Log In

Come Join Us!

Are you an
Engineering professional?
Join Eng-Tips Forums!
  • Talk With Other Members
  • Be Notified Of Responses
    To Your Posts
  • Keyword Search
  • One-Click Access To Your
    Favorite Forums
  • Automated Signatures
    On Your Posts
  • Best Of All, It's Free!
  • Students Click Here

*Eng-Tips's functionality depends on members receiving e-mail. By joining you are opting in to receive e-mail.

Posting Guidelines

Promoting, selling, recruiting, coursework and thesis posting is forbidden.

Students Click Here


Thinking Like an Engineer

Thinking Like an Engineer

Thinking Like an Engineer

Hi guys,

I've just joined but I've been lurking on this site for a few years now. I'm sorry if this question has already been answered but I wasn't able to find the response. Also, sorry in advance for the long post.

A little background:

I have a bachelors in ME, a masters in AE, plus a little over three years of work experience at a major company. The problem is that I have little-to-no confidence in my engineering skills/knowledge. That's mainly because I spent my college years more stressed out about passing my classes then learning, which means I crammed for exams, only to forget the material the day after. I figured I would learn through my work experience, however, it so happened that the work I was doing was repetitive and stressful. I'd have multiple tasks in one day with deadlines ranging from a few hours to the next day. I just focused on getting the work done on a timely manner and doing it well. As a result, I didn't learn much but I have improved my time-management and multi-tasking skills.

I did pretty well in college/work because I knew how to use my resources (textbooks, notes, etc), but that doesn't necessarily mean I'm good in engineering. I'm not really expecting to be some kind of engineering genius by now, I know it comes with time. But just comparing myself to my co-workers, those younger than me or with less experience, and friends from college, I feel I am not at the same level. I'm usually the quiet one that just listens in on (and understands) technical meetings but not someone that contributes.

Currently, I'm unemployed and don't feel like I'm qualified for any of the jobs out there even with my education and experience (or lack thereof). I decided to open up my books from college and try to understand the subjects at my own pace but I realized they're mainly all equations and derivations of equations that I can look up anytime I need to. (I think I sold/gave away and never got back books that had all the good stuff i.e. theories, applications, etc) I am also constantly reading engineering magazines to learn new stuff. None of it seems to be working since I think I'm more of a hands-on learner than anything else.

So my questions are:
Has this ever happened to anyone else? Is the "engineering intuition" (for lack of a better word) that I'm hoping to achieve something that comes with experience and education or is it an innate characteristic of an engineer?


RE: Thinking Like an Engineer

Has it happened to anyone else?  Of course not.  We all came out of school knowing everything we needed to know to practice engineering.  We didn't need to get into the repetition of doing those mundane daily tasks and meeting those deadlines.  We already knew everything, so one repetition was plenty.  After all, each project is just like the last one, so the same solutions always apply to all projects.

Get real and chill!  We've all been through this to some degree.  Some more than others.  Confidence comes with success.  Success comes with learning from the things you do right and especially the things you do wrong.  I can assure your I only learned a small fraction of what I know (which still isn't enough...even after 30+ years)while I was in school.  Open your eyes.  Listen to those who've been around.  Listen to the people in the field.

An engineering education is simply a good foundation.  It teaches you to think. It teaches you to be resourceful and to be able to apply basic engineering principles to the solution of problems.  Solving problems is not simply solving equations.  That can be a part of it, but you have to see the forest, not just the trees.

Some engineers never achieve the confidence they need to present themselves and their works to others.  Those engineers are often the ones relegated to the mundane, repetitive tasks...they are not asked to stretch, just to produce.

You have to decide which type of engineer you want to be, then jump in and start swimming or sit on the side of the pool and dangle your feet in the water.  Your choice.

RE: Thinking Like an Engineer

To add to Ron's excellent advice, if you've really learned to use resources then you are a long ways toward proficiency.  I got out of college 31 years ago, and I've learned more in the last month (I'm putting together a week long course on everything I think a Field Facilities Engineer needs to know in upstream gas operations) than I learned in the last 25 years.  I've found that MANY of the assumptions that I relied upon were just plain wrong.  That many of the equations I used violated most of the assumptions underlying the equations.  But in 31 years I never got anyone hurt by my ineptitude (which I'm just now learning the magnitude of), and all of my projects ended up meeting their technical goals (many didn't meet economic goals, but the technology was sound).  So maybe I wasn't as dangerous and worthless as I've been thinking I was.  

