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Career Advice for Someone Beginning an Engineering Education

This post was written by Bill R. Hollifield, an industry veteran, ISA committee member and author of books on alarm management and HMI.

I have had a typical 37-year engineering career that I have thoroughly enjoyed, split between project engineering, production, production management, and consulting. I was recently asked for some general advice, from a nephew beginning an engineering education. Here is my reply:

Engineering is a wonderful career if you have a technical mindset. Consider your engineering degree as a "hunting license." Much of your college coursework will not be relevant to the actual work you will do. For example, since 1975, I have used calculus one time! Unless you go into an area such as process design, your career will rely much more on problem-solving techniques than on complex and obscure calculation and analytical methodologies. Those knowledge areas have already become inexpensive programs that can be purchased.

But you should become very, very good with computers. Consider computer science as a minor or take electives in it. When I graduated, there was no such thing as a personal computer. I learned everything about them on my own and helped introduce them as useful tools into my company's engineering department. It sounds silly now, but at the time, there was considerable resistance by the "elderly managers." Everything you do will be computer-related. Take some programming courses in widely-used, useful computer languages. But do not go too far; the country is full of laid-off I.T. professionals that cannot find work. Computers should be something you know a lot about and use expertly, but not the focus of your career.

The technical knowledge that is the focus of your education is all well and good. But once you get the degree, your career success will not primarily be based on your technical expertise. It will be mainly based on your ability to work with others. For most engineers, that is not a very strong suit. (Ask me how I know!) You can be the finest technical expert there is, but if people do not want to work with you, you will go nowhere. Be the person of whom people say, "I want him on the new project team."

It is very important to your career for you to be able to communicate - particularly to be able to talk to a group, to be relaxed, to be authoritative, and to be engaging. That is probably more important to your career than your technical knowledge.

Learn to speak in front of a group! This is one of the most important skills you can possibly have. It does not matter if you like it, just learn to do it and be very good at it. Take Dale Carnegie or Toastmasters or a similar course. If there is a good non-technical elective for public speaking that you can take in school, do so. It will do more for your career than a master's degree in engineering - or just about anything else - possibly could. I tell young engineers this all the time. Most do not listen. The few that do will be the other ones' bosses soon. And, learn to write: technical proposals, articles, that kind of thing. Read books on business trends, innovation, and so forth.

Do not stay in school to get an engineering master's degree, regardless of what your professors say. Now, college is a wonderful experience, particularly if someone else is paying. But begin your career with a bachelor's degree. If you do not, you have just flunked Economics 101. Newly graduated engineers with a master's are not paid much more than those with a bachelor's, and that difference quickly disappears. You give up at least a year's income, perhaps take on extra debt, and lose out on a year of very valuable real-world experience. You will never recover that financially. If you really want a master's degree, companies may pay for you to get one at night. I got my MBA that way.

You do not need a master's for a great career unless you really want to become a technical expert in a specialty area. (To be a college professor, you'll need a doctorate - generally a cosmic waste of time for an engineer unless you want an academic career.)

In other areas, dress just a bit better than the average engineer. (This is not difficult.) Look like a professional. Appearances matter - a lot. This is the real world. The engineering stereotype is "How can you spot an extroverted engineer? Well, when he talks to you, he looks at your shoes." Don't be that person.

In industry, you will often hear "Can you do <XYZ>?" The answer that leads you to (a) nowhere or (b) out the door is "That's not my job." The correct answer is "I can do that" (spoken with confidence.) Then, figure out how to do it.

Best of luck to you all, in this very rewarding field.

About the Author
Bill R. Hollifield, PAS principal alarm management and HMI consultant, is an industry veteran with international experience in all aspects of alarm management and HMI development for the petrochemical, power generation, pipeline, and mining industries. Bill is co-author of Alarm Management: A Comprehensive Guide, The Alarm Management HandbookThe High Performance HMI Handbook, and The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) guideline on Alarm Management. He is a member of the American Petroleum Institute's API RP-1167 Alarm Management Recommended Practice committee, the ISA18 Alarm Management committee, the ISA101 HMI committee, and the Engineering Equipment and Materials Users Association (EEMUA) Industry Review Group. Bill is a regular presenter on these topics in such venues as API, ISA, and Electric Power symposiums. He has a BSME from Louisiana Tech University and an MBA from the University of Houston.

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A version of this article also was published at InTech magazine

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