Use these 36 first engineering job tips to level up in your career. This way, you can better transition from the ivory towers into the real world.
I’m going to go over some mistakes I’ve made, colleagues have made, and things I’ve just learned.
This way, as a new engineer you can more smoothly adapt to your new workspace. Even veteran engineers can learn a thing or two.
In short, to constantly level up, you need to always learn. Then, practice and practice some more until things become a habit.
Some of the first engineering job tips I’ll discuss will seem like no brainers. But, in the real world, things aren’t always black and white.
For example, your confidence may go down the drain when a 40-year experienced, white-haired engineer with a Ph.D., breathes down your throat. So, let’s go over 36 first engineering job tips to level you up.
#1 Converting units
Use the wrong units and the perfect design will fail.
NASA lost a $125-million Mars Climate Orbiter, because of the wrong units used. Engineers failed to convert English to metric units.
Thus, double-check your units in documents you review. Also, check the units in your calculations. Especially in today’s globalized world, where English and metric units mix.
#2 It always works on paper
Every design will look good on paper. But, you need to put on your hard hat and think of real-world limitations.
So, get experience in the real world to give your mind a different perspective. This will allow you to better visualize your design in the construction phase.
For this reason, I recommend you don’t keep yourself cooped up in an office. You’ll only limit your potential as an engineer.
#3 Admit your mistake fast and fix the problem
The cost of fixing a mistake grows, the longer it remains unfixed.
You can only hide a mistake under the rug for so long. It’ll pop its ugly head up sooner or later.
These uncaught mistakes will then cost your company much more money down the line. Heads will then roll.
So, if you make a mistake, own up to it quickly and move on. By quickly taking ownership, you’ll limit project damage.
Also, as a result, you’ll better learn from your mistake because of fear of repercussions. For example, I always delay a project if a critical mistake needs fixing. I forget about the timeline.
I prefer this over the alternative. Wasting millions of dollars with months of rework required.
As a junior engineer, this may be the most frightening of the first engineering job tips. But, it’ll also become the most impactful in your career.
It’s always important to realize, that failure is a better teacher than success.
#4 Assuming you know
Even if you think you know something, don’t assume. For example, for a given device submittal, you may find the units are always listed in feet.
So, for future submittals on this same device, you assume feet without even checking. But, the units this time come back in inches for whatever reason. As a result, your entire design is now wrong.
In short, no matter how familiar you think you are with something, don’t ever assume. Make a simple verification and you’ll sleep better at night.
#5 Assuming numbers from software or slick spreadsheets are correct
Don’t blindly accept the output from software or spreadsheets. Always check if the output makes sense to you in the real world.
With any program, it’s garbage in garbage out. So, if your input values are wrong, then your output will also be wrong.
Further, the software or spreadsheet may have errors programmed in. In this case, you’ll have incorrect outputs no matter what you do.
#6 Not asking other engineers your questions
Don’t ever think you float alone on a boat in the middle of the ocean. By that, I mean, ask other engineers for help.
Also, use the internet. You can find a global community of help from other professionals for every topic.
Keep in mind, all engineers get help in some form. We all rely on the work from engineers in the past, and present.
#7 Don’t reinvent the wheel
Don’t try to be MacGyver. If a simple solution already exists, then use it.
Don’t make your work harder than it should be. People in the past painstakingly created a solution to make future work more simple.
So, take advantage of these solutions. They’ve been around for many years and used by countless people for a reason.
#8 Trusting vendors
Even if a vendor always provides you with quality designs, you still need to verify what you receive. It doesn’t matter how large of a company they are.
For example, I’ve received product submittals from the largest global vendors. Now, even after explaining my project specs, what I received was completely wrong. This comes after many near-identical projects they’ve helped me with.
All in all, never blindly trust anyone no matter their reputation.
#9 Don’t disrespect manual workers
Every project takes a team effort to complete. To that end, every person and group plays an integral part in the end product.
As the motto goes, treat everyone with respect. Your engineering degree doesn’t make you better than anyone else.
Many manual laborers will actually teach you a thing or two. So, take an interest in their work. Most people like the opportunity to teach and explain themselves.
In the end, this may even improve your designs. You’ll gain a new lens over your work.
#10 Use critical thinking, even when something is told to be 100% one way
Don’t blindly accept that something can only be done one way, no matter who tells you. As an engineer, you need to question things.
In brief, all humans make mistakes. So, any human who thinks their way is the only way is ignorant.
At one time in history, people swore on their lives that the Earth sits at the center of the universe. Science later proved that to be false.
#11 Don’t touch something that’s working until you’re sure you know how it works
Even the simplest of devices will no longer be simple once you take them apart. So, know exactly how something works, especially if you don’t have a manual lying around.
For this reason, take pictures step by step as you disassemble something. This will avoid future frustrations when you have endless parts staring back at you.
#12 Thinking you know it all
Get it out of your head right now that you know everything. Even if you’re an expert in a field, it simply means you know more than most people.