For my entire career I've had tons of confidence, and few people ever had the nads to question my technical pronouncements, but I wasn't as good as I should have been.  Luckily I'm discovering most of these shortcommings long after the fact.

When I was in graduate school (13 years after my undergraduate graduation) they kept putting concepts in front of us and I would have the feeling "I remember having known that".  Then I found that if I knew it once, it was pretty easy to re-learn it.  I bet you find that you learned more in university than you think you did.


RE: Thinking Like an Engineer

Self-assigned projects are good, especially when you're frustrated with you current job, or laid off. I made an almost successful heat pipe, and learned a lot from the project. To estimate the length of copper pipe to be bent into a curved truncone spiral, I cooked up crazy path integral and worked it through on the first try, fell off my ass when error when error was <20%. I have yet to use calculus as this level on the job, nor had I found a way to use the little d's and big S on the job at all. It gives you something to talk about in the interview as well.

I took a course in solar panel installation & array design. Missed a series of building performance institute courses that would've been free.

Not me but cool:

I've had  a good few months at work, lots of rack, tooling & fixture design. Seemed like more good design than all of my last job.

Pursue & achieve a qualification. CSWA or CSWP if you have access to SWX.

Check w/ your state's office of professional licensing, the deadline for the october FE exam may not have passed for you.

Studying for the FE exam kept me from going off the deep end as I started my second year of being laid off. It gave me good confidence, and developed my skills in posing a problem, using the facts at hand, and putting the applicable theory or math into a soluble form. A solid performance on the exam did me good as well.

Volunteer yourself, local habitat for humanity or engineers w/o borders.

Local employment & training center had a job feed straight from the dept. of labor, before they were advertised. A good professional networking & peer support group as well.

Finally as far as being laid off, people will ask you how the vacation's going, but you'll know better. Try not to hurt anyone when they ask, makes it harder to get back into work.

RE: Thinking Like an Engineer

Geez, David...we've been behind the same curtain all these years!  Only difference is you could blow things up and I could make them fall down.

I could write a book about what I don't know!


RE: Thinking Like an Engineer

It turns out that that is what I'm doing.  It is a humbiling experinence.


RE: Thinking Like an Engineer

I'd also recommend taking some courses at your local community college in machining, CNC, welding, electronics.. you get the idea.

In learning to "think like an engineer", there's a lot that the shop will teach you that the textbooks will not.

RE: Thinking Like an Engineer

I used to learn about gadgets by tearing them down to their parts.  Do the same with any problem you have to solve.

RE: Thinking Like an Engineer

Hey Tick...I did the same...only to find out I couldn't get them back together, sometimes!

RE: Thinking Like an Engineer

What's worse is to get it back together, but have one part still in front of you to install.

Mike McCann
MMC Engineering
Motto:  KISS
Motivation:  Don't ask

RE: Thinking Like an Engineer


I did pretty well in college/work because I knew how to use my resources (textbooks, notes, etc), but that doesn't necessarily mean I'm good in engineering.  I'm not really expecting to be some kind of engineering genius by now, I know it comes with time.  But just comparing myself to my co-workers, those younger than me or with less experience, and friends from college, I feel I am not at the same level.  I'm usually the quiet one that just listens in on (and understands) technical meetings but not someone that contributes.

It took you what, 4 yrs + 2 yrs to be a "masters" in AE?  You've worked for only what, 3 yrs?  You should ask again in about 3 yrs.  No expects that everyone behave the same, or solve problems the same way.  If that were the case, "they" would need way fewer of us, and "they" wouldn't wonder why they can't get a "one-sze fits all product."  

If you meet all your deadlines with solid solutions, then you are, by definition, a "good" engineer.  Whether you can be a "better" engineer depends on whether your solutions could have better, or quicker, and whether you can overcome what appears to be primarily a fear of public speaking.  

So, since you have down time, it would seem to be a good opportunity to try out something like Toastmasters, and work on being able to speak extemporaneously.  Perception of "goodness" is often simply driven by the ability to talk and discuss problems with others or in public.

Additionally, working on potential work-related problems sounds like a good idea as well.  Are you lacking tools/calculations that could have made your job easier?


FAQ731-376: Eng-Tips.com Forum Policies
Chinese prisoner wins Nobel Peace Prize

RE: Thinking Like an Engineer

When someone tells you to "think outside the box", scoff with derision.  Tell them the first thing they need to do is measure the box, then see what is inside the box.  Most solutions come from inside the box, but are not discovered because folks never look.

