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How do you tell if you are smart enough to become an engineer?

  1. Sep 29, 2013 #1
    I have been preparing to enter an engineering program for next year, a program that splits the first year of a real engineering program into 2 years allowing an easier transition in the full program.

    I am still uncertain of whether or not I am smart enough to become a competent engineer, I have anxieties about this and I want to find out the truth of the matter.

    I think the obvious approach is to actually work really hard in preparation for this course, have strong foundations and such and to then go even harder in the program until my mind implodes or that I find out I am stupid or I succeed I suppose...

    Do you guys know of any other way of finding out if one has the aptitude to succeed in engineering?

    I have heard that, in any quality engineering course, one will spend about 50-60 hours studying engineering in a week, is this true? What are your estimates for this?
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 29, 2013 #2

    Simon Bridge

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    There is no way to tell in advance - many people manage to pass the exams and become incompetent engineers.
    The only way is to listen when someone says, "man that was stoopid!" and even then it could just be them. After all, they just pronounced "stupid" with two "o"s...

    Note: 60-hour weeks for a major discipline sounds about normal to me.
  4. Sep 30, 2013 #3
    I had similar concerns about starting my physics degree "Will everyone be a genius?" and so on. It took me a while to actually sort myself out and get accepted onto a degree program because of a bad maths result at A-level. My doubts tricked me into thinking I didn't want to study a technical subject and I spent a year studying Architecture.

    Biggest mistake i've made to date. I was unhappy and had to be honest with myself, luckily I got accepted at a good university to study the physics foundation year. This really helped me with my maths and I had to work really hard. I'd say I spent 40 hours per week in self study.

    I think the foundation year sounds similar to the program you describe - So i'd just like to let you know that if these things don't come easily to you, that's no excuse to give up if engineering is what you want. Hard work really can make up the difference between yourself and a naturally gifted student.

    Best of luck!
  5. Sep 30, 2013 #4


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    I could make a mathematician's (or physicist's) joke about being "smart enough to be an engineer", but I will restrain myself!
  6. Sep 30, 2013 #5
    There are several kinds of intelligence. Among them are mathematical, emotional, and intuitive forms of intelligence.

    Mathematical intelligence is one aspect of engineering, but so are the emotional, and intuitive parts. The latter two are used to determine what people REALLY are asking for and whether that will work for them as they envision it will.

    Schools tend to focus on knowledge, and math, and though that's a strong foundation, it is not what you use most in the working world.

    The way you can really tell if you're the sort who would be a good engineer is if you still think sewing, blocks, engines, legos, radios, paper airplanes, and so on are lots of fun. Engineers are kids who never stopped playing with toys. The toys just get bigger (or smaller) and a lot more expensive. The learning will come with motivation and education.
  7. Sep 30, 2013 #6
    I clicked on this thread with the assumption that a joke would be the first response. You guys let me down.

    OP, just do your best. It is meant to be a struggle and to challenge you. I agree that there is not really a way to know ahead of time. Work hard and along the way consult knowledgeable people whose advice you trust (i.e. a professor you connect with, advisor, etc). This person can help you decide if engineering is the right discipline for you.
  8. Sep 30, 2013 #7

    Simon Bridge

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    It is not uncommon here for people who struggle with the technical aspects to go on to do well. If you feel particularly drawn to the field, and you gain satisfaction from it, then you are probably on the right path.

    Like BOAS you'll need to be honest with yourself. Many of us have had a couple of false starts before settling for what lights us up ... lots never do figure it out and end up focussing on making a living and think it's the best of a bad lot.
  9. Sep 30, 2013 #8
    Indeed, this would have been my first reaction. :tongue:

    OP, this is just a matter of time. For example, I'm halfway decent at math. In a room full of math PhDs, I tend to be very quiet. Experience comes with time.
  10. Sep 30, 2013 #9


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    I would say you are almost certainly smart enough to be an engineer. Almost everyone is. But whether you have the discipline and interest to do it are very different questions.

    As for how hard you have to study, in my experience a lot of people over estimate the number of hours they study. If you include classes, recitation sessions, and labs, sure you will be working 60 hours a week at least.

    If people REALLY study 40 hours a week that means they are studying almost 6 hours a day, seven days a week. I didn't even get that hard-core in graduate school. I just don't believe many people are really doing that. My peers in school were studying 3 or 4 hour of quality studying a night, if that.

