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Five Things You’ll Learn in Engineering School That Have Nothing to Do With Engineering

The longer I work as an engineer, the more I realize it’s the things I learned outside of my books and lectures that have helped me the most in both my career and personal life. I’m happy to share some of the most important things I think you’ll learn in engineering school that won’t be printed on your course syllabus.


  • Nothing is perfect, so don’t demand perfection from yourself.

There’s a reason why understanding risk is such an integral part of engineering studies  – because no one is perfect and you can never know that your design will function, with absolute certainty, as intended. Drawing on past examples helps us avoid costly, time-consuming disasters, but it is impossible to account for all of the external factors – unforeseen variables, timetable fluctuations, budgetary cut-backs, and more – that will inevitably try to prevent you from completing your work. So, what’s the best advice I can give? Try not to let the little stuff get to you…plan the work and work to your plan.


  • You may not like each other, but you must play nice.

As we all learned from group projects, you will encounter people with whom you fall right in step — and those with whom you’ll fundamentally disagree on just about everything. This includes other design professionals, contractors, and even clients with whom your livelihood may depend. Maintaining a respectful and professional demeanor will allow you to complete your work and will teach you patience, humility, and how to compromise… something we all must do on a daily basis with our bosses, coworkers and clients. Although at times it can be difficult,  it’s needed to complete the project and task at hand, on-time and on-budget.


  • Failure happens. Be okay with it.

When people hear “engineer,” they often think of the people who fix someone else’s failures, not the ones who create them.  But, the reality is that we all make mistakes. A lot of them. Think back to those all nighters spent at the library, only to receive a mediocre grade on a test you thought you’d knocked out of the park. As a professional, mistakes may have real world consequences, but should not let fear guide actions.. Learning to fail fast is key as a professional. As Henry Ford once said, “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” In the end, it’s how we accept that failure and learn from our mistakes that we become better engineers.


  • Networking is not just adding someone on LinkedIn.

So, you have 500+ connections on LinkedIn, but how many of them could you call now for a recommendation? While it is great to cast a wide net, nothing takes the place of face-to-face personal conversations and relationship building.   Chances are that your former colleagues are more likely to vouch on your behalf than the gaggle of online “connections” you’ve accrued. The same was true in school.

You joined study groups, offered a helping hand to those that needed it, and you were rewarded. Not with a promotion or a new title, but with access to a network of help and assistance that made school easier (and more fun!). The more engaged, genuine and active you are with your co-workers and other collaborating parties, the more likely you are to reap the benefits of those personal interactions and connections throughout your career. When I first started my career I joined as many young professional groups as humanly possible. This allowed for my network to rapidly expand; although I no longer participate at the same level some of the connections I made continue to pay dividends in my professional and personal life.


  • Learn how to learn. Then learn some more.

After years of long nights, endless lectures and countless projects, you’ve finally reached the real world: graduation. But you know better than to think that your learning days are over. . Unfathomable problems will arise in your career and you’ll likely be stumped by them, but being eager to learn and remedy the situation will separate you from the others in your office – and quite possibly your field. Your overall growth as an engineer is limited only by your willingness to learn and step outside of your comfort zone.  As da Vinci said, “learning never exhausts the mind.”

School taught us a lot. But, as in many areas of life, it’s the lessons learned through personal experience that truly made an impact.