RE: Thinking Like an Engineer

Thanks a lot guys for all the helpful responses and suggestions!

@Ron - You're right about those that don't have the confidence to present themselves are the ones stuck with the repetitive and mundane jobs. I guess that's exactly what happened to me. I thought by being able to finish X amounts of tasks in one day (with the highest quality) would show my manager that I'm a hard worker and dedicated. I was expecting that I would be given more challenging projects and even asked him several times if there are other projects I can work on. However, I was always passed over and the projects would go to new hires or the interns. One co-manager was ready to get me started on some bigger projects, but, unfortunately, he left the company a few months later. I definitely need to jump in and start swimming.

@David - I think my lack of confidence comes partially from the fear of being wrong. I know everyone makes mistakes (most probably will never stop making them) and that there will always be people around to check your work. I guess as long as I learn from them and don't make them again, I shouldn't worry about it too much. You're right, I probably did learn quite a bit of stuff in college, I just don't remember it all and re-learning will be required.

@moon161 and justkeepgiviner - I was actually looking into taking some classes at the local community college and getting some certification. It would be great if I could find some shop classes. I'm on the fence about EIT/FE license but it probably wouldn't hurt to go for it.

@TheTick - I love taking stuff apart and putting them back together, but am rarely successful. The last thing I took apart was a partially broken luggage scale. After putting it back together it completely stopped working.

@IRstuff - It's interesting how you bought up "fear of public speaking". I'm pretty sure that's not it because I've done plenty of presentations without any problems and never hesitate to ask questions no matter how unintelligent they might be. It just takes me more time to figure out how to go about solving a problem or coming up with question that would lead to the solution than the average person. But once I know how, I do it pretty easily. I think if my deadlines weren't so tight (if I had more time) I would definitely have learned a lot more from my previous job and it would have been easier.

RE: Thinking Like an Engineer

@msquared48 - happens to me more than it should, unfortunately...

RE: Thinking Like an Engineer

Hmmm... Unfortunately, time is almost invariably of the essence, so timely solutions are going to be in your future, and also.  You can, however, in your down time, try to codify what you've done for various problems.  As in the case of Genrich Altshuller and TRIZ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TRIZ), solutions for the majority of problems encountered every day, fall into specific classes of solutions.  

Altshuller basically categorized thousands of patents and determined that the solutions fell into 40 inventive principles for solving conflicts between 39 system features.  So, hypothetically, if one were adequately versed in the inventive principles and system features, one can solve most problems one is likely to encounter.  This is the "box" that was previously suggested by someone that needed bounding.

While TRIZ often gets bad press, and I'm not necessarily a big proponent of it, the concept of systematically going through a complete and exhaustive set of solution spaces certainly has an appeal for me.  You might at least read what's available and see if anything resonates with you; you might just find that you actually have all the solutions available and known to you already, you just didn't know it.



FAQ731-376: Eng-Tips.com Forum Policies
Chinese prisoner wins Nobel Peace Prize

RE: Thinking Like an Engineer


I think everyone goes through this self-doubt to some extent.  Engineering is suh a vast field, there is no way that one can be expected to be proficient with schooling alone.  As somone said above, school teaches you how to think but the real education comes later and it never ends.  I'm still learning and at times feel I do not know enough.

I think your attempt to review past text books and read trade magazines is an excellent idea.  From the text books, just make sure you have a good understanding of the bascis (energy balance, free-body diagrams, etc.).  I wouldn't worry too much about the details.  You've learned it once and just because it is not at the forefront of your mind, doesn't mean that the knowledge is gone.

In my experience, the single most important quality is desire.  If you have the desire to learn and improve yourself, you will be fine in your next job.  

Finally, it is not uncommon for people to feel that those around them are more knowledgable.  That may be the case in certain topics or within some limitation.  But keep this mind: No one knows as much as you think they do.  That is, people usually ascribe more knoweldge to others due to their own feelings of insecurity.  

Good luck!

