A lot of mystery surrounds the ins and outs of becoming an engineer. To shed some light on the process, I’ll go over 7 easy tips on how to be an engineer.
This will help you answer the question “Should I be an engineer?”
I won’t dive into the more obvious things like:
- Earn a bachelor’s degree from an ABET accredited university
- Work towards a professional engineering (PE) license
- Earn a graduate degree
- Pursue professional certifications
These things you may already know about or you can readily find. I want to rather focus on the not so obvious things you need to know.
This way you can not only become an engineer, but you can become a superstar engineer. Yes, levels do exist in all types of engineering.
As with everything in life, you have poor, average, good, and superstar levels. This translates to every profession too.
Let’s look at basketball in the NBA as an example.
For years Lebron James ruled the league and still does today after 17 seasons of play. He dominates the best of the best in the world.
Keep in mind, the average NBA career only extends to 4.5 years. Not for the faint of heart.
In short, this shows that skill-wise levels exist. Equality in the work field only looks good on paper.
Similarly, these levels you’ll see in the engineering world as well. You have superstar engineers and then engineers who follow the lead of others.
Superstar Engineers in the Workplace
We need all types of engineers to make today’s world go round. That said, in this article, I don’t want to only focus on how to become an engineer. But, rather on how to become a superstar engineer.
I typically notice and find a superstar engineer in every project team. These superstar engineers do the meat of the work and lead a project.
The other engineers in most cases simply provide technical support. They follow the vision the leader provides.
In the same way, in the animal kingdom, a hierarchy forms, which I find important in every project.
Leadership by a superstar engineer makes project progress more efficient. However, superstar engineers also realize they don’t know everything.
This leaves space open for the other engineers to challenge the superstar engineer. As a result, the project strengthens due to internal discussions. This also gives way to a possible newborn superstar engineer.
In summary, not everyone can become a superstar in their field of work, but you can always level yourself up. Let’s discuss!
#1 Know Your Material
As with any subject, know your material. If you need to design the foundation for a bridge, then learn as much as you can about bridge foundations.
You don’t want to scratch your head when you hear certain lingo about bridges and foundations. As cliché as it sounds, preparation is the key to success.
You need the knowledge to hit the ground running. Plus, in kick-off meetings for projects you want to stand tall by knowing your material.
First impressions count. For example, if you go out to bid on a bridge project, you better know your material.
If you can’t properly discuss bridges, you’ll lose the client’s respect right off the bat. No going back from that.
So, know your stuff. Absorb as much information as you can on your subject of expertise.
Also, learn what engineers do. This way you see any surprises in your work.
How to apply yourself:
- Books: pick up one of the countless textbooks and read. More than likely you’ve forgotten a lot of what you learned back in school.
- History: read about the history of your subject of expertise. From our last example, read on the many bridges built across the world. Learn what makes a successful bridge design, and what leads to failures.
- Google: Google it! Read cut sheets and even credible forums to learn more and get ideas. We have endless information at our fingertips. Take advantage!
#2 Use Logic
Engineers by default think logically. We think with ones and zeros a lot of the time like a computer.
In other words, something either will work or will not. Emotions rarely bleed into an engineer’s decision making.
Without a doubt, this can drive your significant other crazy. Most people simply don’t see things as black and white. Frankly, life would become very boring without emotions.
That said, your significant other aside, in the engineering world logic rules. In fact, if you don’t use logic, then things will break and fail.
Science doesn’t care about how you feel. Your proposed solution will either work or it’ll fail.
I know I don’t want the people who design the planes I fly in to loosely use logic. I think everyone would agree with me here.
So, learn to use more logical reasoning in your work. Strip out emotions and start tackling hard problems with rational thinking.
Also, check over your work to make sure everything makes sense. If a software outputs a number, don’t blindly accept the figure.
Analyze the outputted figure and see if it makes sense to you in the real world. Mistakes happen with entered input values, and the software itself may have a bug.
All in all, learn to think like an engineer to advance your career and daily life.
How to apply yourself:
- Solve problems: solve problems and then solve even more problems. Practice makes perfect. You’ll soon master your subject and learn when something doesn’t make sense in the real world. Keep in mind, on paper many things look good.
- Confidence: become more familiar with your subject matter to gain confidence. Confidence will make you a better problem solver.
#3 Continue Learning
The real learning happens outside of classroom walls. The learning you do without supervision trumps any other type of learning.
To put it another way, you’ve chosen to learn in your free time over your favorite hobbies. This shows the importance of learning to you.
In fact, learning now becomes a hobby for you. How powerful is that?!
