Engineering Work Experience Versus Formal Education

Engineering work experience always trumps formal education. Getting your hands dirty in engineering work right away is the best thing you can do.

Of course, I’m speaking about working in the industry over academics and research.

There’s a reason why employers prefer 5 years of experience for entry-level positions. Even when it comes to overlooking a fresh graduate from a top-tier ivy league school.

It’s because most fresh graduates don’t help a company’s bottom line.

Grooming new engineers is a process. Learning differential equations and electromagnetism won’t make you a whiz in the workplace. Far from it.

Yes, I know. It doesn’t make sense whatsoever to ask for work experience for entry-level jobs. The proverbial chicken and egg problem for entry-level positions.

But that’s the reality of the working world we live in today. As the saying goes, money makes the world go round.

To get started, let’s first go over formal engineering education. This will help highlight the importance of engineering work experience.

The shortcomings of formal engineering education

transformers in hydroelectric facility
Power transformers in a hydroelectric facility

Education in engineering today unfortunately has many potholes. I’m talking about formal education in universities.

I even go deep in my view over the changes needed in engineering education.

Speaking with many employers too, they voice the same concerns. Now, I’m not saying engineering education is outright horrible. You come out with what you put in.

But, for a young unstructured student, it’s difficult to maximize the experience. Especially given how the education system still operates as it did decades ago.

Today with the help of the internet, you can learn just about everything you want. In fact, I learned so much more using the internet than I ever did in the ivory towers.

You need to supplement your classroom education with outside material. What I suggest is to constantly self-study about real-world engineering.

Don’t think learning theories and solving random problems is all you need in the real world. Or once you get the stamp of approval from a university, you’re set to become an amazing engineer. Far from it!

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 brain

This will GREATLY enhance your expensive education. In fact, it’ll help you piece together everything you learn in the classroom.

You’ll make better sense of all these foreign concepts your professor throws at you. When I revisited my college textbooks after I started working, things made so much more sense to me.

With that out of the way, I want to dig deeper into some problems with classroom learning.

#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 like it is in a textbook. You rarely ever receive a single variable that you can just punch into an equation. Then voila, you’re done!

It doesn’t work like that. You need to piece together problems on your own, through investigation. As problems come in all shapes and sizes, and they’re never the same. Plus, real-world problem requirements are vague with plenty of missing information.

Only then, you’ll learn when to apply certain equations and engineering principles.

In the classroom, most professors don’t even attempt to teach this way.

So you need to experience real engineering problems to learn how to apply your knowledge.

#2 Fear of risks

Engineers without experience will always make simple mistakes in designs. It happens to the best of us.

Hence why employers prefer engineers with experience.

These mistakes can cost millions of dollars. Plus, they require many engineering man-hours to fix.

But an experienced engineer will avoid many of these simple mistakes. Thus, they’re also more likely to take on bolder projects without the fear.

You can think you’re the most badass engineer graduating out of school. But your confidence will take a hit once you get your feet wet in the real world.

Experience though will give you amazing confidence to tackle bigger and hairier projects.

#3 Specializations

In school you drill into a topic let’s say for 1000 hours. This includes listening to a professor speak, studying, and doing homework.

Now, I’m being very generous with my 1000 hours.

But still, in the real world, 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. At the same time, you continue to learn more theory on top of it.

When I do a new design I’ve never come across, I start digging into my textbooks, as necessary. I don’t just dive headfirst into an off-the-wall design. That’s not smart.

Hence why engineers constantly learn. Especially when they’re not doing the same work over and over again. Research is part of the process of problem-solving.

In short, you can 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 speaking one on one, public speaking, and writing emails and reports.

I find these skills to be extremely important in every engineer’s tool bag. Engineering isn’t just about sitting behind a desk doing technical work.

There’s a lot of people skills required too if you want to maximize your career. Especially the higher you level yourself up as an engineer.

For this reason, I discuss in the following articles how you can sharpen these skills:

Proposal for an added education requirement in engineering for licensure 

I want to go over a specific example of the push for more education in engineering.

For those not familiar, the NCEES is a national nonprofit organization. They control engineering professional licensure, which some engineers need.

At one point several years back, they wanted to enhance the engineering profession.

They wanted to make a Master’s degree a requirement to become a licensed engineer. The idea was later scrapped, for now at least, for one reason or another.

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 the industry with medical doctors. So, supply shrinks, and demand for your skills would skyrocket.

That said, let’s review this proposal in greater detail to spot the problems.

