Day 4, Graduate Engineer’s New Job: The Fear

Dear diary, Day four. I really don’t think I am ready for this! John started me on the big project today. He talked through all the areas of the design and worked out a project plan for me. While I was at least familiar with the most of the technical terms he used, I had no real understanding of the systems involved. Definitely not enough understanding to be left alone to solve all the problems involved in integrating these systems into a working design.

A couple of days ago I was given a stern warning to ask questions instead of wasting time on assumptions and mistakes. I don’t think ‘where do I start?’ was a question that would fill my new boss with much confidence. This is cripplingly overwhelming, I genuinely don’t believe I can do it. I am actually starting to feel like a fraud. I didn’t lie on my application or in the interview but I did present an ideal version of myself. I am worried I will be undone and I haven’t even finished my first week.

So many unknowns and questions about these systems I need to work with are spinning around in my head. If I was to start asking John or any of the other engineers all of these questions, well they’d just be as quick doing the project themselves. I decided to list down all the questions and unknowns I had, if for no other reason than to clear my head. That helped although I was further distressed to realise that some of this stuff I should know from university but can’t remember. I should at least know the stuff I studied for three years.

I figured that the next logical thing to do was to just start at the top of my list and try to find answers to all these questions, one at a time. It is a bit like a jigsaw, except that all the pieces have been hidden on you. The biggest question of all is: where do I start looking? At university when we had assignments, projects or exams, you could always be confident that the answers existed somewhere within the course notes. Unfortunately no one has wrote the textbook about how to design this product . . . Or maybe they have, it’s as good a starting point as any.

After a bit of time leafing through some online books, I realised that researching in text books is very time consuming. I was often overwhelmed with the choices in them. Often the information was just too general and missing a key piece of information that I needed to make my decision. Often the information in different textbooks was conflicting. Time to try something else . . . come on Google, my old friend, don’t let me down (other search engines are available).

Well if I thought the information in textbooks was overwhelming, Google takes it to another level. An unknown I was searching for was an equation and method to carry out a particular calculation. I found three different sources, with three different equations to calculate the same thing but coming at it from three different approaches. It is impossible for me to decide which to use without some knowledge and understanding of each approach. I just need an output from an equation, not a PhD.

The biggest fear I found with online searching is that with such a vast amount of information to cipher through, how can I be certain that the answer I settle on is really the right or best answer? What if I have overlooked something? What if the right answer is just on the next page?

This is both frustrating and depressing. How am I supposed to approach complex problems that I have no experience of and make important decisions? It is so difficult to find useful, reliable information to guide decision making.

I am desperate to make progress and prove to John that I can be productive. I did make some slow progress today. If nothing else I figured out what I don’t know, but that isn’t being productive. I fear this will be a slow learning curve and I am worried that John won’t have the patience for that. I feel like I am floundering, I am not sure if I should ask for help and if so, when?


Lessons from day 4

Engineering learning is not about learning lots of facts, equations and theory by heart. It’s about learning a way of thinking. The value engineers take from university is not encyclopaedic knowledge but the skills to quickly define what is unknown, understand what theory is relevant and to solve the problems involved.

Everyone starts out in the same boat, realising that they don’t know anything. It almost feels like you have been cheated by university. Slow and steadily, simply through the process of solving problems, you will develop. One day you will have a similar realisation, but this time you will realise that you now know what you are doing. This is usually the time when most engineers start looking for their next challenge.

Your manager knows that you haven’t learned a lot of industry specifics at university, don’t be afraid to tell them that you need some time or assistance to cover the basics.

The ‘experts’ around you are often not really experts, they are just a half step ahead of everyone else. Most experts have simply learned on the job, as they go, and are only ever just ahead of the curve.

Get a Mentor, this is ideally someone who will give reliable answers to any and all of your questions without judgement, with patience and empathy for your position as a graduate and who will keep your professional development on the right path. Talk to your manager about this, there may be a senior engineer in your team happy to take on this role. If not, look further afield to friends, family or your university. At the very least, join the relevant professional institutions and groups and take advantage of discussion forums.

It can be very easy to fall into a black hole and time disappear very quickly when trying to solve a problem. A good rule of thumb is if you cannot find the solution yourself in less than 20 minutes, ask for help.

Before asking for help however, try to come up with some possible solutions. It is better to ask for confirmation rather than present a blank page and ask someone to do your work for you. Your solution will most likely be partly right therefore less assistance will be required to get you over the line.

Realistically, almost everything you will work on as a graduate engineer will most likely have been done before in some shape or form. There are experts out there for everything.

An often overlooked resource is part and system suppliers who are keenly aware that they have to share expertise to get business.

Don’t let the emotion and overwhelm control you – once you find the first piece of the jigsaw, other pieces start to appear and before long you will come to find that you know a lot more than you think you do.



Coming up, Day 5, Mind Reading – How will our new engineer cope with changing priorities and poor communication

Released today – list of the TOP TEN ENGINEERING KNOWLEDGE RESOURCES is available for download inside our new LinkedIn Group ‘Graduate Engineers Entering Industry’

Feel free to join up, join in the conversation and share your own stories and experiences.

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