How hard is it to be an engineer?

I want to know hard it is to be an engineer so I know what skills I need to be an engineer.

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Nine answers:

I will recommend the advise already noted - you have to like mathematics to excel.

Step 1: You should probably like Mathematics

Step 2: You should probably have a tolerance for Physics, Science

Step 3: Love to Learn

Take as many Math and Science classes that you can in school - although, other extracurricular activities will help. Musical theory (choir, band, drama) should not be undervalued - as the creativity required for the production of music is also helpful in 'imagining solutions'.

What makes a good Engineer?

The best engineers are not only rote math-geniouses : but they are creators, fiddlers, changers, artists. Decent engineers can tackle technical problems and 'wow' people as scientists - but the BEST engineers take the requirements provided to them and determine the best solution, for the lowest cost, that works BEST for the person utilizing whatever it is that you design.

I've found the best engineers also happen to have a good mix of 'right-brain' capabilities in addition to the more 'left-brain' science/math focus - we use science and math and bend them to how we need to solve problems and create. Hence - the technical aspects of music and the creative nuances of art play a role in the quality of the engineer. (example - Apple products have an appeal far beyond simply their electronic parts. It is the look, the smoothness of the surface, the responsiveness and feel for the user that makes them desireable. This aspect of engineering is somewhat 'undervalued' by some and will be largely ignored in school)

How hard is it to become an engineer?


You will have to go to college for at least 4 years. You'll probably have some debt afterward to pay for school unless you are already brilliant and get lots of scholarships. However, the salary after you are done will help pay for the college tuition. The curriculum is mathematics and applied mathematics heavy (so you if you don't like those topics, it will be 'harder'). A Master's degree can help get a job, but is 2-3 more years of school and the payback is a slightly higher starting salary.

Love Learning

Once you are an engineer, you must LOVE to learn. You will never stop learning, never stop absorbing, never stop improving. The minute that you stop this is that when you aren't an engineer any longer. The only way to create - and create effectively - is to learn your market sector (or the people that will buy whatever product or service that you 'engineer') and then learn what they want, and how to deliver it better, faster, cheaper, etc.

Do I really need to know XX?

My favorite adage from my engineer professor was thus: After 4 years of engineering school, you are guaranteed 'teachable' With 2 more years of graduate school (Master's Degree) - you are 'capable' as an engineer.

What that means is that, in school, many of my classmates completed all their classes and didn't feel like they knew 'what to do with it'. The class subjects are often far-removed from the practices in the actual job. After school, it takes about a year to feel like you are 'being an engineer' - and not 'still learning what I should be doing'.

School can get tedious - especially since many Engineering programs can't fit "everything" into just 4 years - many engineers take 5 years. This can be discouraging if you see many of your friends graduate in 4 years with other degree programs and you are still doing your degree.

Is it hard being an engineer?

Most of the time, you will be salaried (so you will be expected to work 40+ hours a week with a fixed pay). This is because the ability to estimate how long it takes to 'create things' and 'solve problems' is rare and much sought after. Work-life balance can be challenging in that regard. Your school will never discuss 'office politics'. As an engineer, this is a skill many of my fellow engineers find tedious and difficult - as we are so busy mastering the management of 'science', its difficult to master the management of 'humans'.

Two comments

Engineering is a hard major but can provide you a lifetime of rewards if it matches your interests and talents.

Engineering is hard, but so are athletics, music, religious observance, marriage, parenting, and many other popular worthwhile pursuits.

The following is a personal note to you, written from my perpective of 35+ years in engineering, including 11 as a college student, 15 as a practitioner, 16 as a faculty teacher and researcher, and four as Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies.

Engineering is a Profession

In addition to being a college major and a job, Engineering is a profession. The profession and its subdisciplines are bound by various codes of ethics, accreditation rules for college programs, professional licensure, etc. Each of these entities have interests in ensuring that engineers are knowledgeable and qualified to perform their work and that public safety and the public interest will be protected.

A working definition of profession is an occupation in which

one is expected to have advanced knowledge in a specific area, well beyond that of the common person, including those educated in other fields, one may be expected to apply that knowledge to a broad range of situations, sometimes or often unique, such that the solutions cannot simply be tabulated in a list, book or manual, one in which the public may trust that their safety and well-being is protected by relying on the practitioner. An engineer's carelessness in checking an apparently simple design change against math and physics principles can lead to the death of 114 people and the injury of 200 more (Kansas City Hyatt collapse). Inability of engineers to grab the attention of decision makers, and operating rocket ships outside their design temperature range can kill America's heroes and influence national sentiment, priorities, budget and history (Challenger accident). Inconsistent tire pressure recommendations between automakers and tire makers can contribute to the deaths of hundreds, lead to lengthy legal battles, close factories, and put factory workers out of jobs (search Google on Ford, Firestone, and tires).

