Young Engineers

Newsflash: Work Is Not School

December 9, 2014

One of the biggest problems facing young engineers is that school usually doesn’t prepare you for the realities of work.

School Is A Learning Environment

Fundamentally, school is a place where people teach you what you need to know. You start off not knowing much, if anything, about the subject, and your teachers will do their best to help you become more proficient at whatever you’re studying. After all, that’s their job. That’s what you’re paying them for, and it’s their responsibility to give you what you need to be successful.

In school, your objectives are clear: pass this test, read this book, or solve this problem. You’ve got clear rubrics to tell you exactly how you’ll be assessed, and if you fail, you can try again until you get it right.

And, best of all, unless you really mess up, your place is secure. Keep doing the minimum required to pass, keep making the payments, and you’ll get through.

Work Is About Proving Yourself, Every Day

Work, however, is nothing like school.

For a start, your co-workers have their own jobs to do. They’re not there to teach you. You may have a mentor who will help you get up to speed, but when you’re employed, your role is to help the team and contribute, not simply to absorb knowledge. If you’re too much of a burden, then you’ll find yourself replaced very fast. You’re no longer paying others to teach you, they’re paying you to do what they want, and they want their money’s worth.

To make it harder, your objectives and assessment criteria may not be clearly defined. And even if they are, in the real world, it’s never as simple as knowing what you need to do to get an A, B, or C grade. The criteria that matter – the only criteria that matter – are keeping your boss happy, having a good relationship with your coworkers, hitting all your deadlines, delivering work to the required quality, and not screwing up.

Here’s the real bottom line. If you don’t make the grade at work, you’re likely to find yourself fired. No ifs, no buts, no do-overs, no appeals – you’re out. There’ll be someone else in your job the following week. It’s not good enough just to be good enough. You’ve got to be better than the other guy. You’ve got to prove, and keep on proving, that hiring you was the best choice your boss could have made, and never give him or her cause to regret that.

Professionalism Matters More Than Skill

As engineers, we have a special responsibility. We build things that people rely on, and when we get it wrong, the consequences can be catastrophic. A single untightened bolt, a loose wire, a substandard joist, or a wrongly calibrated meter, and people could die. Bridges collapse, trains derail, planes crash, and nuclear power stations leak. What we demand from engineers is the same as we demand from doctors – people who are thorough, detailed, and utterly reliable. The best engineers aren’t necessarily the smartest or the best educated – they’re the ones that do the job right, every single time.

At school, you’re judged on what you’ve learned and, sometimes, on how you present it. That’s what will get you a job. (Well, that, a well-written resume, unrelenting follow-up, and good interview skills.)

But once you’ve got a job, keeping it depends on how well you do the things you are asked to do. You may never need to know most of what you learned in school. It probably doesn’t matter now if you can’t remember Bernoulli’s Theorem or how to calculate the volume of a toroid. If you ever need to know that, you can look that up. What matters now is how well you do the specific job in front of you. If that’s attaching ribbons to model cars and putting them in a wind tunnel, then so be it. It may not be challenging, but it’s what matters, so just do that right. If you’re not sure what to do, ask for help, but balance that with showing initiative and responsibility.

Success at work is also about your attitude. A little rebelliousness at school is tolerated, perhaps even expected. At work, conformity is expected. Turn up on time, follow the dress code to the letter, treat everyone – coworkers and clients – with respect, respond fast, and always ask if there’s anything else you can do.

Work Requires Different Skills

Nobody’s saying school is easy. It isn’t, and it shouldn’t be. If you want to excel at any level, it takes talent, dedication and long hours. But work’s a whole different ball game. To succeed, you need to be not just smart, but self-motivated, reliable, pleasant to work with and professional.

In the long run, those skills will probably matter more than whether you got an A on this week’s assignment or aced your finals.