For example, think over the attention you give to playing video games or watching sports. The deep passion you hold for these hobbies. Now carry this mindset over to learning.
You’ll become a magnet for knowledge. You’ll absorb more and more, and always have thirst for more.
As a result, you’ll find yourself miles ahead of your peers. Most people learn the bare minimum to collect their next paycheck or get a letter grade.
This leads to mediocrity, even as an engineer.
I’ve learned magnitudes more by self-learning than I ever did within a classroom.
Now, to drive the point home, let’s look no further than Elon Musk. Elon did not formally go to school to become a rocket scientist or aeronautical engineer.
He self-learned everything he knows today about rockets by consuming textbook after textbook. Also, he surrounded himself with the brightest rocket scientists. He soaked in as much information as he could from them.
His self-learning, I believe greatly contributed to the success of Space X today. To that end, we live in a new day and age, where classrooms have become outdated as learning tools.
How to apply yourself:
- Internet: with instant access to the internet, consume endless credible content. You can never learn enough. Read more and more on any subject that interests you.
- Twitter: get the latest information in your industry from leading experts. Once you hear about a subject on Twitter, you can dive deep into it and learn as much as you can. This way you’ll always remain ahead of the curve.
- Experts: speak with leading minds in your field. Ask for advice and fill gaps in your knowledge base. Learning from others will accelerate you towards becoming a superstar engineer.
#4 Question Everything
Never blindly agree to a solution or presented fact. Engineers need to always question even the smallest of things.
Questioning combined with curiosity will help you learn. Also, it’ll help prevent failures in your design work and the design work of others.
To point out, I complete a lot of engineering studies using various software tools. But, I never blindly accept the outputted results.
The outputted results depend on what I’ve inputted in. Also, the software may have limitations or broken code.
It doesn’t matter if a billion-dollar company wrote the software. This won’t make your study results perfect. In short, humans wrote the code, and humans make mistakes.
Equally important, you may have entered a wrong value. Even more, maybe the values another engineer gave to you to use were wrong.
Given these points, I always look over the outputted values and make sure they make sense to me. To do this, I need to properly understand the math and science behind concepts. This way I can properly review.
That said, if I don’t know why the software made a certain calculation, then I’ll need to research to learn why. As I said earlier, questioning things will help you learn and fill in gaps in your knowledge base.
NASA Engineering Failure
Imagine the case in NASA many years ago. If someone had questioned the metric units, NASA could have avoided the large failure.
In 1998, NASA launched a $125 million space probe. In 1999 NASA announced they had lost the space probe.
The failure came from the improper reading of units by Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Engineers failed to properly convert English to metric units in the exchange of data.
I would never imagine a mistake like this could happen by the highest trained engineers. I would only expect this mistake in a high school science lab.
Yet, it happened. This shows how you should question everything, no matter how small.
Don’t ever feel stupid to question something. You may end up preventing a $125 million disaster.
How to apply yourself:
- Question everything: speak up. Don’t fear questioning an engineer with a head full of white hair. Or, an engineer with the alphabet soup listed after his or her name on a business card. Humans of all backgrounds make mistakes.
- Don’t fear to ask stupid questions: I’m sure many thought questioning NASA’s space probe units was stupid. Look how that ended.
- Ask yourself questions: even when sitting alone at home, question everything around you. For example, question how planes fly, how electric cars work, why burning coal hurts our planet, and so on. Like any other skill, you need to sharpen your questioning ability.
So, if you don’t know something, go learn about it. It will only make you a better engineer and take you one step closer to becoming a superstar engineer.
#5 Have People Skills
Communication has become a lost art today.
Thinking rationally and working hard will only get you so far. To level yourself up, you need to have good communication skills.
So yes, engineers need people skills too. Otherwise, you’ll get stuck endlessly doing the same work repeatedly behind a desk.
To put it differently, you need to know how to communicate your thoughts and ideas. Until the day robots rule the world and roam freely among us, you’ll need people skills.
The higher you move up in the engineering world, the more people you’ll typically deal with. At this stage, the technical world begins to blend in with the business world.
You’ll also deal with many people who don’t even have a sliver of technical background.
As a result, you’ll need to know how to dumb yourself down to relate with people of all backgrounds. This means not speaking like a monotone robot.
Typically, the higher your position, the more business work you’ll do. So, casual non-technical conversations with strangers will become even more important.
Your communication skills will help you build up trust with others. As well, it’ll help you connect with people outside of your work environment.
In truth, most engineers have a mountain of captivating knowledge. Also, they have many fascinating stories to tell. But, their personalities don’t allow them to properly express themselves.