How to Find, Get and Keep an Engineering Job

RE: Thinking Like an Engineer

To some extent, I think to be successful in a technical career path, you need to have a knack for that kind of work.  I can relate to your experience only a little because I came out of school having more confidence in my technical abilities.  In the beginning of college I struggled a bit as well and had doubts I would even graduate let alone find a job if I did graduate.  Then it all kind of clicked for me and I had a much easier time through the rest of school and in the working world.  There were still plenty of challenges and obstacles, but a solid foundation in math and physics have gone quite a long way.  I have done technical and R&D work for the bulk of my career.  This is the type of work that I love.  But it does not mean I am an instant expert at everything, and I too rely heavily on my textbooks.  Some of what we learn in school is very intensive and if not used, is forgotton quickly.  I know what I know and I would probably be considered an expert in my field, but I couldn't tell you what the truth table for an OR gate is without having to look it up in a book. That doesn't make me any less of an engineer for forgetting something that I learned in school almost 20 years ago.

Technical knowledge is not important in every engineering job.  If you don't have strong technical skills you probably won't end up working in R&D, but that doesn't mean you can't be a good engineer.  The world needs sustaining engineers,components engineers, project engineers, and managers too.  Not trying to imply that these other jobs are for dummies, just that they rely on different skill sets that are not necessarrily technical.  In a practical sense, my advice is not to try and fit a square peg into a round hole.  If your technical skills are not sharp, don't try to force yourself down a technical career path. Instead, try and figure out what you can do well, and follow that career path.

In my current role I have been been shifted more toward a project management role.  I am the first to admit that I am not very good at it.  I am okay, but that is about it.  I don't fret over it though and I don't feel like I am less of an engineer because of it.  I also have little motivation to expend any effort to try and get better at it.  I am satisfied to just be competent enough to get by.  Why?  Because I absolutely do not like project work and I want to get back to the technical side as soon as I can.  Both the technical side and the project side have challenges, but they typically require different skill sets.  I am a technical guy, it's who I am and I don't beat myself up over who I am not.

RE: Thinking Like an Engineer

Sounds like you are already on the path to success. Being quiet, listening more and talking less have resulted in my success and promotion within engineering ranks in my company.

Sit back in your next meeting and listen to what people with under 5 years experience are saying, and you'll realize that 80% of what people are saying is obvious to everyone else in the room. Due to to ABET cirriculums, most have common knowledge. Engineers talk a lot, to one-up the other guy and be viewed as a contributor. But managers value people who only contribute when they have something novel to say.

In my company, you rise in the engineering ranks by thinking up new products, getting patents, knowing how to manage customer expectations, and having a global business perspective. Things like equations don't have to be in memory, you can look those up. The detail work has been commoditized by the rise of cheap engineering labor in Asia, where the company can find a PhD to do the calculations for 1/3 your salary. To be successful in the West today, you need to remove yourself from task-based thinking, focus on possibilities for new products, and only chime in when you have something sage or novel to say. Sounds like you have that concept now, so go forward with confidence.

RE: Thinking Like an Engineer

EIT has mixed recognition. In interviews people have said 'wow, that's the hard part' (a PE) and also looked back at me like I had 2 heads when I explained the process.

As far as going through the process, it was quite worth it.  

RE: Thinking Like an Engineer

This is just a case of serious 'self-doubt'. The only thing you need is someone telling you that you have done a good job. But with a Masters in AE (specialization), pats on the back don't come that easy. Just continue reading those engineering books! Engineering is always like that. You'll always apply less of the things you learnt in college.

RE: Thinking Like an Engineer

It takes, on average, about 10 years for engineers to "come into their own."  I read that somewhere many years ago.  My observations make that time frame very believable.

I had a manager tell me repeatedly, and confidently so, that I needed to work "smarter" not "harder."  I finally asked him what he meant by that.  He didn't know!  And he had about twice the experience as me.  His manager told him that in a review.  He thought it sounded good so that's what he told me, as one of his subordinates.  I am very glad I called him on it.

Just because others make statements that sound full of confidence does not mean there is always substance to that confidence.  We are all trying to figure it out.  Cut yourself some slack and enjoy what you do know and can do.  The rest will come, as they others have pointed out.

RE: Thinking Like an Engineer

Funny to see folks talking about taking things apart and putting them back together and finding spare parts.

My first carrier was as an airplane mechanic.   Certified school to be eligible to test was trade school, 18 months 4 hrs class per day and 4 hrs shop.

One rule in the engine overhaul class (teardown, reassemble and make power on working 7 cylinder radial engines) was that no one was allowed to run small parts back together to remember where they came from.

It was inefficient, it involved wasted steps.  Everything was kept in parts trays for cleaning and inspection.

