Arizona Council of Engineering and Scientific Associations
Question: What do you wish you had known before becoming an engineer?

Recently, in an on-line forum, a high school teacher asked a simple question. Here are some of the answers from working engineers, and some of the top answers:

  • Engineering is worth nothing if the designer/engineer can’t communicate to their clients/users why their product matters.
  • Engineering is not all calculations. More often than not, my days are spent reading multiple code provisions.
  • Not every engineer needs to do high-level math.
  • I'd teach the art of answering questions that aren't designed to be solved. 99% of everything I was asked in high school and 90% of college were questions that led you to the answer.
  • Engineering is odd field in that it's so broad you can't really say what it is that they do.

An infographic about what electrical engineers do is available here.

This is just a sampling of the responses; there are dozens more!

In all the classes they give you exactly what you need. Car going 40mph average velocity over a 30 minute trip, how far did they go. Real engineering is more like, you don’t get any given info. You get the problem and that’s it. Then you decide what and how to measure to get what you need to determine the things you decide are worth determining…. So…. And sometimes there is no “right” answer.

We don't always see it as a negotiation, but we're negotiating things all the time at work. Being able to effectively argue why you need certain resources will make your life a hell of a lot easier. Most of the time, these negotiations will be with people who do not have the same background/understanding of your work that you do. So you need to be able to adjust your explanations on the fly to match the profile/level of the people you're trying to communicate with.

I would stress that engineering is way wider than most high school students would probably suspect. Most high school programs focus heavily on CAD, which gives the false impression that CAD is fundamental to all engineering, when in fact it’s a tool that most of us haven’t touched since college. Many engineers work on hardware, but engineering also encompasses software and analysis. You don’t have to love it all. You just have to find your niche.

PEs are a pretty small group. I have one and I’m told the percentage of license holders in my discipline is about 2%.

i wish someone have told me you dont have to have passion for engineering and you dont have to love what you do in order to work there. it is a great csreer choice.

One thing that I've learned is that not every kid that is good at math is good as an engineer. The common theme seems to be that a kid is good at math so everyone tells them to go to engineering school. Yes, there is a lot of math required in school but in the real world I don't use anything more than basic math. Engineering is really about problem solving and I've seen way too many people that just lack that. All the book smarts in the world but if they need to figure out a new way to do something they would be stumped.

Public speaking and presentations on technical topics is severely, criminally undertaught.

I wish I went into college with better study habits. In high school I basically had no trouble. This isn't me bragging, I just had a really easy time with the material and pace. So much so that when I first hit college I got destroyed and dropped out. I eventually went back, and here I am. I don't know how, but preparing students for the massive increase in workload would be nice.

Engineering has much more communication and problem solving than I first realized. I'd add technical writing and a lab/project based component if possible.

English classes in HS tend to focus on nonsense like comparative literature with things like minimum word counts. If possible provide more real world writing applications with real world requirements like being succinct but clear and explaining technical concepts to different audiences.

If I was designing a high-school curriculum for engineering, I'd focus it less on maths and physics, more on reverse engineering, and manufacturing with some simple statics sprinkled in.
Take the classroom chairs, break them down into the seperate pieces, generate a BOM and discus how each part is made. Do some column buckling on the legs and discuss why an assumption that all four legs support the weight of one person might be not be the design case.

I remember seeing a lot of career advice that made engineering seem like this really solitary job - it’s not true, teamwork underpins most of engineering.
I also wish I’d known how isolating it can be to be a woman in engineering. It’s often filled with a load of blokes who are lovely, but just don’t necessarily have the same interests or attitudes as me

If you have any kind of manufacturing facilities around you I bet you gave them a call you could get your class in for some kind of plant tour and maybe even a sort of “day in the life of an engineer” type of guided tour.

If your goal is to prep your students for engineering schools then the answer is the standard math and science and programming.
But imo it would be more beneficial for the kids to actually introduce then what engineering is and what do they actually do.... You can find post after post that kids are asking what kind of engineering job should they look for to become Tony Stark, and you can also find post from some engineers that have no clue what other engineering fields are about.
If you can give your students a clear picture of what they will help them decide if that's what they like and give them a better idea of how to prep themselves.

It doesn’t matter how smart you are, if you can’t communicate effectively through written or spoken word. Also ABET accreditation is a thing and if your school isn’t accredited by them, it isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.

