What THEY Didn’t Teach Me in Engineering School

I left the University of British Columbia in 1978, so long enough ago that I have only a hazy recollection of the courses, exams, assignments and other hurdles I had to leap over to earn a degree in Geological Engineering. I remember little of what I was taught by THEM, but THEMselves I recall as generally kind folk, often too busy to explain the magic of Linear Algebra, or the weirdness of Nth Disordered Partial Differential Equations. THEY were overworked and professorially remote, and when I asked “What good is this stuff anyhow?”, some would chant the mantra: “You will find this background useful; You will find this background useful; You will find ….:’.

I suspected then that THEY were not telling the truth. Much of the useful background is now long forgotten because it was never usable to me. Background that would have been useful, such as “Lessons in Professional Life”, were rarely presented. Yet, even if there had been such courses, I probably would not have studied hard for them since there were just too many engineering problem sets and term papers to permit me to focus on a subject as fuzzy as Professional Life. Besides, I was told what a fine education I was getting, so what else was there to learn? Eventually, though, I had to teach myself the Lessons THEY never taught me, or I that never learned. I want to share some of them with you here:

THEY told me that entropy was something like dS/dt , that it tended to increase and that it was an important process in physical chemistry, but THEY never warned me that chaos also threatens every engineering geoscience consulting project.

THEY showed me how to draft unlikely projections of mechanical widgits, but not how to prepare a site plan clear enough for a draftsperson to easily redraw.

THEY insisted that I triple-integrate the imaginary component of some mutant killer Ninja equation, and yet I was never told that in the Real world, reconciling a weekly expense report would be as challenging an exercise in math and even more relevant to my checking account.

THEY said that Poisson, LaPlace, and Helmholtz were the names of important scientists whose Laws and Rules and strange symbols I must know in order to graduate, without also tell¬ing me that really important people have names like Smith-Bottomley, Fukuoshi, Arulandaham or Rogoszoliewski, and that they are important because they are living folk like supervisors, colleagues, support staff and clients.

THEY told me that the consulting world was symbolized by the triad of Owner/Architect-Engineer/Contractor and that, as an engineer, I could draw a solid contractual line between myself and the Owner, but was connected to the Contractor only by dashes. As an independent exercise, it was left to me to learn that the Owner/Engineer line was a leash on which the Owner could tug whenever the project ran behind schedule or ahead of budget (either way I had to work overtime…); and that the feeble dashed line between me and the Contractor would not protect me from the burly job site superintendent who could swear at me until I blushed or lost my temper.

THEY did warn me that, as a junior engineer, I could expect to travel a bit and possibly work long hours now and again. THEY got that part very wrong: I’m graying now and don’t expect to stop traveling until I’m silver. The work weeks rarely shortened to 40 hr, but the reward for hundreds of hours of unpaid overtime was not an A+, but a wounded marriage and a bewildering lay-off.

THEY never told me that I should have learned some Spanish, Farsi, Melanesian Pidgin or Clear Written English as well as FORTRAN IV I never needed the computer code, but a smattering of the other languages would have come in useful later in my career.

THEY never warned me that, in order to continue to use a computer, 1 would no longer have to present a pack of punched cards to an impersonal room¬ size majesty, but would have to curse a screen (cursoring?) and struggle hand¬to-keyboard with a vulgar (but personal) computer squatting on my desk.

THEY told us that we were getting a world-class education, that we were the créme-de-la-creme, that we were academically well-equipped and would, like créme, soon rise naturally to the top. Some of my classmates even believed they knew everything about everything, and that if we had not been taught Humility 101, or How To Write A Memo In 10 Minutes, or even The Importance of Listening, then there was not going to be a need for those skills in our careers. THEY really should have taught those courses, because it cost my employers big bucks to teach me later on.

THEY never taught us, despite the rest of the fun and frolic and Forty Beers of school life, the rules for the game of Chutes and Ladders: You may recall the game?: no sooner did you get to the top of the Education Ladder, then you found yourself at the bottom of the Career Lad¬der and you did not effortlessly rise (a la créme), but you had to struggle up rung-by-rung. Or, sadly, like some of my classmates, perhaps you landed on a Chute and discovered that you had graduated into the wrong profession and you started the game over again by enrolling into Business or Law School?

THEY never told me that my five years of technical education was insufficient to last me the rest of my professional life, and that I would have to return to school in mid-life to obtain graduate degrees if I was going to stay ahead of the Class of ’93. And I was never told that, despite completing scores of courses, I still would not be considered a professional engineer in the United States until I had submitted fat applications and endured several days of professional license exams conducted in draughty ballrooms and armories.

THEY told me that when I finished school I would be a professional, which I thought would put me on a par with the attorneys and doctors: I would be well paid and much respected in my community. THEY even arranged for me to receive a roughly faceted Iron Ring, during a moving ceremony called the Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer, which in Canada symbolizes the beginning of an engineer’s professional career. Yet 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 super¬visors and giving colleagues.

So, there was a lot that THEY never taught me at engineering school. It is not their fault, really, since so few of THEM have worked as professionals in the real world. So, rather than beat up on THEM, I plan to join THEM as a fellow teacher. The Lessons of Professional Life is a course that I may be able to teach those students who are listening. But I shall decline any suggestions that I teach anything to do with mutant killer Ninja equations…

This essay was published in the magazines of several of Canada’s Professional Engineering and Geoscience Associations, and in Student Association newsletters in Canada and the United Kingdom. The essay is based on one of the same title which in 1992 won Second Prize in a competition sponsored by Professional Publications Inc., 1250 Fifth Avenue, Belmont, California, 94002-3863.

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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