In the grand scheme of the universe, you know very little. I always think of my position in the universe, to humble myself. I find this to be a great hack to always want to learn more.
#13 Not double and triple-checking your work
We all make mistakes. To limit the number of mistakes you make, check your work. Then check your work again.
I always like to check my work after a couple of days of break. This clears my mind and allows me to catch things that I overlooked before.
#14 Not thinking about others who will work on your design after it’s implemented
When you do design work, you need to consider everyone who will work on the project. You can’t base your designs on your own selfish needs. In other words, designing to make your own life easier.
For example, in a project, I may have the task of laying conduit for a new building. In my design, I wouldn’t run the conduit exposed on the ground. Also, I wouldn’t run the conduit in the middle of a water pipping area.
Certainly, running exposed conduit would make my life easier. But, it’s not a practical design.
The exposed conduit would become a tripping hazard. Also, I’d have many angry mechanical engineers on my back. They’d probably call me an idiot for designing my conduits in their pipping area.
#15 Not getting things in writing
Don’t blindly trust people. No matter how trustworthy a person may seem.
When problems arise, people will start pointing the finger. Especially in engineering, where a problem can cost tens of millions of dollars.
So, get everything in writing for your own record and protection. Even more, document a phone call where you discuss critical project items.
After your call, send an email summarizing your conversation with the other party. In the email, ask the other party to confirm the conversation discussion items.
#16 Going to your boss over every minor decision you make
Don’t go to your manager or boss over every minor project detail. You’ll never advance in your field. Also, you’ll never build up confidence in the work you do.
Your manager or boss will become your crutch. Also, you’ll become handicapped when you’re in the hot seat.
#17 Making work presentable for others to read
Make your work easy to read. In other words, you need to make your work presentable for non-engineers to read. Also, for other engineers who aren’t in your field.
Do this in your design drawings, specs, and reports. Overcomplicating things to look smart is not a skill.
As Albert Einstein perfectly said: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”
#18 Admit your mistake but have alternative solutions
Own up to your mistakes. Don’t look for excuses. By holding yourself responsible, you’ll become a better engineer too.
At the same time, propose solutions. So, when you admit to your mistakes, also propose solutions.
This will show others how you’ve thought through your mistake. Also, that you’ve learned from your mistake.
#19 Develop a checklist of what to check in every design
You don’t want to tackle every problem differently with your head stuck in the sand. Create a process for how you approach all your design work.
This will streamline your work. Also, it’ll improve your designs and reduce errors.
Further, with each new project, you can add steps or details to your design process. This will optimize your process, like when you perfect a recipe through a lot of practice.
#20 Mistakes are normal, just don’t make the same mistake twice
Everyone makes mistakes. No exceptions.
The trick is to learn from your mistakes. You don’t want to make the same mistake twice.
For example, you may specify the wrong large size transformer for a pump station. This mistake would cost $2 million.
By and large, for this mistake, your boss or client may forgive you. But, if you make the same mistake again in the next project, you’ll need to go search for a new job.
For this reason, take all these 36 first engineering job tips to heart. These tips will help you avoid making the same mistake twice.
#21 Don’t assume others know something
Even if the other party has been doing the work for 30 plus years, don’t assume they know something. Many people will bullshit through a conversation to not sound stupid.
So, spell things out for someone you just met. Do this until you’re confident you’re on the same page.
#22 Logic in work is great, but not when it comes to people
Turn off your engineering brain when you speak with most people.
For example, in customer support, try to understand an illogical decision. Don’t always try to think like an engineer.
Look to understand the perspective and situation of others. This way, you can better help and find solutions.
#23 Stay organized
Create to-do lists for yourself so you don’t allow tasks to fall through the cracks. When you get very busy, you’ll naturally forget the small tasks.
I recommend creating daily, weekly, and even monthly to-do lists. Secondly, add to your to-do lists immediately as new things come to mind.
Also, for every project, file everything electronically and physically in one place. This way, you’ll have everything at your fingertips on demand.
#24 Ask “Why”
Always ask “why” until you’re fully satisfied. If something doesn’t make sense to you, continue to ask “why”.
Don’t fear to look stupid. I’ve done this plenty of times with overly confident clients and engineers.
By asking “why” over and over again, I discovered problems that had gone unnoticed.
#25 Stick to facts, don’t speculate
You may think your speculations don’t mean much in a meeting with a client. You may think speculative talk is all part of regular discussion.
But, as an expert, non-engineers will run with your words. So, your words can come back and bite you. I’ve experienced this on several occasions.
Thus, stick to facts and leave speculative talk inhouse for your internal team. That said, if you ever become a genius marketer like Elon Musk, you can learn how to leverage speculative talk.
#26 Hold others accountable
If someone says they’ll do something, then hold them accountable.
Once accountability goes out the window, project timelines will fall apart. Also, design quality will suffer.
