Engineering Skills
August 16, 2008 2:52 PM   Subscribe

Engineers: What skills do you use most often that you learned in college or anywhere else?

I'm a college student currently pursuing a mechanical engineering degree (not totally set on mech though), and I wanted to know what skills I was learning that really mattered in the day to day workings of an engineer.
posted by gzimmer to Education (17 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Seriously? Statistics and error analysis/propagation and a good, thorough understanding of how and when to apply each - I still need a better understanding of these areas, and I think most mechanical engineers are woefully underprepared in this regard. I also wish I'd done more programming in college, since writing scripts in the language of your choice to automate horribly repetitive processes will save you tons of time and frustration; furthermore, it's nice to be able to spot and fix the bugs in the in-house software if it affects your work (depends on how your workplace duties are structured, though). These seem like things that are good to have if you go into any science/engineering/business field, though.

As for mechanical engineering specific things - I'd say that [unfortunately?] everything that I would guess you're studying - linear algebra/ODEs/PDEs, statics/dynamics, controls, materials science, fluids, heat/mass transport, the basic EE stuff, technical writing and communication - it all matters. I'm not saying that you should go out and memorize exactly what all your equations look like (you can always look that up in a book), but rather understand how they're derived. That will give you a better understanding and intuition for any system you're looking at, and ensure that you can convey to teammates any technical problems you run into. Honestly, I've been really surprised at how much of my education I've had to use, even if only tangentially.

Good luck with your major! Even if you don't stick with MechE, I like to think that the math, planning, and analytical skills you glean from it make it a really good base for practically anything you want to do after college (although you could say the same thing about most engineering and physical science fields).
posted by universal_qlc at 3:43 PM on August 16, 2008

the social side of working in a team of people. report-making -- both coherent writing and the basics of imparting information via graphics. program/project management.

also, the ability to guesstimate.
posted by rmd1023 at 3:47 PM on August 16, 2008

You'll be amazed at how well some skill with statistics, project management, and writing will serve you.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 3:59 PM on August 16, 2008

This is kinda abstract, but: problem solving. Remember that first time you saw a structures problem and went, "Aw crap, I'll never solve this!" - then you split off the first part as a free body diagram, resolved all the forces, then saw another bit you could tackle, then after a few chunks, it's solved? That's the core skill that mech taught me: resist the urge to freak out at complexity, learn to dig down into a problem, and test each little bit. It takes time, but you generally have plenty of that.

I can barely remember the things I learned in university. I've used basic fluid mass flow, gas laws, some numerical methods, used trigonometry quite a bit, and used calculus precisely twice in the 15 years since leaving university. rmd1023's experience is different from mine - I had zero experience of team work, reporting and communication in my course. It would have been useful.
posted by scruss at 4:18 PM on August 16, 2008

oh, i didn't learn that stuff in my college coursework. it is, however, the stuff i think matters hugely in the day to day employment. so if you can find a way to get it, it'll help you be a better engineer

honestly, doing theater tech work as a teenager gave me a huge leg up in these skills -- it's an incredibly deadline oriented process, where the audience is going to show up and expect something so "not doing it is not an option". scheduling, resource allocation, working under stress, solving problems with the available materials/resources: all of these i learned working theater.

i got a great deal of my day to day "working on an engineering team in an office" experience via my university's co-op program -- i didn't necessarily learn much about electrical engineering on some of those job assignments, but i definitely learned a lot about being an engineer.

and definitely problem solving.
posted by rmd1023 at 4:42 PM on August 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A lot of really good points above. I would like to add: Logic.

Either via a philosophy or a mathematics course, learning the ability to be able to break down statements into their logical components and learning to understand which arguments are true, false, or unknown based is very valuable. I feel like as a consultant, my "gut feelings" are frequently the result of this understanding of logic. It seems simple, but people are only as rational as they're able to be, and a background in logic allows you to be pretty darn rational a lot of the time.

Speaking of which, "bounded rationality" is a very useful concept to understand if you want to be able to manage people in the future.
posted by dobie at 5:34 PM on August 16, 2008

All of them, if you have the wit to use them, plus one you probably don't see yet.

Being able to evaluate integrals is of itself -not- going to be useful daily. Knowing what curves look integrable is of much greater value. Having at your fingertips the formulae for deflection of cantilevers and ends-fixed beams is worth much less than knowing what the -relative- deflection would be if you hve to choose in a design. You prune the decision tree rapidly and efficiently when you can do that.

Hardly any design is going to be closed-form. Knowing when -not- to do an FEA, and why, is of great value (for example, you made a casting quite a bit too thick because it's going to be less trouble, therefore cheaper, than the design-optimized one).

