Engineering Work Experience Versus Formal Education

Engineering work experience always trumps formal education. So it’s important to get real-world experience as soon as possible.

It’s why employers want experience, even over years of elite ivy league schooling. Because newly minted graduates rarely help a company’s bottom line in the short term. Grooming new engineers to produce is a process.

To better understand, we’ll first go over formal engineering education.

The shortcomings of formal engineering education

transformers in hydroelectric facility
Power transformers in a hydroelectric facility

The formal engineering education received from universities has many shortcomings. I discuss this in-depth with the reform needed in engineering education.

Now don’t get me wrong, engineering education isn’t outright horrible. You come out with what you put in. But for a young naive student, it’s difficult to maximize the experience. Especially given how the education system still operates as it did decades ago.

To maximize schooling, you need to constantly self-study about real-world engineering. Learning theories and solving random problems can take you only so far. I suggest doing the following:

  • Read about real-world engineering projects in books and on the internet
  • Review and understand real-world designs in your field of work
  • Speak with practicing engineers and pick their brains

This will all help you, piece together what you’re presented with in the classroom. When I revisited my college textbooks after I began working, concepts made so much more sense to me. And this overview shines a light on the 4 general problems with classroom learning, we’ll go over.

#1 Generalizations

Education gives you a general overview of the tools to use to solve problems. Like using X equation when solving for Y variable.

But in the working world, nothing is black and white as found in a textbook. You rarely ever receive a single variable you can just punch into an equation. Then voila, you’re done!

You need to piece together problems on your own, through investigation. Because real-world problem requirements are vague with a lot of missing information.

In the classroom though, most professors don’t even attempt to teach this way. So, you never properly learn how to best apply equations and engineering principles.

#2 Fear of risks

Engineering mistakes are unavoidable. But more experienced engineers will make fewer of them. Naturally then, these engineers will take on larger and hairier projects without fear.

Some young engineers though, think they’re badass right out of school. But your confidence will take a hit once you get your feet wet in the real world. Experience is the key to amazing confidence to tackle bigger and hairier projects.

#3 Specializations

In school, you may drill into a topic let’s say for 1000 hours. This includes class time, studying, and doing homework.

In the real world though, you’ll drill into a topic for 10,000-plus hours. Because every day your focus is on a given subject. So, you see the application of theories you’ve learned in every which way. While also going down endless new rabbit holes, in project designs and evaluations.

All in all, you’ll specialize even more in the real world through work experience.

#4 Soft skills

You simply don’t build the soft skills for technical communication in a classroom. Because it’s unfortunately never properly taught. I’m talking about learning how to speak with the following people in your profession:

  • Managers
  • Colleagues
  • Tradesmen
  • Customers
  • Public

This includes one on one and public speaking, and email and report writing. Without such skills, you’ll never maximize your career. Especially, the higher up the profession you climb. So check out the following articles on how to sharpen these skills:

Proposal for greater education requirements in engineering for licensure 

For those unfamiliar, the NCEES is a national nonprofit organization. They control engineering professional licensure, for select engineers.

Several years back, the NCEES wanted to make a Master’s degree a requirement for licensure. The idea was to enhance the profession, but the change was never adopted.

Now, why do I bring this up? Because this proposed requirement ties perfectly to priorities and engineering work experience.

From a selfish stance, some engineers would love this proposal. It creates more barriers to entry like with medical doctors. Supply shrinks, and demand for your skills would skyrocket. But the devil is in the details…

A detailed breakdown of the Master’s degree requirement

Imagine you’ve been a working engineer for 20-plus years. A Master’s degree won’t teach you anything practical to apply to your job. If anything, you can check out a graduate degree book when necessary to brush up.

How we consume knowledge today, has radically transformed through the internet. Yet, universities still operate as they did centuries ago. I won’t pay a university, buckets of money to do what I’m already doing but at an inconvenient time. I learn so much better through the real world while supplementing textbooks.

And I get it. More hoops for engineers to jump through will raise the prestige of the profession. This ties into my discussion over the protection of the engineer title. But again, is it necessary?…

Learning versus continued education

The big question is, will the work of engineers improve with a Master’s degree requirement? I unequivocally say ‘no.’

Instead, add more years of advanced work experience before licensure. This would create higher-performing engineers, leading to improved designs.

