How to be a successful engineer: Real world lessons gained from experience

Megan Poorman ’14 is a biomedical engineering student and the Executive Vice-President of the TAMU Honors Student Council. Megan provides Texas A&M University Honors Program’s fourth contribution to the second-annual National Honors Blog Week. The theme for this synchroblog is “Things You Can’t Learn in a Classroom.” To read other contributions to this effort, visit the hub hosted at http://www.honorslounge.com/taxonomy/term/3287.

How to be a successful engineer: Real-world lessons gained from experience-by Megan Poorman

Howdy there. My name is Megan and I am an engineer. To most people this word conjures images of cubicles with messy desks, graph paper crumpling under the weight of hefty equations, and electronic circuits spread over the top of a laboratory bench. Perhaps a picture of dorky, shy men with button down shirts (pocket protectors included) with no social skills also come to mind. Maybe, a person remembers their engineer friend, who is brilliantly smart, but is always holed up at their desk, hunched in front of their computer, furiously typing numbers on their calculator. At least, this is what I pictured for engineers coming in to college. I envisioned students who were consistently 20 minutes early to every lecture, who scribbled equations on the board and corrected the professor, and who only ever had conversations when it was with their peers in a language consisting of parameters and specifications.

Now, wrapping up the last few weeks of my senior year in engineering, I can attest that these stereotypes are actually partially true. Wait, wait…before all you other engineers out there get up in arms ready to declare war, remember that I said partially. Engineers can definitely be all of the above. We can certainly be intellectual machines who dream of designing the next best thingy-ma-bob and we can play the part of the nerd that spends hours on a single homework problem. I have been in lectures where the material was so full of equations and problems that it did indeed sound like another language and I have experienced the engineer who can barely meet your gaze as they talk to you (and I don’t just mean because they are talking to a woman). Yes, we engineers can be a nerdy bunch. However, this textbook definition of an engineer is not the full story. There is more to being in engineering than the intellectual stimulation from traditional lectures. The times I value most from my engineering education are, more often than not, experiences from outside the classroom.

So, based on my experiences as an engineering student in college and the lessons I learned, here is my guide on how to be a successful engineer.

Enjoy…

  1. Develop your social skills – It may be hard to believe, but
     BMEN intermural soccer team (Photo cred: Michael Holtzclaw)
    BMEN intermural soccer team (Photo credit: Michael Holtzclaw)

    engineers do have to interact with people. My class year of biomedical engineering students is about 80 students. Sure, we are all nerds, but never in my life have I met such a bunch of vibrant, brilliant, and sensational people. Our friendship may have begun out of the need for a support system to get through tough classes, but over the past 4 years it has grown into a community whose camaraderie would be difficult to rival. I think of these people as friends first and classmates second. I have learned so many things from them, not just about engineering but about life. I have learned to interact with others on a deeper level and to find common ground with people who I may not have thought I would get along with at first glance.

  2. Don’t base your self-worth on school – We get it, you’re an
    My friend, Haley, and me after running our first half marathon
    My friend, Haley, and me after running our first half marathon

    engineer, you’re brilliant. We all are. I say this not to detract from your intellectual superiority, but to try to get you to recognize the fact that you aren’t alone. You may not need anything but equations to drink and CAD drawings to eat, but I guarantee you there will be a time when those things don’t work anymore. It might be that your final project prototype malfunctioned, or you failed your first electromagnetism exam; regardless of what it is, there will be a time when you don’t make the cut and begin to question your abilities. Don’t sweat it. Take a break. Go for a run, join the department intermural team, or find a club that isn’t engineering related. Your schoolwork will still be there when you get back, trust me. Find something outside of school that makes you happy and don’t neglect it.

  3. Embrace your inner nerd – You aren’t in high school anymore.
    My friend Cameron (also an engineer) examining a model of the brain
    My friend Cameron (also an engineer) examining a model of the brain

    Nerd is no longer the lowest on the social ladder. In fact, nerd is very in right now. Okay, I actually have no idea (does the social ladder even still exist?). It doesn’t really matter though. Part of being an engineer is gaining confidence in who you are and what you know. In your career you will be in meetings with people of many different backgrounds. You have to be able to confidently state your knowledge in the face of pressure from customers and management alike. Being centered as a person is just as important as making sure your calculations are correct. Take time to figure out who you are and to love the person that you discover, because, let’s face it, you’re probably pretty awesome.

  4. Count on that support system – I will be the first to admit that there are times where I broke down and called my mother crying about something that had happened in class. I’m not saying you should do that all of the time, but don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know everything. You’re a smart, tough cookie that is probably used to having all of the answers. It is okay to feel out of your element or scared, that is when you grow the most. You are in college to learn to be an engineer. Life itself is a whole learning process. Succeeding isn’t about knowing everything, it is about being open to learning and being able to accept help from others.
  5. Don’t let fear hold you back – This applies to so many things.
    Standing on a small metal catwalk on top of the Cologne cathedral
    Standing on a small metal catwalk on top of the Cologne cathedral

    Love, life, traveling, speaking up in class…the list goes on. I have found that the experiences that scare me the most are the ones that help me grow the most. Studying abroad for an entire semester and not knowing any German? Scary. Standing in front of 100 professional engineers presenting my research in an international competition? Terrifying.   Yet, so much good came out of these experiences that I cannot imagine who I would be if I had passed these by.

I could go on forever but I think I’ll wrap it up here, I’ve rambled enough as it is. Just remember, you’re not alone, you ARE smart, and for goodness sakes get your butt out of that computer chair and go have some fun.

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