The attribute you're going to get from all your work that you might not see is the ability to gut out the work - when the fun's over and you have something to get finished. You do that by learning to accept pressure and lack of sleep without upsetting your group and without pushing so hard that you begin making panicky mistakes.
posted by jet_silver at 5:46 PM on August 16, 2008

Thinking clearly, handling a hierarchy of abstractions, practice with manipulating information and overall just attacking problems in work and life. (computer/electrical/bio)
posted by zeek321 at 5:53 PM on August 16, 2008

Fellow ME here. I went to the kind of school that prepares you for grad school and teaching more so than working as an engineer, a very high theory to practicality ratio, so please read my comments through that filter. Anyway, I entered the field with a very strong foundation, but knew how to do almost nothing. The first few years are really kind of an apprenticeship, you use your foundation and then use your mentors to learn how real engineers do it. There are many different paths in engineering such that there are no clear paths through engineering school, each job is different. Learn the basics, learn how to learn. One thing that you may not be focusing on, but can come into play in many higher level engineering jobs, economics. Make sure that you get a few of at least the basic econ courses under your belt. Further, don't forget to learn how to write. Hopefully, you learned the basics in high school, and college is your opportunity to improve. Take some history, english, or other courses in which you will write some papers.
posted by caddis at 6:48 PM on August 16, 2008

Not getting into the mindset of "I don't know how to do this". Improvise, research, and find a solution. If one doesn't exist, you may have your name on a patent, and more importantly, people thanking you for the work.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 7:45 PM on August 16, 2008

General problem solving techniques - what are the inputs, the outputs, the knowns, the unknowns, and how do they all relate?

Estimating/ballparking, unit conversion type things - should this load cell be showing 20 mV or 200 mV?

In the real world, no one has to remember the equations, just where to look them up when you need them.

And I definitely wish I had paid better attention in the stats classes I took.
posted by mbd1mbd1 at 7:54 PM on August 16, 2008

Dimensional analysis can be very useful, and I'm always surprised how few of my colleagues are aware of (or at least make use of) the technique. Using this tool gives me a sanity check of the results of my calculations and often helps me detect errors early. More detail here.
posted by harmfulray at 9:43 PM on August 16, 2008

I'll nth the problem solving techniques in general and specifically the ability to estimate like mbd suggests. Somehow, I also credit my engineering education with having a big-picture view instead of always being down in the details. I work with a number of people who frequently can't see the forest for the trees and the ability to take a few steps back really helps.

Digging deep in my brain and recalling random equations and constants comes in handy at the most unusual times, especially considering I don't do that kind of work now.
posted by cabingirl at 9:57 PM on August 16, 2008

I use almost nothing from my undergraduate CSE education.

I use a lot from my high-school and graduate school educations, which were on the whole much better: creative problem solving, order-of-magnitude estimations, the ability to grok an unfamiliar domain quickly, an intuition for what's important and what's not, being able to dive into the details and pop up above them, an understanding of algorithms and their practical applications, ...
posted by zippy at 10:42 PM on August 16, 2008

The skills you end up using will depend on the job you end up doing (obviously).

For example, if you want to write GPS software you'll want to know about programming, signal processing, vector algebra, solving systems of nonlinear equations, and kalman filtering.

On the other hand if you want to get a highly paid job in finance they want you to be 'numerate', maybe with some programming experience.

If you want to work at a small business where there won't be many people above you, you might need project management skills and to be used to interacting with workers on the 'shop floor' - telling them to weld that bit of metal to that one by there. No programming here, but you might need to drive a CAD package.

Some jobs you'll have to negotiate $30,000 deals with industrial robot suppliers, then program those robots yourself. Other jobs you'll draw up a design and e-mail it to China for production and you won't see a robot, let alone buy or control one.

I guess my point is: Most of the things taught in university have some applications. Some things have more applications than others. And the things you'll end up using depend on the jobs you end up taking.

That's my $0.02, anyway.
posted by Mike1024 at 3:11 AM on August 17, 2008

"The skills you end up using will depend on the job you end up doing (obviously)."

That's the key point. From another perspective, by the time you graduate you will have figured out which skill set you are most interested in exercising in your career, and you will likely choose a career that aligns with your interests. As you go through college you will undoubtedly be more interested in some courses than others, and this will play a role in the jobs you apply for.

I have my master's in MechE and have to agree with the others who said things like problem solving and logical skills. I work as a mechanical design engineer because I like the skills that I use in my position. I am usually given some initial higher level requirements from which I will derive more specific requirements that apply to my hardware. I go through the design phase, analysis, manufacturing, and testing which lets me go back and forth between "engineering modes". I like that I don't get stuck doing stress or material problems all day for a year, I get to do technical writing, physical testing, CAD, etc... One of my classmates, on the other hand, has the same degrees as I do but does systems engineering level stuff for satellites, which is focused more on feedback control systems and is a more technical path.

If you really want to be an engineer (and not everybody with a degree in it does), then pay attention during your engineering classes. But don't forget that in the work atmosphere/real world, when you forget the formula you get to look it up and go back and review your class notes/textbook (so take good notes).
posted by kenbennedy at 7:34 AM on August 17, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone for the incredibly helpful advice. I read a job listing for a starting Mechanical Engineer recently and keep a list of the skills that they listed would be helpful:
MATLAB, SIMULINK, NASTRAN, PATRAN, DOORS, CATIA, Canvas Drawing, AUTOCAD, preferably Mechanical Desktop (ie 3D), C++, UNIX, X-windows motif, Web Page Development, PERL, POSIX compliant software

I know it was probably written by some clueless HR person, but l keep it around as a checklist of sorts, slowing working my way through the list of things I should know.

I'd like everyone who responded that I'm now pursuing a Computer Science Minor along with my Mechanical Engineering Major, due in large part to the advice given. Would a CS minor compliment ME well?
posted by gzimmer at 3:10 AM on October 6, 2008

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