Last time I changed the clutch in a transverse engine front wheel drive car, I had engine out, front end suspension apart etc.  Even after I stopped working as a mechanic for years, I could still get it all back together without a single missing or spare part.  

The neighbor that lent me his driveway and engine hoist was amazed. You can learn efficient organization for stuff like that.

The other thing Mad Dog McCormick taught us in that class was about dropping parts.  If a piston wrist pin hit the deck, the entire room drew a breath.

Even though he didn't say anything, he watched out of the corner of his eye.

You lost a couple points for dropping a part if he caught it.

If you slipped it back into a parts tray without carefully inspecting it for damage first, he nailed you.

RE: Thinking Like an Engineer

To post a little more on topic.

I've always done support engineering.  The way I see it, engineering training develops applied physics from an analytical perspective.

Tradesman training is empirically based. They climb on the machine daily (aircraft), learn where everything is, it physical idiosyncrasies etc.  We need those guys.

They probably cannot tell you what the strength of an assembly will be.

In an electrical system, they might not be able to work out the math involved for current analysis or substitute components.

The will know where to lay their hands on the stuff and how to operate it.

It all works best when both groups recognize their value and their limitations, because you need both, and usually one cannot do the others job.

I used to prove it to them by challenging them to solve a simple wheatstone bridge for currents.  Most techs learned V=I*R, but until you know how to set the problem up as a series of 3 linear equations with 3 unknowns, you can't come up good value.

Clickster, my point is that you probably bring a lot more to the table than you realize. A lot of it is getting comfortable in your own skin in a new environment.  Just do it, dude.


RE: Thinking Like an Engineer

"I have a bachelors in ME, a masters in AE, plus a little over three years of work experience at a major company.  The problem is that I have little-to-no confidence in my engineering skills/knowledge.  "

I graduated 20+ years ago with much the same degree(s).  Spent 2 years in a "major company", then moved to a smaller company.  My workload and responsibilities both increased, and I found myself picking up a few of my old texts a bit more often, as more and stranger problems came my way...and as superiors found that I was able to solve some of them.  That's pretty much been the pattern through my career - a steady migration to smaller and smaller companies, with more and more responsibilites being tacked on.  But, more and more control over what I do.  And more fun projects to work on.  Oh, and leaving the aero world for commercial product mechanical design; aero/defense sounds sexy until you've been there awhile and realize what a beaurucratic morass it really is.  Takes years and years to adopt and qualify new technology, so that you have fighter pilots buying commercial automotive radar detectors, and Marine sergeants buying commmerical handheld GPS receivers, prior to going overseas in Gulf War #1.

"I feel I am not at the same level.  I'm usually the quiet one that just listens in on (and understands) technical meetings but not someone that contributes."

Good for you.  Lots of alligator mouth and hummingbird arses out there.  Be the one who only chimes in with good input (I calculated this, and respectfully suggest we increase the thickness of that web to improve the structural resonances, blah blah blah).

"(old text books) I realized they're mainly all equations and derivations of equations that I can look up anytime I need to.  "

Yup, some of those texts that I'd sold I had to go humbly re-acquire.  As a MS student, I thought I'd never need to know how to calculate Bessel functions, and naturally one of the first problems I ever worked on used them in all of their hateful glory.  No, it's not about knowing how to do it from scratch, but it is about recognizing when to apply the different tools, and where to find the tools when you need them. (which book to pick up).

Lots of other good advice above, from EIT and community-college courses, to volunteer work, to projects.  Lots of good online collaborative project stuff goes begging for people to run simple calcs.  A few email posts and suddenly you are their chief engineer.

RE: Thinking Like an Engineer

When I had 3 years of experience I thought I knew a lot more than I actually did.

In engineering you never stop learning, and expecting to have the judgement after 3 years is a little ambitious for most people.

Red Flag This Post

Please let us know here why this post is inappropriate. Reasons such as off-topic, duplicates, flames, illegal, vulgar, or students posting their homework.

Red Flag Submitted

Thank you for helping keep Eng-Tips Forums free from inappropriate posts.
The Eng-Tips staff will check this out and take appropriate action.

Reply To This Thread

Posting in the Eng-Tips forums is a member-only feature.

Click Here to join Eng-Tips and talk with other members!


Close Box

Join Eng-Tips® Today!

Join your peers on the Internet's largest technical engineering professional community.
It's easy to join and it's free.

Here's Why Members Love Eng-Tips Forums:

Register now while it's still free!

Already a member? Close this window and log in.

Join Us             Close