On the other hand, engineers problem-solving ability and creatitivity can lead to the successful rescue of nine trapped miners -- "How can we locate the exact spot (GPS positioning)? How can we heat air and deliver it that location faster than drilling the rescue hole? How can we remove the water? Who has nine decompression chambers and how can we get them to Pennsylvania? Where is the closest drill of the required size?

Advances in mechanical, electrical, and computer engineering have brought the price of a portable CD player ( a device that includes a power supply, motoer, laser, amplifiers, signal processors and computers) down to about the price of three of the CDs it can play. Similarly, they have led to lifesaving biomedical devices unforeseen when you were in grade school.

So I encourage you every day to not rely on "partial credit," not turn in the minimum, not to focus on "counting points," but to learn math, science, engineering and communications principles as well as you can, and to let your creative juices flow. Someone's life may depend on it, or someone's quality of life may be improved by it.

Work Hard, Play Hard (will any of this be fun?)

So, I thought I was supposed to have some time for fun, and other things?

You will. A reasonable expectation is that you will spend a minimum of two hours studying outside of class for every hour you are in class, and perhaps more for classes with labs or projects. So if you are taking 16 credits, you have a full-time, fifty-hour per week job just being a learner. But people with full-time jobs still have time for other pursuits. Many engineering students enjoy interacting socially around an engineering student organization -- there are about 30, organized along majors, gender and ethnicity, national competitions, and other interests (see the Engineering Student Organizations page.) Others find interest in the hundreds of activities and organizations around campus. Engineers are athletes, engineers are in the marching band, engineers work on campus, engineers are volunteers.

In your four (plus or minus) years as an undergraduate, you will have opportunities to try or do many things that will be very difficult to ever come back to. MSU is a big place with many opportunities. Try some!

Teamwork, Cooperative Learning and Active Learning

As an MSU student, and especially an engineering student, you will often be expected to work in teams, and produce a single graded "product." Teamwork is no longer just a good idea, it is required by the accreditation process for engineering programs..

One specific phrase you may hear in connection with team projects is "cooperative learning," and an even broader one is "active learning." Much of the growth of cooperative learning and its application at MSU is rooted in the works of Dr. Karl Smith, an engineering professor who shares between among MSU and the Unviversity of Minnesota.

In its broadest form, "active learning" refers to a principle, gaining momentum at MSU and elsewhere, that instructors roles are not simply "talking heads" that deliver lectures, and students are not simply anonymous observers. Rather, each has an active role in the learning of the class material and developing an ability to extend the class material by preparing one to be a lifelong learner. Hence, there might be expectations of active classroom participation, "extension tasks," which go beyond the book and notes, participation in Internet class forums, and other activities.

Engineering Accreditation

The traditional, mainstream "engineering" programs at MSU are all but Computer Science and Engineering Arts. Computer Science "lives" in the College of Engineering at MSU and about half of all Universities; it also turns up in Arts and Science Colleges, Information Colleges, math departments and elsewhere. Engineering Arts is a non-traditonal, interdisciplinary program. The mainstream engineering programs are accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, or ABET. ABET is in turn comprised of representatives from the many engineering societies, which in turn represent the many engineers in the United States. So, as a profession, we all set the standards that new entrants in our profession must meet.

In 1998, MSU was among a dozen engineering schools to be accredited under new, outcome-based criteria. Under this approach, we must show not only that our students have taken various courses, but we must demonstrate that they come out possessing a number of abilities and skills. In addition to the obvious ones, related to math and science, conducting and analyzing experiements, etc. we must also show that our students have demonstrated the ability to work in teams, the ability to communicate, the ability to be lifelong learners, and the ability to understand the broader issues of society (yes, you need to take humanities courses).

MSU Guiding Principles

Institutions have core philosophies, and MSU's are summarized in the MSU Guiding Principles. Note that two of them, active learning and problem solving, are very closely related to the professional and accreditation themes already discussed.

Being a Learner

In short, in coming to college, and more specifically pursuing the engineering profession, you have a mission to learn.

You have chosen to be here. You don't have to, but you are making a significant commitment of your time and someone's money. When you expend time and money on other things, you have high expectations. You should have them for your education also. Shortcutting your effort is shortchanging yourself.

But this isn't in the book!!! Learning gets more complex. What educators want students to know has been arranged in a hierarchy called Bloom's Taxonomy. Much of high school work may peak at about level two or three -- comprehension or application. Much of your early college work in science and engineering will be at levels three or four application and analysis. Your later college work and career in practice or research will expect you to work at level five -- synthesis. We are back to lifelong learning and broad education!

