Why Engineer — Chapter 2: What should you put in your head?

What does it take to become an engineer?  Being born helps.  Being born curious helps a lot.  Being born skeptical adds a chunk more.  Being born cheap – not so much.  Most engineering projects are expensive.  Get used to big money, just don’t get enamored with it.  If for no other reason, big projects fail because they cost too much, thus the emphasis on low cost designs.  Low cost designs use fewer resources and are thus usually easier on the environment overall.  And remember, your customer is part of your environment.

One thing that obviously costs quite a bit is education.  So, the question you must ask first is, how much is enough?  Surprisingly, it has been my observation that you don’t really need all that much, and even the quality of the education isn’t all that important – this from a guy who went to top engineering schools, and has a Masters degree, and had very good grades, but here comes the dirty little secret.

So how much is enough?  Earl didn’t go to college.  He never even finished high school, as you already know.  He worked his way into engineering by having an aptitude for it and by hard work and private study.  That sort of thing was more common back then.  It still happens in rare cases today, but employers want people with degrees.  And advanced degrees may even result in higher pay.  We’ll get into the subject of pay in another chapter.

Why do employers demand that you have a degree?  Because interviewing tells you very little about a person.  Grades are at least of some interest, and more objective.  Also, if a company does not have degreed engineers, they are less likely to land business that requires engineering work.

“Hi, my company is interested in engineering this project for you.  I have an exceptionally experienced staff of 25 very capable engineers, and the engineers in charge have college degrees.”


“Our staff of highly educated and experienced engineers, lead by Dr. Etcetera, can provide your project with advanced engineering designs well suited to make you project a success.”

Easy choice.

Face it, you are going to have to go to college, and your choices of jobs may be a little better with good grades.  Some companies have a list of acceptable schools.  And some even refer to that list if you have twenty or more years of experience, even though the schooling happened twenty or more years ago.

On the other hand, assuming you stay with a company for a number of years, where you went to school and what your grades were quickly drop out of the picture in the vast majority of  circumstances.  Once you have shown them how good you are, that becomes the key to your future, not your education.  Education may get you the job, but it does not do much for you once you are there.

Why is that?

Engineering, like other professions, demands things that you can’t learn in school.  And, it demands a lot less of what you learned in school than you think it will.  I am not advocating that you slack off in school.  Learning the language of engineering, learning to think hard before jumping to a conclusion, and finding your best engineering traits are all valuable to you.  However, if you aren’t the brightest in your class, you may still make out well in the profession.  I have seen at least one person, who never did any real engineering, and never really understood what he did for a living.  He wound up as a vice-president.

OK, he was an outlier in the data of career success, but I think you can find surveys that show that the incomes of engineers bear little or no correlation with college grades.  The point is, work hard, but don’t obsess about you future career.  College is very different from the real world.

In that regard, here is a statement that may surprise you.  Exceedingly few engineers ever use calculus again once they leave college.

And here is the bad news, a good working knowledge of statistics can be very helpful.

However, if you were to ask me what is the most important math skill you will need, I would tell you it is being able to formulate and solve word problems.  That’s good news for some, and bad news for others.  Your personal skill in this area will not necessarily ruin your career, it just means that you may or may not be a truly technically oriented engineer.  Know what your skills and limitations are and go where they lead you.

So, what else should I tell you?  Well, the things that fascinate you – hobbies, things you tend read about, etc. – are probably the best measures of the type of engineer you are going to be.  If you are not fascinated by machines and the things that they do, don’t bother with mechanical engineering.  You get the picture.  Always go with what interests you, what you are curious about.

That is not to say that a general knowledge of other aspects of engineering is of no use to you.  In the real world, most projects involve several engineering disciplines.  Knowing something about what the other person is doing is often a critical issue in making sure that you are not working at cross purposes.

If nothing in engineering really fascinates you, don’t choose it simply because you are good with math and science.  I had a college intern work for me one summer.  He was going to an expensive school to ultimately get his Ph.D. in engineering, and he was truly the possessor of a smart brain.  However, he did not seem to be the engineer type.  Smart, yes.  Practical, no.  As with most interns, you have to put them on some job that your own career can withstand, something relatively harmless (cynical, I know, but always wise).  We had a project that used an already designed and built commercial high pressure pump.  However, it needed some modification.  One of the things it needed was a passageway to get oil to one of the gears.  The job was not urgent.  Giving it to him would give him some practical experience without putting my own career in jeopardy.  I showed him the task at hand, and he accepted it with boyish enthusiasm.  He assured me he would have it finished by the afternoon.  I knew that wouldn’t happen, but I kept my mouth shut.  Problems involving machining tolerances and moving parts are usually hard to solve, yet they look easy to the untried eye.  I would have laughed at him, but he was a good kid, and it was not my intent to demean him.  Two weeks later, he had not figured it out.  He was very sorry, and I explained that it was a hard problem and that he shouldn’t worry about it.  I gave the job to a layout draftsman (who had no degree, but oodles of experience), and he solved it in a day.  Meanwhile the intern went off to get his Ph.D., and I hope to an ultimate goal of working in research, a place where he would really fit well.

Bottom line:  Keep in mind that some companies like certain schools, and then go to whatever school that meets your needs.  An expensive education isn’t the goal.  Get a degree in what interests you.  Work at it seriously.  Do your best and leave it at that.  It is not a race to be better than the other guy.  Most of it, you will never use!