What I've learnt about engineering through internships

At some point during their degree, engineering students take the opportunity to do at least 12 weeks of work experience in an engineering field of their choice. From my own experience, this can be quite eye-opening. Stepping out of the comfort zone of lectures into the real world is a daunting experience, in the same way that starting uni is a bit nerve-wracking. In my experience, it quickly stopped being daunting and my internship experiences have taught me more about ‘real’ engineering than 5 years of engineering education has.

When I applied to study engineering, I thought I would graduate knowing how everything works. I really thought that I would walk in the door of my first job and be an ‘inventor’. Instead, I felt really overwhelmed and a bit out of my depth. Although the subjects I had taken had given me a broad technical knowledge base as well as specialist knowledge in mechanics and materials engineering through my major, I didn’t feel like the ‘almost engineer’ I thought I was and found some of the technical concepts confusing.The only choice was to get stuck in and figure out what I needed to do to become a real engineer.

Here are the lessons I've learnt:

Lesson 1: Engineering is about logical and imaginative problem solving, not regurgitating the contents of a textbook.
Learning on the job is an important skill whatever your profession, but it’s something especially important to engineers. We’re often hired to solve non-technical problems, such as social ones, and this means that we can’t always rely on textbooks to give us an answer. One of my favourite experiences involved working alongside people in rural Cambodia to solve some of their problems. About 85% of my design was driven by what I learned from them, not from my classes at uni.

Lesson 2: Engineers learn on the job from lots of different people and resources.
Engineering is a team sport, and teamwork can make or break a project. I quickly realised that even the best engineers don’t remember everything that they learnt at university. In fact, the subjects you do at uni are often unrelated to your job! The senior engineers were valued for their ability to break down and solve complex problems systematically and creatively, rather than on how well they remember their 2nd year electronics course.

Lesson 3: Engineers need well developed soft skills, so take every opportunity you can to work in a team as a leader or a follower.
My managers were all great communicators with great people skills. Their ability to encourage people and get their ideas across quickly and simply meant that brainstorming was easy and efficient, our solutions were well thought out and most importantly, the experience was enjoyable.

At ANU we study systems engineering (you can find out more about it here), and this means that the foundations for the skills and confidence needed to succeed in a real engineering job are built in class. Once I realised what real engineers do and what engineering really is, I successfully applied the systems engineering process and teamwork experiences to my job.

My definition of engineering changes with each experience I have, and yours will too. In my opinion, this makes engineering an exciting and rewarding career choice.

Claire

PS. If you'd like to learn more about engineering at ANU, contact us here.

Updated:  8 September 2015/Responsible Officer:  Dean, CECS/Page Contact:  CECS Marketing