20 Tips for Engineering Students

The article below appeared on ElectricalEngineeringSchools.org and was written blogger Marcus O’Brien. We have posted this before but feel it is worth posting again! Very quickly, Mr. O’Brien gives great advice for any engineering student (not just EE’s). Those of you who are Juniors, Seniors or Grad Students will wish you had seen this advice as first-years or sophomores, but there’s always time to act on the tips!

20 Tips for Engineering Students

Getting your engineering degree is a ticket to rewarding careers, and sometimes a handsome paycheck. But before you enter the field as a professional engineer, some serious studying, a few late nights, and a few tips to get you through your first year are in order.

Tip #1: Take good notes, and keep them all after your classes are over.

Engineering textbooks can be dense, but endure through the tedium. Do your reading – all of it – and keep a highlighter and page markers handy. After the class is over, keep your most useful and well-written textbooks as reference. Your notes, annotations, and highlighting will be invaluable later on. You may even want to keep a “Rules of Thumb” notebook, allowing you quick access to your most-used formulas.

Tip #2: Get to know your professors.

Develop a relationship with your professors so you feel comfortable approaching them and asking for help. Get to know one or two key professors particularly well, and turn to them for help with your homework, insight into the industry, and even job or program references.

Tip #3: Ask questions, both in class and out.

Your professors want you to learn. But if the only thing you ever ask is, “Will this be on the test?” then you are not taking advantage of their knowledge or willingness to help. Ask for additional examples to clarify difficult equations and concepts. More often than not, your fellow students will thank you for speaking up, and your professor will appreciate your active investment in the material.

Tip #4: Try to solve a problem before asking for help.

No one wants to do your homework for you. You’ll be more likely to get help if you’ve already begun the effort. Even if you’re totally lost, make a legitimate, prolonged effort to solve a problem before asking for help. When you do seek help, be prepared to discuss what you tried already, and bring your scratch paper showing your attempts.

Tip #5: Form a study group.

Working alone can get exasperating if you find yourself stuck on a problem. Working with others will not only introduce other viewpoints to approaching a problem, it will also provide encouragement and camaraderie in the face of frustration.

Tip #6: Teach someone else.

One of the most effective ways of ensuring you understand something is by explaining it to someone else. Before you move past a subject, make sure you not only answered the question but also can replicate and explain the process. Each new subject and concept will build on the last, so don’t move on until you’ve mastered each new idea.

Tip #7: Diversify your engineering classes.

Take classes in all sorts of engineering, even if they are not your concentration. Understanding not only the subject matter but also how other types of engineers approach and solve problems, will lend insight into your own field, from biomedical to mechatronics and robotics to chemical to environmental engineering and beyond.

Tip #8: Take classes outside engineering, particularly design classes.

The most successful engineers are insatiable learners, so seek to broaden your skill set generally. A design class can teach you how to represent information visually and how to talk about an idea from a big picture perspective. A writing class can hone your skills for communicating your ideas to others. A business class can prepare you for organizational tasks and leadership roles later in your career.

Tip #9: Hone your communication skills, including conversation, writing, and presentation.

The best and most innovative ideas in the world have no hope of growing past the drawing board if you are unable to communicate them effectively. And today, most technical communication between team members and leadership happens over email, which is a form of writing. Learn to present an argument simply and without agenda, and always read your emails through once or twice before sending.

Tip #10: Learn another language.

Engineering knows no political or cultural borders; engineers are in demand everywhere in the world. Increase your worth by becoming proficient in another language, and don’t be afraid to think of your career on a global level. Want to build bridges in China? You should learn Mandarin.

Tip #11: Build your portfolio.

Participate in as many hands-on projects as possible, especially those outside the classroom. Future employers look for both coursework and relevant experience, and a well-organized and articulate portfolio will be invaluable during your job search. Your practical project experience will also reinforce the “in theory” knowledge you gain in class.

Tip #12: Get a summer internship.

One of the best portfolio building blocks is the summer internship. Internships do more than build your resume; they demonstrate to potential employers that you can commit to a long-term role and work as part of a team. As a student, it is never too early to start your  career

Tip #13: Build your network.

Do not wait until you need a job to start building professional relationships. In addition to getting to know your professors and peers, attend extracurricular lectures, workshops, and networking events, and get to know as many people working or studying in your field as possible. Take a genuine interest in the work of others, ask lots of questions, and don’t be afraid to seek guidance or advice from those of advanced experience. They were once neophyte engineers too!

Tip #14: Scour the resources of professional engineering associations and companies.

Professional engineering associations, such as the National Society of Professional Engineers, are an invaluable resource for jobs, advice, and networking. Identify organizations that share your values and interests, and make as many contacts as possible.

Tip #15: Skip the honors class.

In the engineering field, your GPA matters. If you struggle in calculus, don’t kill yourself in Honors Calc; take the easier class, learn the material thoroughly, and take a higher grade.

Tip #16: Learn when to lead and when to back down.

Engineers often work in teams, and every team has one or more leaders. You should feel comfortable in both leading and following the directions of others. Hone your leadership skills and learn how to effectively influence group decisions, but recognize when your contribution should be to take orders and follow directions.

Tip #17: Work on the problem before the team meets.

The best results occur when a group discusses ideas that have already been fleshed out by individual members. Learn to do your own work and self-motivate. Always arrive at the team meeting with ideas in mind.

Tip #18: Be a perfectionist.

In the words of one engineer, “In the working engineer world, a 99% correct product can cost millions of dollars in damages.” Adopt the mindset of practicing something until it is perfect, as opposed to going as quickly as possible and settling for a B. When your work is 100%, even if it is slower, it is valuable.

Tip #19: Identify your inspiration.

What made you decide to study engineering? Who do you look up to in your chosen field? Learn about how individuals and companies have sought and found success, and replicate their behaviors. For new inspiration, check out these electrical engineering resources.

Tip #20: Take heart and persevere.

Engineering is a difficult course of study for everyone, no matter their IQ or test scores. Frustration can lead to feeling like an imposter. Every future engineer has struggled through seemingly impossible problem sets, cranky professors, and gut-wrenching exams. In the face of inevitable small failures, recognize that you are challenging yourself like never before, and push on through the difficult experiences.

By Robin Kahan
Robin Kahan Associate Director, Engineering Career Services