What THEY Didn’t Teach GAR at Engineering School

In 1992 I wrote an essay: What THEY Didn’t Teach Me in Engineering School. Just this week I found a 1995 letter from my dearest and best friend, Dr. Gretchen A. Rau, PE, in which she gave me her own thoughts on both my essay and her own experiences as a woman engineer in the 1980’s.

I admired Gretchen’s thoughts in 1995, and I admire them now. I have Dr. Rau’s permission to share her thoughts, although she tells me that she no longer is the person she was in the 1980’s, nor even the woman she was in 1995. She also feels as though some of her reflection has some ’80’s feminist thinking — she is not sure now that anyone expects women to take notes or get coffee if they’re a professional.



The part from your essay that rings the most for me is thus: “I was not taught that professionalism would come as slowly as the shiny smoothness of my Iron Ring, and that I couldn’t cram for it but had to learn it from patient mentors, demanding employers, burly construction supervisors, and giving colleagues”. There may be some things that aren’t taught in engineering school that should be — but I suspect that the saying “youth is wasted on youth” is true, and that a lot of what we know now we could only have learn by counting the years, even if it WOULD have benefited us tremendously back then. I have been thinking back to the golden days when I was green, and not knowing whether I wasn’t getting respect on the jobsite because I was female, because I was inexperienced, or because I was unconfident. Of course it was all three! And how much of experience or confidence could my academic training have realistically have given me, even with the best and wisest of teachers?

BUT what is missing from engineering school IS a class in professionalism, I agree with you. And they should also teach students to be more well-¬¨rounded, whole people. And I also believe that a serious hole in the academic curriculum for engineers, something that I still think I’m missing, is a class in how what we do fits in with the political agenda of the localities, nations, or earth we believe we are serving, and how to evaluate whether the projects we build actually meet their objectives, and whether those objectives are worthwhile. So both Dennis and Yapa have brought valuable insight into our qeotech program with these ideas they have proposed.

Here are some random thoughts:

What THEY didn’t teach me in engineering school:

THEY lead me to believe that when I started working, my company would place a protective arm around me, leading me through the ins and outs of the profession, exposing me to increasingly more difficult tasks, requiring more leadership skills, as I was ready for them. THEY didn’t tell me that engineering professionals are often so overworked, and the projects so behind schedule and over budget, that my supervisors would not have time to give me advice to teach me the things I didn’t learn in college. THEY didn’t tell me that I would sometimes be thrown to the wolves on a project, in over my head, left to figure things out for myself while desperately trying not to let the contractor or superintendent or CLIENT suspect that I didn’t really know what I was doing.

THEY tried to tell me that employers are more concerned about communication skills than whether I had the top grades in my class. They were partly right; the grades help to set you apart in the hiring process, but once on the job, success is often defined by communication skills: not necessarily who can write an effective memo or report without misspelling or botching the english language, but also who can be a great diplomat in the most varied of situations.

THEY had lead me to believe that engineering was a noble profession and that engineers were unpretentious and straight¬¨forward; but like most other professions, success is still defined by who can fit in, who can make conversation and put at ease such varied people as the boss, the secretary, the client, the job superintendent, the concrete drone, the architect, and the local building official. Consulting is a business. The successful engineer makes the company money. Money and projects come through successful networking. The stereotypical image of an engineering nerd doesn’t fit with the successful engineer in business that nerdy guy or gal often gets stuck in the office running calculations forever rather than being made project manager.

THEY told funny stories about litigation in engineering, but THEY didn’t tell me that my first day on the job I would meet with the company’s lawyer, who would explain the format and wording of our standard contract, and who would instruct me on the proper things to say and not say to anyone I might meet outside the firm.

THEY didn’t tell me that while knowing computer languages might get me the dubious job of chief of computer maintenance and software acquisition, the language I really needed to know was double-speak: “significantly reduces the potential for” replaces “prevents”; “in accordance with the standards of practice” replaces “state-of-the-art” or even “good engineering design”; and the extra clauses abounded: “subject to verification in the field by a representative of this firm”, “as long as conditions do not significantly deviate from those indicated in the test borings”, etc.

THEY didn’t tell me that the economy would affect the amount of appreciation that my company could show me. Rather than a hefty bonus at holiday time, there would be a shortage of work, and a subtle implication that the dedicated and deserving engineer was one who worked overtime without billing the project, because the project was under-budgeted, because that was the only way to compete with other firms. (I agree with your conclusion about effects on family life — how can anyone have a personal life when there is so much pressure to be at the office all the time?)

THEY warned me that female engineers sometimes are given a hard time on construction sites by the contractor, but THEY only had a limited understanding of what this was about because none of THEM were female.

THEY never had experienced being accused of taking a man’s job, never had someone joke that if a test didn’t pass, perhaps they’d be taken into the woods and raped, never had to endure the humiliation of having to call the male boss to the site to insist that they were the representative of the firm and that their decisions were valid.

THEY never warned me that some of the worst (because insidious and unprovable) sexism would come from colleagues, none of whom ever made vulgar suggestions to me but who sometimes called me ‘dear’ and acted like I was the little girl down the street rather than a respected colleague.

THEY never told me that some of the most awkward moments in professional life would be worrying over little things like whether I would be asked, because I am a female, to bring a dish to the potluck, or take notes at a meeting.

THEY never told me that I would constantly wonder about the motivations behind people’s comments, whether I was being paid as much as the guy that just got hired, whether I would be asked to lunch with the guys, whether it hurt my career that I didn’t play golf or know who won the Superbowl.

What THEY DID teach me in engineering school:

THEY gave me the basic fundamentals of mechanics, physics, chemistry, materials, and mathematics … much of which I have never used directly, but which I know lurks like an unseen foundation on which I have built a context for my understanding of how things are built and what makes a successful design.

In graduate school, THEY gave me a more complete understanding of how my favorite material (soil) behaves, and why. This allowed me to tackle the technical part of my professional job with much more sophistication, and gave me the insight necessary to categorize special problems more accurately, and find solutions.

In graduate school, many of THEM had been hired as consultants on complex engineering projects, and THEY shared many of their insights from these experiences with me. THEY showed themselves to be caring people, involved in their profession, and genuinely interested in making sure I was equipped with what I needed to know. THEY made a great effort to show examples from real life, making class projects realistic, sometimes even discussing the cost of certain tests or the political issues that made certain projects difficult.

About Ed Medley

Ed Medley has been on a random walk for over 50 years. Many scribbles and snapshots at this site are from his vagabond transits; others are from his decades of international experience in geological and geotechnical engineering, academia, and mineral exploration prospecting.
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