Like many recent college graduates, I decided to take some time off after graduation before starting my full-time job. I departed on a 10-day trip to Europe with one of my longtime friends just a few days after my graduation ceremony. The first half of our trip was split between London and Amsterdam, and the final leg found us in Barcelona. There, I befriended a college student who was early on in his civil engineering curriculum.
Critical thinking > memorization
We got into a discussion that would ultimately serve as a great anecdote for this very blog post. He asked me if I was nervous that I would not be “ready” for my new job as an engineer. Although I was nervous to start my new job, it was the good kind of nervous that comes with doing something entirely new in life. It wasn’t because I was worried I wouldn’t be able to remember everything I had learned in college. I told him that it’s almost impossible to remember everything you learn in school: the amount of information and pacing in college classes just doesn’t lend itself to long-term retention of all the meticulous details.
Of course, one does not receive a civil engineering degree without remembering the most important concepts, but the minutia gets lost as your brain must make room for more information. However, I told him I felt confident after countless exams, homework assignments and lab reports, I had developed the ability to quickly and independently learn new skills and concepts. I had come to realize that the ability to navigate the reference materials is much more important than memorizing the formulas, methods, and regulations we use in our daily work.
Some of the most important skills I learned in college were not strictly engineering-related; for example, practicing good time management habits, being able to communicate effectively with a diverse range of people, and exercising sound judgment. These skills served me well in college and have proven invaluable in my current role.
Student life vs. work life
Even after nine months at Mead & Hunt, I’m still coming to terms with what it means to be a working engineer. I can’t always assume someone will look over every little thing I do or give me step-by-step instructions. I must be confident I’m producing the highest quality work I can, and I must take the initiative to ask questions and do my own research. I also know that being an engineer comes with more responsibility. I must speak up when I think a mistake has been made or there may be a better way to tackle a particular problem.
Working as an engineer is certainly less stressful than college in some ways; my workday is usually over at 5 pm, whereas in college I would regularly study until midnight after a full day of classes. In other ways, it is more stressful since I need to work efficiently to keep my hours within budget. There is also stress associated with the fact that my mistakes can have real-life consequences, while in college the worst-case scenario would be a less than ideal grade.
While college required me to do difficult calculations by hand, the problem and assumptions were always very clearly defined, and you were given all the information you would need to solve the problem. Working as an engineer, oftentimes it is just the opposite: the calculations are simple or done on a computer, but the problem is poorly defined, information is incomplete, and assumptions are based on engineering judgment. Here is where the ability to think on my feet and navigate new concepts becomes most important.
Overall, being a new engineer has been an extremely fulfilling and challenging experience. I am excited to come into work since I get to work on interesting projects that have an impact on the world. I enjoy the challenge of having to figure out the best way to tackle a problem and tracking down relevant information. Perhaps most importantly, I get to do all this while working at a company full of extremely smart people who are always willing to impart their knowledge and encourage me to find my own unique solutions to the problems our clients face.