Finding and Using Resources

"I had to teach myself (math)(science)(circuits), even though I paid the professor to do so."

I have heard these words, and yes, there are some less perfect teachers in the world (shouldn't be), BUT, if we recall the expectation that you will work at least two hours outside of class for every hour in, maybe being an active learner does involve teaching yourself.

Let's assume you wanted to be a better golfer. You may pay for a lesson, but you may also buy and read four books, go to the driving range, and videotape golf matches. You would seek any and all resources relevant to your goal. If your goal is to succeed in thermodynamics, buying the book and attending lectures are a given. BUT, when they aren't doing enough to make you competitive, I am surprised to see that many students overlook the obvious additional steps:

Go to office hours and ask questions. Discuss the material with classmates. Seek tutoring. Visit the library and pick out some other thermo books -- you may prefer another author's approach. Purchase an independent study guide with practice problems -- Schaum's Outlines are particulary recommended and have been found useful to many.

A learning-friendly enviroment -- classroom behavior

This should go without saying, but classroom behaviors and interactions with faculty should be professional and consistent with the objective of learning.

Attend class Be on time and prepared Ask questions professionally Don't demean others' questions Turn off cell-phones and pagers When using the phone, introduce yourself When using e-mail, include your name, use your MSU e-mail address, and write in a professional manner.

A Cautionary Note - Academic Dishonesty

Cheating is on the rise at colleges nationwide, and techniques are getting increasingly sophisticated. In turn, faculty are keeping up and more concerned than ever with detecting cheating and punishing it where it occurs.

An excellent discussion of cheating and related rules and consequences at MSU can be found at the Ombudsman's web page. For starters, please note that

There is sophisticated software in use to detect plagiarism. You can be required not to use sophisticated calculators or PDA's. You can be required not to use instant messaging or wireless equipment. You can be required to remove hats with bills. You can be required to prove your identity. Consequences can be severe. Also note that there expectations regarding the individuality of your work can vary widely, depending on the nature of the material and objective of the class:

In a writing or computer science class, your paper or program may be expected to be a "creative work," absolutely your individual effort In an engineering science class involving calculations, there may be only one correct answer, so yours must match everyone else's. However there would likely be some expectation of evidence of individual pursuit of the problem -- your work on the way to a solution would reflect your individual style and solution path. Nevertheless, it might be expected and even encouraged that you and your colleauges discuss how to solve the problem, before you work it individually. Interacting is learning, outright copying is not. In a mathematics class, where learning a solution method is emphasized, it could be expected that both your answer and your method are similar to everyone else's. If you are asked to solve and equation by completing the square, and you do it by factoring, you could be failed on method, even though the final answer is correct. Three classes, same semester, with very different instructor expectations of indiviudal versus common "answers." This may be bewildering, BUT the answer lies in your understanding the learning objectives of the class and professor, rather than simply worrying about points.

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Skills in mathematics is essential in every field of engineering, so strong math skills will be required to become and Engineer. If you are high school take the maximum numbers of math courses your high school offers.

When you enter college your first year or two will be almost the same subjects for any type of engineer you would like to become so this is where you will know if you really want to be an Engineer. You will need to concentrate in courses in mathematics as well as basic engineering principals.

Good luck in the future.

Three comments

The more important question is "Do I want to be an Engineer?". “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life,” Confucius once said. If you are good at math and like to solve problems and if you are creative you will enjoy an engineering job. I find it rewording but some don't. Yes, it is hard at times and having (for example) a job in Hi-tech requires also time commitment and deduction. But its a way to make a good living and draw satisfaction and enjoyment all at the same time.

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I agree with Frederick. It requires a very high level of skill in mathematics to be a top notch engineer. As you approach college if you don't like Calculus you may want to consider another field as that is a fundamental tool for basically all Engineering fields.

With respect to life in industry, it is similar to other professional fields. You should make enough to live quite comfortably, but will probably never be rich. If you truly enjoy what you do it makes an enormous difference in your day to day life. Other than that, the key is to find a good company that meets your needs. You can be paid slightly less and have a good work / life balance or work for a very aggressive company with longer hours but higher pay. The key is to remember you have options. The people that find it the hardest and are the least happy tend to stay at a company that is not a good match for them.

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Here is a site that tells much about being and engineer and explains the different types of engineers that there are.


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Many challenges to go through. Syllabus Knowledge gives you very less practical learning, More of projects with interest makes you more challenging Good daily planning will build more confidence and avoid last minute learning

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Frankly speaking its not at all hard practical knowledge is minimal in college, try to compensate that by practicing back home and doing internships at later stages of your semesters

additional certification will addon to your profile and gives deeper understanding about the subject

plan you studies, on a regular basis, avoid last minute learning

read more books related to the topics

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