That’s why, if someone says they’ll do something, then get the date and details on record. This way, you can hold the other party accountable when people start pointing fingers.
Otherwise, you may become the culprit for something you didn’t do.
#27 Be sure you’re using the latest drawings
When you start a design, you’ll probably use certain drawings as your template. Thus, be sure you use the latest drawings. Think of an x-reference drawing in AutoCAD for example.
In engineering, drawings will go through many iterations. Thus, an even greater reason you need to stay on top of the latest drawings you use. Otherwise, your design will completely be wrong.
The same applies to software files that software developers work off from.
#28 Don’t shit where you eat
If you have a problem with a given firm or person, keep it professional. The engineering community is small, and things always go in a full circle.
For example, in the future, you may need to go through this firm to win a project. Or, this firm may one day review your project design. Further, this given person may become your new boss at a new company.
In short, always look into the future with the actions you make today.
This is one of those first engineering job tips that all young engineers need to remember. You have a long career ahead, and burning bridges from day 1 can cause you a lot of future misery.
#29 Know your value and don’t work for free
You’ve worked hard to be in the position you’re in. You’ve made many sacrifices.
For this reason, don’t sell yourself short by doing free work. I always tell engineers, you don’t walk into a dentist’s office and ask them to pull your tooth for free.
Now, keep the same mindset in engineering as a professional. But, sometimes you may do free out of scope work on a project for a good client.
In most instances though, you’ll know when someone is taking advantage of you. Especially, as you gain more experience dealing with good and bad clients.
#30 Don’t send out emails when you’re emotional
If you can’t place a smiley face at the end of your email, then don’t hit send. On the same token, when you feel extra emotional, don’t contact anyone.
Instead, if you draft an email when emotional, sit on it for 24 hours. More than likely, after 24 hours you’ll cringe at what you wrote.
By doing this, you’ll more rationally think over your message. You’ll prevent yourself from sending a message you wish you hadn’t.
#31 Don’t sign something until you’ve reviewed the drawing or document thoroughly
Never blindly sign off on something. Even if the other party says it’s all simple or typical jargon.
Once you sign your name, you’ll hold yourself liable. For this reason, never jeopardize yourself because of laziness.
#32 Learn as much as you can
Constantly learn. If you don’t, your career will pass you by fast.
Especially today, with how fast the world is evolving.
Even better, make learning a hobby. Having a thirst to learn will separate you from your peers who force themselves to learn only to keep a job.
#33 Under-promise and over-deliver
You’ll always have happy clients and colleagues by under-promising and over-delivering. You’ll exceed people’s expectations. It’s a great hack to gain the respect of your clients and peers.
On the same token, don’t overpromise. More than likely you won’t deliver. You’ll simply add extra unnecessary stress to your life.
#34 Never assume someone is smarter than you
Don’t only go off letters after a name on a business card, white hair, and years of experience to define smarts. If you see something that you can do better, then speak up.
Don’t let others overshadow you because you think they know better. Everyone starts from somewhere and for all you know, you may have a special knack.
#35 Be detail-oriented
Don’t assume everyone thinks like you. In other words, spell everything out for other people.
This will prevent miscommunication. In return, fewer things can go wrong.
For example, a basketball coach can simply tell a novice player to shoot the ball. The novice player may then shoot the ball using both hands with an awkward stance.
This shooting technique obviously is not ideal. The better approach is for the coach to step by step detail how the novice player should shoot.
Even more, by becoming detail-oriented, you’ll speed up your learning. To be able to show detail in your work, you need a strong understanding of a subject. For this reason, I find this to be one of the most important first engineering job tips.
#36 Disclosing information
You don’t need to disclose everything to anyone who asks. For example, certain things, you and your client should only know.
I always have vendors ask what project I’ll be using their product for. Frankly, a lot of the times, it’s none of their business.
So, don’t be afraid of kindly saying “I can’t disclose”.
With any type of engineering, you’ll make mistakes in your career. You can’t escape this.
But, with every passing year, you’ll optimize your work process. As a result, you’ll become a better engineer.
To that end, by following my 36 first engineering job tips, you can speed up your learning.
You’ll learn from my mistakes, and what I’ve observed from many engineers around me. This way, you can hopefully level yourself up much more quickly.
Which of the first engineering job tips do you find the most helpful? Do you have any other first engineering job tips of your own?
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Koosha started Engineer Calcs in 2019 to help people better understand the engineering and construction industry, and to discuss various science and engineering related topics to make people think. He has been working in the engineering and tech industry in California for over a decade now and is a licensed professional electrical engineer, and also has various entrepreneurial pursuits.
Koosha has an extensive background in the design and specification of electrical systems with areas of expertise including power generation, transmission, distribution, instrumentation and controls, and water distribution and pumping as well as alternative energy (wind, solar, geothermal, and storage).
Koosha is most interested in engineering innovations, the cosmos, and our history and future.