Ideas in Motion

Making the Transition: Student to Working Mechanical Engineer

Dec 4, 2018 12:52:38 AM

In the first couple of years of academic life, mechanical engineering students are focused on gaining a scientific understanding of the universe. They will typically study physics, calculus, thermos dynamics, fluids, etc., and then transition to the practical application of the principles they learned by gaining skills in various disciplines like material science, CAD and the basics of design. All the study culminates with a capstone project that helps them begin to move from theory to practical application. It is a stepping stone toward becoming a professional engineer. They apply what they learned to the process of ideation, prototyping, and building something in the real world, and if they are successful they graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering.


Graduation is the halfway point toward becoming a professional engineer. During the second half of the journey a newly graduated engineer works under the supervision of a licensed engineer for a minimum of four years and must pass two rigorous exams. The process models ancient apprenticeship programs and is a proven way of ensuring a new engineer has a firm grasp of not only the concepts but the real-world application of them.


Working engineers move beyond the theory of good design and begin to learn the ‘soft skills’ of creating something for the marketplace. They now must consider time, manufacturability, material cost, tradeoffs and risk analysis. It is a much more complicated set of variables, many of which that are not pure design decisions, and these are on top of the need to create a safe, working end product.


Working engineers must adapt a new mind set. Below are four tips to help ease the transition from student to working engineer:

  1. Keep it simple. It may sound trite, but overly complex designs are the bane of manufacturing. “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Antoine de Saint-Exupery
  1. Business is not academia. Your time is not your own and you will always have competing priorities—managers, co-workers and customers all have demands on your time. You must learn to discern what is important, when to say no and when to focus with every fiber of your being. The world if filled with failed engineers who were smart and talented and just couldn’t manage their time well enough.
  1. Don’t reinvent the wheel. You are new to engineering, but humans have been designing for thousands of years. "If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants." - Isaac Newton. Add something earth shattering to the knowledge pool, but be studious and deeply knowledgeable about what has already been designed and manufactured. Whenever possible use off the shelf components and standardized hardware. It will decrease costs and simplify the manufacturability (see #1) of your product. It will also help reduce the time it takes to design something new and optimize it for manufacturability and quality control. New components and hardware must be tested and it is pure vanity to ignore what has already been proven in the market place.
  1. Mind the environment. Your product is most likely not going to be used in a sterile laboratory with humidity and temperature control. You must consider how customers will use your product, where they will use it and the conditions. It is a vital consideration that needs to be taken into account at the very beginning of a project. Waiting until the end of design to ask deeper questions into use cases wastes precious time and resources and is the sign of an amateur.

Making the transition from academia to working engineer is not easy but it is an exciting journey that very few have the discipline and focus to undertake. And if you keep these four tips in mind it will be a little easier.


Anthony Butler

Written by Anthony Butler