Do Engineers Know Everything?

Do engineers know everything? Heck no! Not even close. Engineers know a ton, but there’s simply too much knowledge to know it all.

Even if we combined the brainpower of all engineers, we’d still fall short of knowing everything. So let’s get down to the nitty-gritty: what do engineers know? And how can you level up your own knowledge?

Young engineers who think they know everything

reading books endlessly

Young engineers, fresh out of college, often strut out of those ivory towers, thinking they’re ready to conquer the world. It’s kinda like babies who believe the whole universe revolves around them. Then they grow up and realize there’s a vast world out there, full of countless other people.

The same goes for engineering. When you’re in a cozy university bubble, it’s hard to grasp how wide and deep the engineering world truly is. After all, a school’s curriculum sets you on a pretty narrow path.

But hey, it’s not really the young engineers’ fault. It’s just a combo of naivety and, well, not-so-great engineering education.

How much do I know as an engineer?

As an engineer with over 15 years of experience, I still find there’s so much I don’t know. I try to learn something new every day, but the more I learn, the more I realize how little I know.

When I was a young engineer, I thought I knew everything too. I figured I’d graduate and hit the ground running in any job. I mean, what was my grueling education for, right?!

Boy, was I wrong.

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

Once I started working, I quickly discovered how little I knew. At one point, I even felt my education was useless. To make matters worse, I had a nasty case of imposter syndrome.

But even with work experience, there’s so much you won’t know. And what comforted me was realizing I wasn’t alone. All engineers have big gaps in their knowledge.

Specialized fields in engineering

closeup of electronic circuit board with CPU microchip electronic components

These days, the deeper you dive into an engineering field, the wider it spreads. Every engineering discipline is constantly expanding as new knowledge pours in.

So, even if you spent every waking moment soaking up your area of expertise, you’d still be playing catch-up. Take power engineering, for example. Here are just a few of the many branches in this field alone:

  • Transmission lines
  • Low voltage power systems
  • High voltage power systems
  • Substations
  • Lighting
  • Power system analysis
  • PLC programming
  • Renewable energy

And that’s just scratching the surface! Each of these subniches can be broken down even further. Plus, power engineering is only one aspect of electrical engineering. Here are some other branches within electrical engineering:

  • Controls
  • Electronics
  • Microelectronics
  • Signal processing
  • Wireless communication
  • Instrumentation
  • Photonics

Every topic, no matter how small, is continually evolving and giving birth to new fields.

Senior engineers with decades of experience

I know some incredible power engineers who have been in the game for nearly 50 years. And guess what? They still rely on reference materials in their work. They consult codes, guidelines, equations, and so much more.

I don’t blame them, though. There’s just too much to know, and our brains have their limits.

Similarly, there’s no room for guesswork in engineering. If you’re even 1% unsure about something, you need to squash that doubt by consulting reliable sources.

A top-notch engineer isn’t someone who has memorized tons of information. Instead, they know where to find information and how to apply it. This aligns perfectly with the engineering code of ethics.

High-level engineering work

I’ve found that the more advanced your work, the more you rely on references. At the cutting edge of technology, the work of previous engineers and scientists serves as your guiding light.

To make progress in uncharted territory, you must humble yourself and acknowledge the work of others. It’s rare to make a massive, standalone discovery. More often, you’ll make small, incremental improvements, building on the great minds that came before you. This is the typical path for engineering breakthroughs.

Engineering theory versus real-world application

Knowing a lot of theory is one thing, but when it comes to applying it in the real world, well, that’s a whole different ball game. As an engineer, there’s a ton of factors to think about, like:

  • Human safety: Is anyone at risk of getting hurt?
  • Environmental impact: What changes will this cause to the environment?
  • Utility: Does the product fulfill its intended purpose?
  • Cost: Can we keep the project within budget?

Every project is unique and presents its own challenges. Take designing a substation, for example. Building one in a bustling city is nothing like constructing one in the frozen tundra. So your substation know-how might not cover every situation. You’ll find yourself asking questions like:

  • How do freezing temperatures affect the performance of electrical equipment?
  • How can we extend the equipment’s lifespan in extreme cold?
  • Will the temperature pose any safety risks for the substation’s crew?

That’s where codes and standards come into play, but even then, you’ve got to do some digging on your own. A shining example of this is the design and construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, where engineering creativity soared thanks to relentless research.

How can engineers know more?

I quickly came to terms with the limitations of my own brain as I tried to cram more information into it. That’s one reason why machines often outperform us humans in many jobs.

To help support my mind’s limited storage, I’ve adopted these strategies:

It’s also crucial to keep your mind active by regularly engaging with topics in your field. Like a muscle, you’ve got to train your brain to maintain your technical prowess and creative edge.

“Do engineers know everything?” wrap up

Engineers might be smart cookies, but there’s a ton we don’t know. Any engineer who thinks otherwise is just fooling themselves.

In fact, a true mark of a great engineer is being a lifelong learner. Your real journey of discovery begins once you’ve humbled yourself. For me, gazing up at the stars does the trick.

At the end of the day, we humans form a web of knowledge, relying on one another to thrive in this complex world.

What do you think an average engineer knows? How do you acquire and retain more knowledge? 


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