Does engineering school really prepare you to be an engineer in the real world? In my first post, I concluded "not so much": I saw some ways in which my education shielded me from what a career in engineering would really be like. Maybe that's just the nature of education versus work experience. In this second part, I focus more on engineering work itself, and what I've seen. Hopefully you'll still want to take the "red pill" and go into engineering. It's a good profession, but, as with all choices, not without its drawbacks.
You don't actually know everything
As I said in Part 1, sometimes you can pass a class without thoroughly understanding every concept. Likewise, although you're an engineer, you won't understand everything in your first job out of college. There's a good chance you won't understand much of it at all.
Engineering school teaches you the concepts and framework that you'll need to learn how things work, but for better or worse, doesn't teach you how to do the job that you eventually will take. It is sometimes lamented that engineers graduate with little in the realm of "practical knowledge." There's certainly some truth to this, but every company is different, and pigeon-holing a graduate into very specific knowledge of one area would really devalue having an engineering degree as a whole.
I'd like to think that engineers have, at their core, learned the mental flexibility to adapt to nearly any situation. The downside is that most likely you won't be as valuable as you could be to your employer for some time. Unfortunately, there will likely come situations where you're expected to actually know everything, when you really don't. Being able to learn quickly what you need to do and find the resources to help when you get stuck will be key to your success.
Coop/internship experience is a must
I learned a lot in school, and certainly the mental challenges that I was put through was great preparation for the "real world." As helpful as it was, I'm still amazed by how much more I knew after my first semester co-oping. You still won't know everything, but at least you'll be a little closer.
I was fortunate in that my employer let us have the run of their machine shop (or at least what the machinists weren't using). This allowed me to learn how things were built in the real world, and the manufacturing skills I learned help me to this day. After co-oping, I was in a design group for one of my senior classes with two other guys that worked at the same place. We did quite well in that class. I believe this was because we knew how to draw up parts for manufacture in a more realistic way than many of our classmates.
A PE is less useful that you might think
If you are a civil engineer, a PE is almost always an advantage. For certain other disciplines, especially involving public safety, it can also be a very good thing. In many situations, especially if you're working for a large company, there's little push to have it.
On the other hand, it would certainly look impressive on a resume. Also on the plus side, you can officially call yourself a "Professional Engineer," which is a pretty big accomplishment.
All other companies besides yours have their act together
I've worked at three decent sized manufacturing facilities in my career so far. I can point to things each of them did better than the other one, and I hope this experience has helped me realize what works and what doesn't. One interesting theme that I've seen is the assumption among engineers that other businesses don't run their company as "poorly," have better equipment, pay better, etc. I think I saw a Dilbert cartoon once that referenced this.
Obviously this can't always be true; however, some companies are certainly better than others. Regardless of your long-term prospects where you are, be sure to make note of what they do well or poorly, so you can hopefully improve it in your current situation, or the next.
Share your experiences
Hopefully these last two articles about my experience working and the differences between the "real world" and school have been interesting. Be sure to let me know if you have anything to add or any disagreements! As I said earlier, I don't actually know everything!
— Jeremy Cook is a manufacturing engineer with 10 years experience and has a BSME from Clemson University. You can find him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JeremySCook.