    You know, if you can treat it like a job and study during the day and minimize your "hanging out" time, you can go a long way and still remain sane and excited about engineering.
  11. Oct 1, 2013 #10
    You don't need to be a genius to be most types of engineer.
  12. Oct 3, 2013 #11
    I think you should ask yourself not how smart you must be in order to be an engineer, but how much time and effort are you willing to sacrifice in order to learn what it takes to be an engineer.
  13. Oct 3, 2013 #12
    Just to kind of echo the last three posts, I think that most people are smart enough to become an engineer. What I think stops most people is either lack of time to commit (it could be laziness or it could be something legitimate) and/or lack of interest.

    Engineering school is pretty tough, and if you can't commit the time and effort, you're not going to succeed. The concepts, assignments, labs, etc. I really don't think are impossible for the average person, but the problem is that you kind of tend to get swamped with them, especially compared to your high school workload. That's where being interested is important. If you don't like what you're doing, spending an enormous amount of your time studying and writing assignments and lab reports is going to be painful and you're probably not going to do very well. Your ability to understand things and perform tasks drops dramatically when you're frustrated. I guess the point is, engineering isn't something you should do just to get a paycheck. If you don't enjoy it at least a little bit, then it's probably not worth it.

    If you do like engineering and you're able to put in the time to succeed, you'll be just fine. It's a lot of work, but it can be very rewarding. I think it's far more likely that lack of interest/passion will stop you from becoming an engineer than lack of intelligence.
  14. Oct 3, 2013 #13


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    Seems like the posters in #9, #10, and #12 are very optimistic about people's talents and aptitudes, or they have a low opinion of engineers.
  15. Oct 3, 2013 #14

    Simon Bridge

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    Hard to tell.
    There is a friendly rivalry between physicists and engineers with each considering the other to be a kind of easy-version of their own discipline.

    But I suspect those posters are espousing a principle that success is a matter of differential effort rather than innate ability. If you find something hard, you need to work harder to get the end result.
  16. Oct 4, 2013 #15


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    Still, these posters need to get out more and meet different people besides the ones who inhabit college campuses.
  17. Oct 4, 2013 #16

    Simon Bridge

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    "anyone can make it" is not too bad as far as it goes, it's just that it's political rather than scientific - there is such a thing as practical limits and diminishing returns. Note: in the arts world they talk about talent and passion rather than intelligence - saying people should go where their passion lies. That's probably the bottom line here.

    I don't think we've seen anything to suggest OP cannot stay the course ... so some coaching style confidence building would be in order if they are to be passionate about it.
  18. Oct 4, 2013 #17
    Math was not my strongest subject in school. To make matters worse, I didn't have a single math teacher worth remembering. The DC Public High School system wasn't any better when I was a teen than it is today. I survived by staying ahead of the class and studying on my own. When I took that experience to the university, I was shocked. My classes were very difficult, particularly the math. I persevered.

    Frankly, I think many in academia use Math classes as a hazing tool against undergraduates. Nobody seems interested in making the subject more approachable. As a result, people fear it instead of studying it for the artistry and utility. The OP is frightened. I don't blame him/her. I suspect that Math is being used to intimidate rather than illuminate.

    Know that when you reach the working world, math remains important, but it is a vehicle of understanding rather than a baseball bat for smashing concepts in to digestible pieces. Being a good engineer also requires good communications skills. Do not ignore the liberal arts because you'll need them to write coherent proposals.

    Engineering isn't easy, but it can be very rewarding. When I was going to school, people would point out the wonderful salaries that engineers were making. I shrugged. I said I'd do it even if it paid poverty wages. I still feel that way today (though I'm quite thankful that it does not pay wages like other highly technical fields, such as aviation).
  19. Oct 4, 2013 #18
    I agree, those are my thoughts too. Its easy to insulate yourself from the general population when your education and employment are filled with smart people and over achievers.
  20. Oct 4, 2013 #19
    As an engineer myself, I have to say that I think it's more a matter of hard work than anything else. I do believe that anyone of average or above average intelligence can become an engineer, if that is what they truly want to be and they apply themselves diligently towards that goal.

    The same cannot be said of rock stars, race car drivers, novelists, and to a lesser degree physicists. You can have all of the talent in the world and a work ethic to match, and you still might not be able make a living at it.

    (I'm not saying physicists can't find jobs. But jobs really doing physics research are not where most physics graduates end up.)
  21. Oct 4, 2013 #20
    Of course that's only half of the population... So its not the case that almost everyone can be an engineer. Far from it.

    My local university has a 50% attrition rate for engineering majors. So only half of people who actually think they have what it takes and want to be engineers make it to graduation (with less becoming actual engineers).
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