On the way to work this morning, I ended up listening to some of the music I listened to when I was a young soldier in the US Army School of Engineering, practically a lifetime ago. It got me thinking of how my involvement with the engineering profession has changed over the years, and how if you’d told me at 19 that I would end up working state level structural design for the second largest state DOT in the nation, I would have never believed it. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way:
Most people at one level actually have no idea what the next level consists of.
Remember in high school, how all the teachers in your AP classes would say things like, “If you think this is hard, you’re never going to survive college. It’s way harder there.”? Then remember looking back, after your first week of university level classes, and saying, “Is that all?” I got way better grades in college than I did in high school (at least for the first year) with a small fraction of the effort. After being told all my life how difficult every university level class I would ever take would be, I kind of felt like I must be doing it wrong for it to be as easy as I found it at first. I wasn’t, though. My AP teachers just gave me the wrong information. Maybe it was intentional to make us work harder, but it definitely was inaccurate. Engineering is like that.
“You’ll never survive upper division classes if you don’t totally ace this awful triple variable vector calculus test that nobody in the history of humanity has ever gotten more than a 60% on!”
“You may think that cut rate effort will get you by as an undergrad, but you’ll never get into grad school half-assing it like this!”
“Your future employers will ask for your transcripts, and they don’t like B’s.”
It is never as bad as it seems. Upper division classes are fun because you get to just think like an engineer all day, not switch back and forth. Graduate level classes are even better because you get to just focus in depth on stuff you like. It’s not as hard as you think it is to discover something new or get published to a journal. Peer review is really only scary the first time (it’s annoying after that). If an employer wants to see your transcript, it’s only to prove you graduated. They’ll totally hire a B student who aces the interview. The biggest lesson I took from all of this is that there’s really nothing extraordinary about any of it. Anyone who had enough resources at their disposal and decided to do this, realistically could.
You have to do a good job at something, but your connections matter just as much.
I didn’t graduate with honors. I had about a 3.3 average. I graduated with something that mattered more, a paper count. I also happened to catch the interest of some very well connected people because I did research in a field few people had ever heard of, and managed to present it to university donors with enough flare (and in a very well fitted suit) that donations came rolling in for the lab. Shortly after this happened, my department head decided I would be a really good professor since I had been a good TA and could get research funding, so he contacted a colleague at a university I’d always been told by my parents was way out of my league. Before I knew it, I was scrambling together an application, with things like transcripts and GRE scores a mere formality because all anyone cared about was my research and the votes of confidence from people they trusted on these matters. A few weeks later, I was across a desk from one of the world’s leading researchers in my field, and he was telling me how it was worth a quarter million dollars of his funding for me to come do a PhD in his lab. What the hell just happened, and whose body did I inhabit by accident?
All my life, I’d been told that only people who made 4.0 averages, perfect GRE scores, and were just naturally gifted at this stuff got fellowships like that, or even the chance at a PhD. I had been told all my life that because I’m lazy and disgusting, and can’t be bothered to do very well at things I don’t find interesting or vital to life that could never be me. When it basically fell in my lap, I suddenly understood every slacker looking professor I’d ever met in my life. What if they weren’t misunderstood geniuses who were just too good for the rest of us to understand? What if they were just normal people like me, who ended up behind the right podium at the right time?
Research isn’t better than design. Design isn’t better than field.
I started out in the field. I was raised in this profession on construction sites. I did a little bit of design, yes, but mostly I worked in the field. While I learned a lot, I never enjoyed this. It felt brutish and dirty, and like I didn’t get to use my mind enough. During those years, I idolized design. I wanted to go to work and come home with my boots and uniform still clean like those who worked design side. I had had enough of dust, and diesel smoke from bulldozers, and equipment platoon sergeants who didn’t think I knew anything because they had been in the Army longer than I had been alive. In my mind, everything about this profession had to be better than the field, and to end up in the field would represent a personal failure of the deepest level.
Later, in the lab, I got a taste of the research side. This was the pinnacle of awesome, what this profession was all about, and a completely different world than the field. It was even better than design. Why would anyone settle for merely applying research, when they could conduct it? I won’t lie, research is a hell of a drug. There are higher highs and lower lows than anything else I’ve ever done, and when you finally publish something, or get funded for something important, there’s nothing else that compares. Yet, there are also a lot of days when you sit and stare at the same machine for hours, wondering why it won’t work, or you get tired of literally everything about your project even though you have at least a year to go on it. Research isn’t perfect either.
I ended up in design. This was a transition made by necessity of family circumstances, not by my own preference, and it took some getting used to. What I found is that design has more in common with research than I had previously given it credit for. I also found that my time in the field serves me better than nearly anything else in my current life as a design engineer. It is also more rewarding than I had originally thought it would be. Passing plan review feels a lot like passing peer review.
There is no inherent better or worse in this field. There are only different sides, and it’s probably best to have some experience in all of them if you can.
PE’s are not all-knowing.
When you’re in civil engineering, the Professional Engineer’s license is the holy grail. From the moment you declare your major, you know that four years after you graduate (two years if you’re in California), you’re going to take the PE exam, and finally get your own seal for your plan sets. It will seem a million years off until you sit down in the exam facility, and the moderator says, “Welcome to the October 2017 Professional Engineer’s Exam”. Then you’ll think to yourself, “How did I get here? I’m not ready to be a PE yet. I just guess at things a lot, and see if they work.”
On the eve of my PE license (providing I passed that exam in October) I finally am able to articulate my profession’s dirty little secret. PE’s don’t know everything. They just have better judgment than EIT’s because they’ve been here longer. Ultimately, this entire profession comes down to understanding basic Newtonian physics and certain material properties well enough to make it work in the way any given project demands. As my steel design professor used to say, “These formulas were not handed down from the almighty. You must understand where they come from so you can use them the way you need to in life.” He was right. There is really nothing sacred about any of this.
“Right” is subjective.
How do you tell an engineering student from a PE? Ask them a question. The student will develop an answer (possibly a very technically correct one), and cling to it as if their life depends on it. The PE will look at you sideways, take a sip of their whiskey, and say, “Well, that depends on a few things.” Then they will ask you a dozen questions about the situation surrounding the thing your question pertains to, mull it over for a bit, tell you a story about how they had a shitty job when they were an EIT that sent them out in the rain to a project just like this one, and then give you an answer with 10 caveats about when it would and would not work, and a few other possibilities for what it could be. You will get annoyed, and ask another PE. They will do the same thing, but give you a different answer. You could ask every PE on earth, and end up with almost as many answers as PE’s. Most of the answers you get would probably work. Serious determinations often come down to the preferences of one PE, and what informed those is their individual experience. This is a far more subjective profession than people know.
The bottom line, I think, is that nothing is as difficult as it seems, and all the pieces fit together. If you join this profession, there’s probably a place for you. It might not be what you thought it would be. At the end of the day, we help our own, and good things come to those who network. It’s like any other profession in that sense. If you get out of your own head for a minute, kick the imposter syndrome off to the side, and actually take the hand up that’s offered, there’s hardly a limit to what you’ll be able to do. The biggest advice I would give to 19-year-old me is, listen more. Stop thinking you know what’s going on. You really don’t know, and you’ll learn a lot more if you just listen to what’s going on around you, and stop considering the source so much. Everyone has something to teach you. Also, you’re totally not too good to spend your days on a construction site. Yes it sucks, but you’ll be glad you did. Do the tough assignments. Learn the uncomfortable lessons. Don’t take yourself so seriously. Nobody else knows what they’re doing either.