's high-tech society, a career in engineering is pretty much guaranteed to be successful. Maybe there have been some cuts in the defense and electronics quarters in the last couple of years, but the technology is not going away and there will always be a need. Even better, according to a recent article on careers where opportunities exceed the number of qualified applicants, some of the sectors poised for a particular growth include industrial, civil, and environmental engineering —areas that had been slow in the past couple of decades. With an aging infrastructure in many countries around the globe, civil engineering as a career holds far more promise than in the past.
All of it got me thinking about engineering education in general, mine in particular, and the things I wish that I had known at the start. Some of my tips are pretty simple: Take as much math as you possibly can. When in doubt on a physics problem, take a series expansion. You can never have enough memory. Before you apply a simplifying assumption, make sure that it's both simplifying and that it applies. With enough duct tape and WD-40, you can rule the world.
What advice would you give to a student just starting out in engineering, whether about academics, careers, or just practical living? What do you wish that you had known back in the beginning?
All engineering students should take advanced writing classes and public speeking classes. You need to be able to communicate well before you can even get hired. If you cannot explain to non-technical people how good your skills are, you will not find the job of your dreams. Writing, talking, and listening skills are just as important as your technical skills. The sooner you realize that fact the faster you can leap ahead of your peers.
When I went into engineering, including during Freshman orientation week, all I heard from everyone around me was that I'd probably be changing my major soon. All I heard was "yeah I did that too, but switched to psych." Too hard. Bla bla bla.
Even the profs. We were sat down in an orientation class. The prof said, look to your left, look to your right, both those people will likely be gone by next year.
Totally misleading. Don't be intimidated by that talk.
What people should be saying is, if you really love this stuff, just do the work. That's all it takes. You don't have to be brilliant. Just do the work. And yes, mostly, it's going to be math. But math done for reasons you'll immediately understand.
If you don't love this stuff, then do something else. Why? Because you won't have the motivation to do the work, and you won't do well. It's NOT because you need to be a genius to get through the four years.
BTW, I totally agree with Erebus about writing skills. In real life, after school, they matter a whole lot.
I second this. Being recently out of college, I would say that if you love it then just plow through the school work. Don't let other people tell you it's 'too hard' because it's not. Love the challenge!
Also, get an internship somewhere. Doesn't matter where, but get some real life experience under your belt before you graduate and see all that school doesn't teach you.
Don't expect your complete education to come from school. If you're into software, write software. Build web sites, smart phone apps, microcontroller code... If you're looking at an electrical engineering degree, get some development boards and get to know them. Get some solderless proto boards and a bunch of 7400 series chips and then build stuff.
This will not only give you a head start, but when it comes time to getting a job, it will show your prospective employer that you are passionate about engineering.
One word. READ. Anything you can get your hands on. Tool catalogs, popular science books and magazines, industry magazines, technology related new items. Read subjects outside of your expertise. You never know when the knowledge might help you.
I read once engineering is doing for $1 what any fool could do with $2. Engineering is Science+Economics.
Learn some economics. You'll need to know that to manage the money you make as an engineer.
Learn some business. Learn some management. Be ready to say "yes" to whatever opportunity comes up.
Keep yourself fresh, technically. Be in a line position, not staff.
Someone oce said that being a practicing engineer is the equivalent of getting a Master's degree every two years. Be proactive about learning new skills. Do not let your job get in the way of that. Learn to do the math, but also learn to do a quick approximation to check the math. Make sure you understand basic physics and cost accounting. Read. White papers, application notes, handbooks Take care of your health and your eyes. Make sure to set some of your income aside and invest it. If you move from a design function to some other (i.e.,sales, marketing, management)it will be very difficult to move back.
Advice? Change majors from Engineering to Fine Arts - that'll at least get you laid while in college, you'll be able to attends tons more keggers due to the lack of homework,, and it'll teach you a modicum of social skills. Your chances of landing an engineering job when you graduate will be about the same, IMO.