Five Lessons Engineering School Couldn’t Teach Me
Engineering school was a valuable learning experience that provided me with a wealth of knowledge. But school can only prepare a student so much for an engineering career and looking back, there are a number of key things I wish I had known seven years ago.
Pursue a career, not a job
How you view your time as an engineer will directly impact your success. There are two paths before you: engineering as a career or engineering as a job.
If you treat engineering as a job, you will spend just enough time in the office to complete your work and put in just enough effort to appease your peers. However, that’s not going to be enough to impress your superiors or move you upward in your company.
When you make a mental shift and treat engineering as a career, you not only invest the necessary time at work, you also put in the effort to expand your knowledge and expertise outside of work. This can involve going to seminars to learn new skills, being active in a professional organization, reading trade magazines to expand your knowledge of the field or even writing an article for an industry trade publication.
How much effort you choose to pour into engineering is directly related to how much you’ll get out of it.
The first year I was out of school and got an engineering position, I treated it like a job. So, when annual review time came around, I was rewarded accordingly. No big raise, no bonus, just the same compensation I’d been getting the whole year before.
Being young, I thought this was wholly unfair. But, in retrospect, I hadn’t put in any effort to improve my value so why should my employer provide additional compensation? The next year, I worked hard, put in extra time both inside and outside the office, improved my skills and showed my superiors what I could do and how valuable I could be, and I was compensated accordingly.
I had finally started pursing a career rather than a job and I was rewarded for my efforts.
Find a mentor
Many people join engineering firms with little real world experience. Some completed engineering internships during college but may not have ended up at the same firm, let alone a firm in the same industry.
Wherever you find yourself, seek out a mentor to help you navigate your particular industry. When identifying a good mentor, find someone who has forged a career path that you would like to emulate. Their professional journey will provide you with a roadmap for your own career.
I was lucky enough to find a mentor early in my career. As soon as I graduated, I started working for a talented manager who demonstrated the time and effort needed to move up in the organization. I wanted to get into project management early on, and my manager created opportunities to help me attain my goal. I was able to work on some relatively complex, challenging projects early in my career.
My manager gave me a general outline of what needed to be done and I was responsible for working out the details. This provided plenty of opportunities to learn, ask questions, try to figure out things on my own and own my fair share of mistakes. I was also allowed to network with people outside the company. This gave me an opportunity to slowly build relationships with people who were my counterparts at other businesses.
As I’ve progressed, so have they and we now work on projects together, but in elevated positions. All of this built confidence, and I felt comfortable asking for more responsibility on projects and began expanding my role, all of which lead me to where I am now.
Find a specialty
Pursuing a specialty is a great way to differentiate yourself professionally. It will make you more valuable to your firm by providing something marketable and useful when bringing in new clients and projects.
I found my niche in pursuing projects related to the healthcare and laboratory fields, whichare lucrative for RMF Engineering and often expose us to clients who manage large facilities in need of upkeep and constant improvement. In healthcare, technology is always changing, so renovations and new facilities are constantly required.
A specialty provides lucrative opportunities for your company, and also provides you with rewarding opportunities to showcase your abilities and differentiate yourself among your peers.
Turn mistakes into opportunities
Everyone makes mistakes. Unfortunately, they often cost your company money and can put you in a tough spot with your superiors. It is always best to face the mistake head on and make sure you work as hard as possible and do whatever is necessary to correct it. From there, learn from your mistake and make sure it never happens again.
You can turn the situation into an opportunity to show you will always do what is necessary to make things right. In one case, my team made an honest mistake on a project, which put us in a tough spot with an owner. I did my best to address it, but it got to the point where it wasn’t something I could handle on my own.
Going to my superior, I explained what had occurred, and shared my plan to correct the issue. Obviously my superior was not thrilled with what occurred, but the fact that I had a plan to address it made the conversation much smoother.
The other thing I made sure to address was a plan to ensure that the same mistake didn’t happen again. A mistake was made, I owned the mistake, had a plan to address it and worked to ensure it would not be repeated.
Make sure you enjoy what you do.
Coming into work with an enthusiastic attitude every day can be difficult. Our lives are inherently stressful, and deadlines and projects can become overwhelming.
Everyone loses steam at some point during his or her professional career, but I’ve learned that the point is not day-to-day happiness. The point is to enjoy what you do, overall.
You should be excited about moving forward in your career and passionate about your work. Whatever you do also becomes infinitely more rewarding when you do it to better the world around you.
Early on in my career I completed several projects at a Children’s Hospital. Being there on a day-to-day basis working on projects was difficult. However, once our project was completed it was very rewarding knowing it would provide the opportunity and capability for talented healthcare professionals to help all those children.
As engineers, we build and design systems that make the world a better place. Keeping this in mind will keep your focus on a goal bigger than your own day-to-day enjoyment of your job.
Greg Hudson is a mechanical engineer and project manager at RMF Engineering Inc. in Charleston, S.C., where he has worked since 2010. He has experience in design and analysis of mechanical and plumbing systems for educational, laboratory, healthcare and commercial facilities. Greg earned a B.S. degree in mechanical engineering from Clemson University and an MBA from the University of South Carolina. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.