Important Note: education isn’t a one size fits all subject. A lot of your learning ability depends on your personality. Some people need more hand-holding, while others learn best on their own. Your attitude toward learning will dictate if say you become a 10x engineer

The experienced contractor versus an inexperienced engineer

Switchgear line-up in a hydroelectric facility

Sooner or later, a new-fledged engineer will need to go toe to toe with an experienced contractor. I remember the first time I had to discuss my design with a contractor who had 40-plus years of experience.

At first, I thought I was a hotshot who knew it all. Because I thought I knew all the theories in my field of work like the back of my hand. To my dismay, I was quickly brought down to Earth.

Once the contractor questioned parts of my design, my confidence dipped fast. I tried to respond back, but I knew I was standing on shaky ground. He effortlessly picked apart the real-world application of my design with a smile.

He had built more large engineering projects than any professor or engineer I knew. He had come across every scenario you could imagine, and could smell bullshit a mile away. Then here I was, a rookie engineer, trying to question decades of tried and true design.

There’s nothing wrong with questioning someone. You should always question when in doubt. But, I couldn’t back up my words whatsoever.

The point is, no matter how many letters you stack after your name, you need experience. When I gained more experience, I was able to stand behind my designs, against the best.

The success of Elon Musk and SpaceX

spacex falcon 9 launch
SpaceX Falcon 9 Launch at Kennedy Space Center, United States (Photo Credit: SpaceX)

Elon Musk didn’t go to school to become a rocket engineer. Heck, he doesn’t even have a formal degree in engineering. What he does have is an insane passion to learn. Plus, he has hands-on experience with the products he manufactures.

When he founded SpaceX, he gathered some of the brightest minds in rocket engineering. He then soaked up their knowledge, while reading countless rocket design textbooks.

15 months after founding SpaceX, Elon planned to launch the Falcon 1, his first rocket. Even more, it wasn’t until the fourth launch, Falcon 1 finally reached orbit. If this fourth launch had failed, SpaceX would’ve folded.

This scenario shows the criticality of engineering work experience. Only engineers with direct rocket experience could have improved the Falcon 1. Because learning from engineering failures is the best way to learn.

Elon Musk’s view on the current education system 

Elon has voiced many times his displeasure with the education system. He stated,

“I think college is basically for fun and to prove that you can do your chores, but they’re not for learning.”

Elon also said he hopes Tesla one day doesn’t have a university degree requirement, “because that’s absurd”. He wants the main requirements at his companies to be, “exceptional ability.”

He went on to say, “I don’t consider going to college evidence of exceptional ability. This is best viewed in his search for qualified people at Tesla’s AI division.

“A Ph.D. is definitely not required,” Musk wrote in a follow-up tweet. “All that matters is a deep understanding of AI and the ability to implement (neural networks) in a way that is actually useful (the latter point is what’s truly hard). Don’t care if you even graduated high school.”

In short, the ability to do something is what’s important. This ability comes from doing!

Importance of practicing engineering in the real world

Many design variables exist, which you can’t think of when sitting in your office. Or, sitting in a classroom going over ready-made problems. In the real world, you need to think of the following practicalities in each of your design decisions:

  • Will it fit?
  • Which physical elements will cause disturbance (e.g. heat, wind, dust, etc.)?
  • Is it safe?
  • Which factor of safety to use?
  • Will this assumption cause problems?
  • How much will this decision cost?
  • Will this decision extend the project deadline?

Only with engineering work experience, can you properly answer these questions.

Conclusion

Formal education is a great launching pad into the industry. But experience as a working engineer, will determine how great of an engineer you become. Because experience teaches you how to best apply the knowledge you’ve gained.

It’s like learning to play basketball. You can flawlessly master different moves alone in a gym with your trainer. But it’s a different story when you step on the court. You’ll have screaming fans and an opponent full-court pressing you. All the slick moves you learned practicing on your own won’t work.

With experience though, you can find ways to incorporate your moves into a real game. You’ll familiarize yourself with different defensive sets. Then, you can figure out how to pick apart defenses with the best selected move.

So, the only way to master playing on the court is to play more competitive real games. In the engineering world, it’s no different.

Do you think engineering work experience is more important than formal education? Why do you think engineering work experience is important?

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