Some may criticize me for making engineering look like cupcakes and daisies. I happen to love cupcakes…(just saying). But thats not really the point, is it? The thing is, I started blogging to show what my life as an engineer was really about. So I thought a lot about this the last few days and decided that my critics are right. Dressing engineering up in pink icing isn’t really going to help anyone, right?  I do love my job, but sometimes it can be really, really tough! On the other hand, I can only comment on my experience so far, so how about we take a break from all the cupcakes (what, no more cupcakes!?!) and take a reality check?

How Engineering is NOT Like a Cupcake

You are Back to the Bottom of the Food-Chain

Unless you did a masters, most young engineers will graduate and head straight into their first job. While this is exciting, its also a departure from the lifestyle you enjoyed as a final-year student. By the time graduation comes along, students are pretty comfortable within their faculties. Most of the lecturers know you by name, and due to spending an obscene amount of time on campus, the engineering building is your home, and your classmates your family through tears and sleep-deprived delirium.  Its also likely that you will be involved in some sort of society or organisation and would have worked your way up to a leadership position.

When you start work, you enter a brand new organisation right at the bottom. You have no idea how anything works, there are a ton of new rules you need to become familiar with, and have a structured hierarchy of which you barely scratch the bottom. Its a scary and humbling position to be in that doesn’t afford much of the freedom you grew comfortable with at Uni.

You are Likely to be Sent Out to the Sticks
Well, there is no use denying this one. The majority of engineering firms (mines, utilities, factories etc.) are either on the outskirts of the city or deep into the far regions of nowhere. Whether its the Northern-most territories of Australia, an oil rig off the coast of freezing-cold Norway, or a diamond-mine in the darkest reaches of the Congo, to get real, down-and-dirty field-experience, you will have to leave the city. There are exceptions to this rule of course, and if you go into a consultancy or design firm, you may very well end up in a Sandton office. Regardless, you will have to at least sometimes go out to site to see the environment you’re designing for.

What nobody tells you (or they do but you think you’re so tough that it doesn’t matter to you), this is really difficult. After having lived in beautiful, vibrant cities most of my life, living alone out here does get VERY lonely. On the plus side is that engineers sent to far-out areas mostly earn more, and get great experience that can catapult your career to great heights. Nevertheless, being a woman alone out here day in and day out gets very draining. You really have to learn to be super strong and independent (which isn’t a bad thing).
In the Working World, Everything is Different…and Serious
At University, there is always some way of weaseling out of a sticky situation. If for some reason you really couldn’t get around to finishing that homework assignment, there was a friend to bail you out. Lecturers expected you to be tardy at least some of the time, to fall asleep during class and to distract the room with a loud peal of laughter in the middle of advanced heat transfer (I did none of these things of course! 😉 The environment is relaxed enough for you to know that its unlikely that you would do anything that would get you into real troub;e (apart from failing).

In the working world, you’re afforded a very short ‘grace-period’ before you’re given responsibilities of increasing importance. The work you do will not simply be ‘graded’, but will be directly linked to the pace of your progression through your organization. Its a scary feeling knowing that the things you do will affect real, tangible things and other people. In the beginning there are always going to be people to help you, and the toughest lesson I’ve found is learning to ask for help when you need it!
You are Likely to be Thrown in the Deep End…Alone
Instead of structured design problems with clearly-defined parameters, real-world engineering problems are vague and open ended. You may be given a problem to solve and a hint as to where to find the cause of the problem. Sometimes, the REAL cause has nothing to do with that initial assumption. It can be a little like walking around in the dark. Because you’re new, there is still so much you need to learn to be able to navigate. In the beginning, you basically just feel your way around until you bump into something solid.

You may be given fragmented bits of information to direct you, but its really up to you how you go about getting the rest of the information you need. Knowing what information you need is probably the hardest part of all!  In my (very short) experience so far, information was always there. Stored on somebody’s hard drive, office, or heads…you just needed to figure out who the right person was to talk to.
Ok, so at first engineering isn’t as scrumptious as we all might want it to be, but it is a highly rewarding career. Once you’ve finished running the rat-race and have settled in, life gets a lot easier (or so I’m told). No really, engineering is a field where the hard work you put in are proportional to the benefits you enjoy later on.  It may not be for everyone, but there is so much scope out there to find an aspect of engineering that you will love. I guess you’ll never know unless you take that first bite.

 Ok, I admit. I just wanted an excuse to blog about cupcakes. What?