Do Engineers Know Everything?

Do engineers know everything? Certainly not! Not even close. Engineers know a lot, but there’s just too much knowledge for an engineer to know everything.

Heck, combine all engineers together and they wouldn’t come close to knowing everything.

But I digress. Let’s focus on how much one engineer knows in their field of work alone.

This will best answer this question once and for all.

Young engineers who think they know everything

reading books endlessly

Most always, young graduating engineers think they know so much. Then even some think they know everything.

They come marching out of the ivory towers ready to conquer the world.

I compare this to little babies who think their entire world revolves around them. Then once they grow a little older, they realize how many countless other people there are.

It’s the same concept in engineering. When you operate in a small university bubble, you can’t grasp how wide and deep the engineering field is.

Because a school’s curriculum sets you on a single path. You don’t fully grasp how wide and deep the profession is.

This is no fault of young engineers. It’s just part naivety and part poor engineering education.

How much do I know as an engineer?

There’s A LOT I don’t know. I’ve been a working engineer for over 15 years too.

I do try to learn more and more with every passing day. But at the same time, the more I learn the more I realize how little I know. Interesting how it all plays out.

When I was a young engineer, I was no exception to thinking I knew everything. I thought I could do any engineering work that came my way in a snap of my fingers.

So once I graduated, I figured I’d hit the ground running in any job. Because what was my entire grueling education for then?!

Duh! to prepare me for real-world engineering work.

Boy was I wrong.

There’s a reason why engineering work experience trumps formal education. Engineering education doesn’t prepare you at all for the workforce.

When I started working, I quickly found out how little I knew. I’m talking about the application of theory in the real world.

At one point, I even said, “how am I to learn even half of the things in my own field of work.” It seemed impossible!

To top it off, I had the imposter syndrome as an engineer. Talk about a rough start!

But soon thereafter, I found out I wasn’t alone. This made me feel much more at ease.

Specialized fields in engineering

closeup of electronic circuit board with CPU microchip electronic components

Today, even when you drill deep into a field, the field can get very wide.

There are just so many branches in every engineering field.

There’s just no way you can possibly learn everything. Even if you devoted every waking minute of your day to learning.

Let’s use power engineering as an example. The following are some of the branches in the power engineering field alone:

  • Transmission line design
  • Low voltage power system design
  • Substation design
  • Lighting design
  • Short circuit analysis
  • PLC programming
  • Renewable energy

There are many more power sub-fields I can list too. More eyeopening, I can even drill into deeper niches in each of the above-listed fields.

What’s more, power engineering is one of many fields in electrical engineering. The following are some other branches of electrical engineering:

  • Control engineering
  • Electronic engineering
  • Microelectronics
  • Signal processing
  • Wireless communication
  • Instrumentation engineering
  • Photonics

Yes, electrical engineering and every other discipline of engineering are wide and deep.

It’s why telling someone you’re an electrical engineer isn’t descriptive. They won’t have any idea of what you actually do.

Senior engineers with decades of experience

To go one step further, I know some amazing power engineers who have been practicing for near 50 years. They even constantly reference materials in their work.

They sift through old notes and catalogs for product information. Also, they review codes and guidelines, equations, and so much more.

I don’t blame them. There’s just so much to know these days. And with every passing day, the information only grows.

It’s important to note, there’s no guessing in engineering work. If you have even 1% of doubt over something, you need to quell the doubt. This means verifying with outside reliable sources.

This is good engineering. Not trying to half-ass memorize everything for the sake of memorizing.

High-level engineering work

I’ve noticed the higher-level work you do, the more you rely on references. Because on the cutting edge of innovation, you rely on the work of many past engineers and scientists.

As it is, every engineer stands on the shoulders of giants. But then to push the marker forward in technology, your guide will be the work of past innovators.

Innovators whose entire life’s work may have been just one discovery.

It’s very rare when you make one giant discovery. Rather, you make small incremental improvements over the work of past great minds.

Engineering theory versus real-world application

As I mentioned, it’s one thing to know a lot of theory. But the application of theory in the real world is a completely different animal.

Because the application of theory has real-world ramifications. You need to consider the following:

  • Human safety – will anyone get hurt?
  • Environmental impact – how will the environment change?
  • Utility – does the product meet specs and do what it’s designed to do?

Without a doubt, there’s a lot to consider. Also, design scenarios are almost always never black and white.

For example, designing a substation in a heavily populated city is different than in a frozen tundra. So what you think you know about designing substations may not apply in every scenario.

New engineering variables come into play from project to project.

For instance, you need to think of the safety of electrical equipment in freezing cold weather. Also, will the equipment perform per its rated specs in near below freezing weather?

This is why there are many codes and standard books that are hundreds of pages long. They’re made to guide engineering designs safely.

At other times, you need to piece together information yourself for a given design. The only way to do this is to research different information sources on a given subject. Or maybe even you go study existing similar designs.

You do anything to connect the dots to produce good engineering work.

All this combined with the engineering code of ethics makes the modern world so great!

How can engineers know more?

I quickly found out my mind doesn’t have the capacity to store all the information I want. It can be frustrating when I’m so passionate to learn more.

What can I do? My hardware, my brain, is incapable of storing all its inputs how I’d like.

This alone is one big reason why machines are better than humans in many lines of work.

But I digress.

To support my mind’s limited storage capacity, I do the following:

  • Constantly take notes in a highly organized manner
  • Keep all my old textbooks
  • Purchase new textbooks

This gathered information becomes an extension of my mind.

For the most part, I remember the high-level points in subjects. But with many of the subjects I don’t deal with consistently, the details I forget. Especially the more complex concepts and equations.

One other great pointer is to constantly stimulate your mind. I stimulate my mind daily with technical subjects.

This keeps my mind fresh with how to think in an engineering framework.

I’ve noticed if I go like a couple of weeks without doing design work, my mind builds up some rust. Then I need some extra time to get back up to speed.

“Do engineers know everything?” wrap up

Engineers are smart, but there is SO MUCH they don’t know. Any engineer who thinks otherwise is simply ignorant.

What’s more, any engineer who makes such a claim isn’t a good engineer. Because to be a good engineer, you need to become a lifelong learner.

This learning journey starts with humbling yourself. The best and easiest way to humble yourself is to look up to the stars.

Thereafter, seek to learn more for the little time you’re on this spinning rock.

The trick is to learn enough to do the best engineering job possible. At the same time, learn how to research and gather information.

In the end, all humans make up a web of knowledge. Like a big anthill, we all depend on one another to survive in today’s modern world.

How much do you think an average engineer knows? How do you gain and retain more knowledge? 

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