Detailed breakdown over the Master’s degree requirement

Imagine you’ve been a working engineer for let’s say 20 plus years. A Master’s degree won’t help teach you anything practical to apply to your job.

Heck, as it is now, I consume textbooks that schools use in various graduate programs. I supplement it all with amazing information I find on the internet.

So yes, education is extremely important. But the format for the consumption of knowledge has radically changed. Yet, universities still operate as they did many years ago.

Do I need to pay a university, buckets of money to do what I’m already doing, but at an inconvenient time? Not my cup of tea.

BUT, I would love to work on new amazing real-world projects. I would learn much more this way, than in a classroom any day. I’d come across problems that I wouldn’t see printed in any textbook.

And I get it. More hoops for engineers to jump through will raise the prestige of engineering. This also ties into my discussion if the protection of the engineer title is important.

Learning versus continued education

In the end, will the engineer’s designs improve through this proposal? That’s the important question you need to ask.

I say ‘no.’

Adding more years of advanced work experience before licensure would be more beneficial. That’s my thought.

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 to learn more and more. While others learn best on their own.

Simply put, your attitude on learning will dictate how great of an engineer you become. 

At the same time, this proposal is one direct way to bring engineers up to par with doctors and lawyers. Thing is, AI will soon disrupt these professions to a greater degree in the coming decades. Even today, these professions aren’t all roses.

There are many other issues related to this proposal, including degree inflation. So why even require added degrees? We don’t even have a problem with the quality of engineering today.

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. I was quickly put in my place though.

I knew all the theories behind my engineering work. But once the contractor questioned all parts of my design, my confidence dipped fast. He questioned the application of my design in the real world.

I didn’t feel confident in the answers I had to give. The contractor was outmuscling me in every way imaginable.

He had built more large engineering projects than any professor or senior engineer. He had come across every edge case scenario you could imagine, and could smell bullshit a mile away.

Then here I was, a rookie engineer, questioning his approach that had worked for decades.

There’s nothing wrong with questioning. You should always question when in doubt. But, I couldn’t properly back up my design. That was my problem.

Talk about a hit to your ego.

The point is, no matter how many letters you collect after your name, you need the experience to become great.

Not surprisingly, when I gained more experience, I became more confident in the answers I gave.

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 as most of his time he focuses on engineering!

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

15 months after founding the company, Elon planned to launch the Falcon 1. His first rocket. This was on November 15th, 2003.

This isn’t simple engineering either. SpaceX manufactured a rocket and launched it into space!

What’s more, it wasn’t until the fourth launch that Falcon 1 finally reached orbit. If this fourth launch had failed, SpaceX would’ve folded.

This shows how engineering work experience is so critical. Only engineers with direct experience could have improved the Falcon 1. All after three beyond stressful failures. Because learning from engineering failures is so important. It’s one of the best ways to learn in engineering!

Elon Musk’s view on the current education system 

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

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

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.”

Further, Elon doubled down on his education stance. He voiced his thoughts when he searched for qualified people for his AI division at Tesla.

“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 (latter point is what’s truly hard). Don’t care if you even graduated high school.”

Elon doesn’t care about letters after your name. He simply wants to get work done at a high level.

All in all, the ability to do something is what’s important. This ability comes from doing!

Importance of practicing engineering in the real world

So many variables exist that you wouldn’t think about when sitting in your office. Or sitting in a classroom going over ready-made problems.

In the real world, you need to think of all the practicalities of each of your decisions. For example:

  • Will it fit?
  • What elements will disturb the design (e.g. heat, wind, dust, etc.)
  • Is this a safety issue?
  • What factor of safety to use?
  • Will this assumption compromise the design?
  • How much will this design decision cost?
  • How can we meet this deadline?

Only until you gain engineering work experience, can you answer these questions. And being able to answer these questions at a high level will make you a great engineer.

This means you need engineering experience under your belt.

This applies to all types of engineering to some degree. Even in software.

You can code small cool applications for homework assignments in school. But until you become a part of a large project, you won’t fully grasp the scope of work of real engineering.

I’m talking about scaling an application for high traffic. Then adding features on a live application, while handling constant customer concerns. All the while, you can’t have much of any downtime with the application.

Clearly, every engineering position would immensely benefit from more experience.


Formal education can be a great launching pad into the industry. But experience as a working engineer is what will determine how good of an engineer you become.

Experience teaches you how best to 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 with screaming fans and an opponent pressing you. You’ll find most of your slick moves don’t even 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 better figure out how to pick apart defenses with your moves.

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

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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