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What it takes to be an engineer?

  1. Apr 27, 2010 #1
    Hello everyone,

    I'm new here, as you can probably tell (even though I think I signed up a while ago, I never really posted anything).

    I've been through two years in college, studying for Mechanical Engineering. I've taken all the basic classes, Calc, Diff Eq, Physics, Chem, etc. and the only ME specific classes I've taken so far are Thermodynamics, Design Stress Analysis (statics), and an Intro Materials class.

    I recently got an internship at GE Appliances. I've learned a ton of stuff since I've been here, but I keep getting the feeling I don't know as much as I should. When I hear my managers and workers on my team talking about certain processes, materials, mechanics, etc, it seems over my head. I always listen and learn, but I FEEL like I should know more than I do.

    I mean, I've done well in college so far (nothing lower than a B+) and I know I have a lot to go, but growing up I've never worked on cars or had any building-type hobbies, so I feel like sometimes I may have a disadvantage. Engineering interests me so much and I'm willing to learn, but I keep getting the feeling like I'll never know as much as I should. I have a creative mind and love brainstorming ideas, but sometimes I don't always have the proper knowledge to make my ideas practical.

    Has anybody else ever felt like this? Is it normal? Is there anything I can do to help this? I love this field but sometimes talking to the people I work with is discouraging because it feels like they know SO MUCH more than I do.

    Thanks, and sorry for such a long post O_O
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 27, 2010 #2


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    It's perfectly normal.

    It's important that you have the will and the interest. The "practical" aspects will come in time.

    It happens to me too some times, when I listen my colleagues debating certain issues (I'm working in structural analysis of bridges) I have the feeling that I know very little about a certain topic, but then I remember how much more experience they have than me, and I'm comforted by the fact that all this will be learned in time.
  4. Apr 27, 2010 #3
    This situation and your feelings are perfectly normal. First of all, "they" do know so much more than you simply because they have more experience. College training in engineering only gives you the fundamentals. You will continue to learn engineering principles and practice through your entire career. This is the great thing about engineering, you have to keep on learning. It sounds like you have all of the right interests and capabilities to be a great engineer, so don't be discouraged. Just keep on your path and you will become like (or even better) than the people you are comparing yourself too. They were once just like you too.

    As far as what you can do to improve more quickly; any hands on experience will complement the (typically) theory- and principle-based learning you receive in college courses. Internships are a good start. As you can see, it is already teaching you the importance of experience. You can also build your own projects. If you were a EE, I could suggest some, but maybe some MEs can suggest something appropriate.
  5. Apr 30, 2010 #4
    I have been working for 30 years and I learn something new every day. Some days I learn more than one new thing. So think about it, I should know about 10,000 more things than you do, and that's not counting weekends and time off:tongue2:

    Seriously, as the other replies say, one of the nice things about engineering is just that - you can continue to grow and develop as long as you want to.
  6. Apr 30, 2010 #5


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    College teaches you how to think like an engineer and gives you some fundamental knowledge required to get you started as an engineer, but you can only really be an engineer by being an engineer. There's just no way around that and that's why internships are such a great thing.
  7. Jun 2, 2012 #6
    I have heard it's commitment. I have a friend who is an ME, been working for the Army Corps of Engineering for ten years. He told me you pretty much have to dedicate every bit of time to your school work to get good grades. That is actually if you want to be accepted into pro school.
  8. Jun 3, 2012 #7
    Engineers are generally quite open, and not likely to guard their knowledge selfishly. Uni teaches you some principles, some ideas, gives you some starting credibility, but no useful experience. You get experience by doing stuff, and you get to do stuff by working with other engineers and picking things up along the way.

    The great thing is that engineering is a huge and glorious discipline and always expanding. Engineering is about solving problems, usually working together with other engineers who will respect your ideas as much as you respect theirs. Back in Uni 20-odd years ago one of my professors put it beautifully 'Engineering is approximate science for profit' - we take all the clever research and new frontiers and make it useful.

    You will see new technologies being invented that there isn't a speciality for yet, you can nail those together in a new way to solve problems and 'be' and engineer :-)
  9. Jun 3, 2012 #8

    jim hardy

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    That's healthy. It's the 'know it alls' who cause engineering disasters.
  10. Jun 3, 2012 #9


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    Engineering is ubiquitous. My father quit high school to join the Airborne in WWII. He designed, laid out, and built more material handling systems (wood products) than I could describe here. He has no engineering degree, but he is a better engineer than anybody that I knew in that industry.

    I have no engineering degree, either, but after being paid to fly around the country troubleshooting problems on paper machines and pulp mills, it seems that engineers aren't always the be-all, end-all resources for technical problems. Sometimes, practical applied knowledge is pretty valuable.

    Edit: I wanted to study ChemE after HS, but life intervened.
    Last edited: Jun 3, 2012
  11. Jun 7, 2012 #10
    Its an unsettling problem; the feeling that we can graduate with flying colors but can come to a hault to design or build the most simplest device. Experience only can teach a proper perspective between theory and practicality.

    The absolute best thing to do is just hobbies building/making things. Even fun, nonsensical projects. As long as you are using principals (even the most basic) you will have the practical sense that all engineers must have.
  12. Jun 7, 2012 #11
    I would worry, if your motivated you'll do ok, other's like my friend went straight to management couldn't design worth a $hit, another guy didn't know how a clutch worked but with a good manager he cranked out wicked designs.

    My other EE friend was awesome at Vtech, but couldn't design a circuit board to save his life, it took time and now he's doing ok but he's only good at his discipline, this case being satellites, if they threw him at another part of EE, he would suck, you can learn pretty good up to about 30-40 but after that your more concerned about easy money than a challenge.

    I agree the know it alls are good at what they do but they suck in there approach, managers hate to have them present there designs. Work on your attitude at work not the engineering, the engineering will be repetitive within a few thousand hours of seat time.
  13. Jun 7, 2012 #12
    Bingo. Keep doing what you are doing; that is what it takes to be an engineer. :-)
  14. Jun 7, 2012 #13
    I know how you feel. What I found ease this feeling was exposing myself to as much design as possible.

    This can be achieved as easily as finding an old lawn mower/weed eater on the side of the road and take it apart and attempt to put it back together, try to figure out how each part was made, why was it made that way? You could even try your hand at figuring out what was wrong and fixing it.

    Take a carburetor apart and try and 'see' how it works, notice all the different metals that have been used, why is that? Have a look at how a differential on a car works (always though they were such an ingeniously simple yet clever design - I'd post a link but I haven't got 10 posts yet.)

    These are just examples, but with a screwdriver and a bit of time you can find out a lot about 'stuff' :P

    Mechanical engineering design is everywhere, appreciating how others have solved problems will help your engineering ability.

    edit: I realise all my examples are to do with automotive things, it's just my particular interest at the moment. haha
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