For this reason, their thoughts go hidden beneath a thick layer of technical jargon. A shame.
How to apply yourself:
- Regular discussions: have non-technical discussions with non-engineers. Learn to have everyday discussions with strangers over all types of topics.
- Public speaking: give public speaking a go. Even speaking to small groups of people will benefit you.
- Comfort zone: step outside of your comfort zone and find more friends from all walks of life. Many engineers are introverts, and socializing can become mentally taxing.
#6 Become Paranoid
As an engineer, your work affects public safety in most instances. With this in mind, don’t ever become too comfortable.
You want to double and then triple check all the work you do. Things slip through the cracks, and mistakes naturally will happen.
The first thing to remember, engineers stress out and like every human, they make mistakes. No exceptions.
I’ve made plenty of mistakes myself. For this reason, I’m always paranoid and I check my work again and again even when I think I’m done.
So, through a degree of paranoia, you’ll better spot mistakes in your work and the work of others. As a result, you’ll not only reduce your mistakes, but you’ll improve your design work as well.
Over time, the volume of your mistakes will hopefully drop. Especially, as you add more filters to catch possible mistakes.
To that end, you may think I’m being overly paranoid with my suggestion here. But, think of all the overly paranoid engineers who design the planes you fly in. They allow you to safely fly over oceans in a metallic tube with wings.
In brief, one mistake or forgotten item in a design can lead to failure. As a professional, public safety becomes your number one priority.
In every phase of project design, your team and others will review your design work. I hope so anyway.
Yet, problems still happen. For this reason, do your best to at least prevent problems from your end by remaining paranoid.
How to apply yourself:
- Check your work: always double and triple check your work. Also, do the same for the work of others when you get the chance.
- Design review: take your time when you review designs. If you think a problem exists, then don’t fear to speak up. Better to delay a project by a month or two, than to have an angry client at the end. Or even worse, to injure or kill people because of a failed design.
- Review with a fresh mind: after you complete a design, review your work several days later with a fresh mind. You can always spot new mistakes this way.
- Embrace criticism: give your design work to others to review. No shame in allowing a separate pair of eyes to review your work to spot mistakes. So, kick your ego out the door and learn from others.
#7 Design in the Real World
Most engineers sit inside of an office and do their design work. They never leave the safety and shelter of their office.
As a result, their design work relies on what they’ve learned from textbooks alone. Not very practical since most types of engineering operate in the real world.
For this reason, you need to use real-world knowledge in your designs. Otherwise, construction workers will view you as an idiot. They’ll think you never stepped outside of an office when they start to build from your design.
A design may look good on paper and in theory, but it may not translate over to the real world. Construction in the real world includes many hidden variables.
With this in mind, a textbook will only teach you so much. The rest you need eyes on experience.
Ground Rod Install Example – Theory Versus the Real World
I see this very issue of theory versus the real world with ground rods. In electrical designs, we drive ground rods, 8-foot copper clad steel rods, into the ground.
We do this for ground fault protection around electrical equipment.
Now, I will show you a limitation with textbooks and even the National Electric Code. These texts read you can install ground rods flush with grade. But, in my designs, I almost always have ground rods installed 1-foot below grade.
Let’s think about this. If you install a ground rod flush with grade in the soil, then what happens when it rains for instance?
Overtime the ground rod would poke through the soil, as the soil erodes or spreads because of a windy or wet season. The rod then becomes a tripping hazard and hazard for passing vehicles.
In summary, if you don’t have field experience, then you’ll blindly follow whatever you read in a textbook. Also, a lot of the times, authors of these textbooks don’t even have real-world experience.
So, you need a strong background in both theory and fieldwork. This will allow you to level up to become a superstar engineer.
How to apply yourself:
- Go outside: don’t live inside your office. Visit job sites and watch over the construction. You’ll soon understand why your designs frustrate construction workers so much. Also, you’ll better learn how to visualize your designs for the real world.
- Watch smart content: watch engineering and construction shows. Flip on the Discovery channel or even Youtube and find something that interests you. This way you can better visualize how designs on paper get transferred over to the real world.
Wrap up Over How to Be an Engineer
There you have it. Follow these 7 easy to follow tips to become a better engineer. Also, to possibly become a superstar engineer.
You can improve your designs while earning more respect from your peers and clients. Plus, construction workers will praise you. Win-win!
As with anything in life, you need to leverage all the tools around you to become the best version of you. Never settle!
So, apply engineering skills to your everyday life. Then become a superstar in your work and personal life too.
What’s your favorite tip on how to be an engineer? What do you think it takes to become a superstar engineer?
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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.