I think people grow up thinking engineering is doing calculations or design all day long. In fact the actual "engineering" is a very small part of the job. The most effective engineers I've known not only grasped engineering concepts but were good at explaining them to non-engineers. No matter how good of an engineer you are you will still be beholden to the people who control the money.

When I was in high school and college I had the idea that engineering school would give me everything I needed to do engineering work and I'd know everything I'd need to solve whatever problem came my way. This is not true at all - school gives you just enough to get started. The point of school isn't to teach you all there is to know, it's to teach you the tools you need to solve problems and give you the confidence that you can figure things out. Early in my career, it was easy for me to fall into imposter syndrome when I'd face a new problem because I'd think "I don't remember this from school", but as I progressed in my career, I instead saw new problems as a chance to further my knowledge and understanding. What separates the good engineers from the excellent is that the latter seek to continue their learning through their lifetime and are never content with "I don't know". I'm not sure how one would teach this to high schoolers, but that's the attitude you should be looking to foster.

For me, I was falsely under the impression that engineering was only design work. I wish I had known early on that engineering also means Manufacturing. Plenty of engineers (myself included) are manufacturing engineers, and don't strictly do design, but instead are focused on manufacturability.

Aerospace Engineer - I design and build airplanes! Best job ever! Sometimes you're going to use algebra, you just are. And algebra comes from trig, and geometry, and shapes. Other times you'll use a computer program to solve the math problems, but you can't ask the computer what to solve if you don't know what family of equations to use, or which variables make a difference. All Engineers are scientists as first, never forget your scientific roots. Scientists use math to explain what is, Engineers use science to create what never was.

Unhelpful - no one knew what an aerospace engineer was, they didn't reach out into their network to find one. Boeing hires mechanics and will pay for their college engineering degrees. This career path is a miracle from my perspective. You will interact with EVERY engineering function in the company as a mechanic and you'll find what you like, you'll even meet people who can help with your homework! If I had known about it my life would be a little different.

The most unhelpful thing high school teachers did was paint engineering as a one dimensional career field. There’s a reason engineering is divided into so many disciplines and within each discipline there’s such a wealth of career paths. I would’ve felt a lot more prepared if I would’ve known that and would’ve been better at finding internships.

Lastly... Not all engineering is quiet indoor work and learning about geotechnical engineering saved me from switching out of engineering since I like to be outside getting dirty. So maybe see if you can incorporate some of the more unknown disciplines in that might appeal to different types of students.

I wish I had known more about interning/co-ops. Also, that engineering is a broad field and there are jobs to fit a wide range of interests.

A lot of people assume engineers must be all math nerds, and, while it’s true many of us are, it is not a pre-requisite to engineering. I have friends who suck at math doing really amazing things after school. There is a place for everyone in engineering - even artsy types. Artsy types make great industrial designers or product designers for example, because they can combine their art skills with a basic understanding of engineering.

Engineering can take you anywhere because of the broad scope of work. Example: people making art using computational fluid mechanics. Game design, medicine, programming, even music. An engineer who can play the guitar will always make a better guitar than one who can’t. There are engineers who design helmets/sports gear for athletes to mitigate CTE, and a background in athletics can help there.

Unhelpful things: My guidance councillor told me to forget engineering because my math grades weren’t impressive. I went anyway, and graduated in the top 15% of my class. Do not be the teacher that tries to talk your students out of their dreams.

My high school did exactly NOTHING to help choose colleges. No mention of what scholarships were out there. No mention of ABET. Basically, they had the college prep curriculum, but anything actually associated with taking that next step was utterly ignored.

Everyone thinks of designing things as engineering, but there's more that just that. I discovered that test engineering is what I really enjoy. It felt wrong deciding to turn down a design job in favor of testing because I always thought design engineering is the only "real engineering", but I'm much happier now.

Data literacy Units and relative magnitude; Curiosity; Units and relative magnitude make you phenomenal at back of the envelope calculations and calling bullshit on claims. I was playing bar trivia and a tie breaker question was “how many tater tots are consumers by Americans annually.” Some fool said 2 billion or something. That’s like 6 per person. An engineer is asking themselves how frequently do I order tater tots? About how many are in an order? Do I order tots more or less often than the average person? How many people live in America and do they all order tots? Obviously there are more important applications than this.

I wish I'd known engineering was more about hard work than "being smart." Being a smart kid was so much of my identity that it made it hard to struggle in college, emotionally. I felt stupid. I wish I'd known that was a normal feeling. I'm not stupid at all! Class is just hard and a lot of work.

...and there were plenty more (link to

Published: 2 years ago

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