Your Most Important Classes Had Nothing to Do with Engineering

Dec 29, 2010

by Chad Hymel ASME.org

Why would a website dedicated to promoting mechanical engineering make the claim stated in the title?

Don't all engineers spend hours in the classroom to obtain that hard earned degree in order to get a good job and start a good career? While we as engineers have put long hours into learning engineering concepts and laws, the most important things we'll learn aren't from classes contained within specific engineering curriculums, but within the core curriculums that all engineers take but often don't place much importance in.

This claim, of course, is not being made to downplay the importance of our mechanical engineering classes. These lessons enable us to be the designers and manufacturers in today's society that provide millions of people with the needs and desires of life, such as energy, transportation, and entertainment. Engineering schools provide thousand of graduates each year with the technical background and problem-solving skills that allow each one of us to make a positive contribution to the culture around us.

These are classes we all know and took as students. If you were anything like me, you trudged through them knowing that these classes were a necessary part of the checklist to complete on your way to a degree and a sidelight to real engineering classes. Yet, a few months into any job and you'll realize those classes and the skills they teach are as necessary to your job success as that degree was in getting your first interview.

A Dose of the Real World

When I first started interviewing, I found that the interviewers were not especially interested in my technical knowledge. A few of the interviewers even told me that. They assumed that since I was graduating with a decent GPA, that I had the technical background necessary to be a successful mechanical engineer. What they wanted to know was what type of person I was. Could I communicate plainly? Could I write my thoughts in a clear and concise manner? Was I a team player? Was I a hard worker? These are the skills that make an organization's team successful.

English 101. I'll never forget that at the conclusion of one job interview, the interviewer asked me to write in memo form why I wanted the position. Through the interview process, he knew the reasons why I was interested in the position by the type of questions he asked and my subsequent response. The reason for the assignment was to see if I could communicate by writing what I had just communicated to him verbally.

English wasn't my favorite class. Most math-minded engineers wouldn't claim writing to be their favorite past time either, but yet even in reading this article you've formed opinions about this author, based upon my ability to communicate through what you're reading. In our careers, we'll spend countless hours documenting processes, writing reports, and communicating via email, instant messaging, or other written forms. If you don't have a good understanding of the language and grammar, how can you hope to succeed?

Writing is one of those skills that will get better with practice. Similar to learning to ride a bike where you only get better by hopping on the bike and pedaling, you can only get better at writing by putting yourself in situations where you have to write. If you're a student, volunteer to start the rough drafts for the technical reports due for project/design classes. If you're already in the work place, do the same for project status reports. If you're thinking about going to graduate school, you might even deliberately choose to go into a program with a thesis so that you can gain that extra experience researching and writing.

Speech 101. Job interviews can be one of the most nerve-wracking experiences one will ever have. You have a specified amount of time (sometimes even less than thirty minutes) to make a first impression that will hopefully affect the interviewer enough so that they will consider you in the future. The only way to do this is to make an effective presentation of yourself and your abilities. That is what most speech or public speaking classes are all about.

Speech classes teach you how to organize and present your thoughts coherently, whether it be presenting facts or trying to persuade your audience to your point of view. This doesn't stop with the final test in class, but will continue past presenting your senior design project, defending your thesis, or making a presentation to your future manager or a potential customer. Want a pay raise? You'll have to be persuasive to get it and good presentation skills will help your cause.

Use the skills taught in speech classes. Begin with the end in mind and clearly state the points you want to get across in a clear, logical manner. Stay focused on what you want to say. Don't forget your physical presentation when focusing on your subject presentation. Showing confidence by your posture, demeanor, and even dress can show an audience how important the subject matter is to you and persuade them to think likewise.

Extra Curricular 101. While this isn't a class that will show up on any transcript, it is a classroom in and of itself. Every interviewer will look at extra curricular activities with a keen eye because of what it shows. Participating in extra activities shows an interest in different things, shows that you'll go the extra mile by taking responsibility above and beyond the classroom, and even provides leadership experience. Diversified interests develop a well-rounded employee, the responsibility showed in extra activities portrays one who will get the job done, and leadership skills developed in extra-curricular activities can be applied to specific projects. All these are very attractive to an employer. Even after you've landed your first job, participating in teams outside of your normal scope of work (such as planning the Christmas party) show that you are a contributor to the success of the company and the culture within.

Mechanical engineering can be one of the most rewarding career fields in the job market. However, a well-rounded engineer will enjoy his or her work more and will most likely excel in this environment because of the many skills brought to the workplace. Placing emphasis on all class work, not just the engineering classes, can help nurture and grow a well-rounded engineer.

When I first started interviewing, I found that the interviewers were not especially interested in my technical knowledge.