So it’s your first year of university, and you’ve chosen to get your degree in engineering. Good choice. According to Payscale.com, the top 8 out of 10 highest paying undergraduate degrees are in engineering. The world is advancing towards our technological future at an exponentially increasing rate, and we owe this to the fields of science and engineering.
Although few schools offer an actual fluid power degree, mechanical and electrical engineers are very common in the fluid power industry. Every hydraulic machine is mechanical in nature, which puts mechanical engineers to work in mechanical design and automation trades, among others. I love to compare hydraulics with electrics, and if you’re a regular reader, you’ve seen my allegories. Their physical principles are similar, their mathematics are similar, as are their schematic symbology. Electrical engineers are natural hydraulic designers because of the commonalities, and a student of one is an easy learner of the other.
Regardless of whether you’ve chosen mechanical, electrical or even full-blown hydraulic engineering, I have advice I think will help you both with your degree and your future in the realm of fluid power. Just as with any person who has achieved greatness, your career is limited only by your own effort and ambition. I cringe when I hear graduates complain they can’t find a job with their expensive degree, and it’s not because I’m worried about the job market. Never forget; it’s the man who makes the degree, not the degree that makes the man.
You need to understand, first and foremost, that school doesn’t teach you everything. It neither teaches you everything about engineering, nor does it teach you everything about being a valuable, contributing member of society. An engineering degree isn’t a golden pass to let you walk into any firm to throw it on the president’s desk, ask for the corner office and then demand the keys to your Escalade. Your degree is simply a foundation to build upon, by taking what your professors taught you, and turning it into something of real value.
Even if you achieve a five-year degree, it’s simply impossible for a school to teach you everything there is to know about working for every engineering position out there. Most engineering castes are highly specialized and focus on a narrow spectrum of responsibility. If you’ve landed a spot involved with fluid power, chances are you’ve got a steep learning curve ahead of you. You’ve probably only learned about fluid dynamics and gas laws, but have never been exposed to practical applications, fluid power symbols or have even seen a hydraulic valve previously. I once met an engineer who taught material science at a local college, but had a he 15-minute argument with me because he thought a differential cylinder retracts with the same force and speed in which it extends.
Because the industries serviced by engineers tend to change rapidly with technology, you can’t sit on your rump until you’ve noticed you’re a have-not and out of the loop. You can use your degree and be happy to be subjugated as a “CAD-monkey,” or you can take your career by the horns and spend your free time reading, researching and taking night-classes to put yourself at the top of the field. Just as with any career, your success is dictated just as much by what you do in your spare time as how much you pay attention in class.
I’m already aware that the workload for any engineering student is massive, but I’m also aware you are in the prime of your life and plan to enjoy your college years. Whether you aspire to wrestle for the varsity squad, or you want to make captain of your frat’s beer pong team, also plan to make time to study outside your given curriculum. You can waste your time or invest your time, and the ones who invest their time will be the most successful with their career. You’ll (probably) only be in university once, you’re already in the mind-frame of learning and you have access to resources civilians do not, so take advantage of it. Learn more than what’s expected of you, research what’s interesting to you and make sacrifices now to put yourself ahead of the game in four years.
An area often overlooked by students is that of hands-on experience. Good schools get their students heavily involved with build projects, sometimes competing with other schools, such as with Formula SAE race cars. If you get a chance to weld, do it. If you get a chance to fabricate, do it. If you get a chance to create electrical circuits, do it. By getting your hands dirty and seeing how your designs translate into reality, you broaden your perspective on what can be realistically achieved when you’re behind the desk.
When engineers rely only on CAD software to design, they can overlook difficulties in fabrication that are already often known by technicians and mechanics. You won’t make many friends when you start your career by forcing the fabrication team to work through impossible designs that looked good on the monitor, but require excessive work to realize. By having the shop experience, such as knowing how tools work, the space and angles required by fasteners, the noises made when hydraulic tubing is rigidly attached to machinery, etc., you can more effectively plan for these factors, requiring fewer revisions and reworks.
Outside of lab work, you can get the hands-on experience from your internships and placements. If you’re lucky, it will be with a large outfit manufacturing machinery heavy with fluid power. At this stage in your education, I can’t emphasize how critical it is to take full advantage of these internships. You will have educated and experienced professionals, who can help you learn not only the details of specific, real-world applications, but can provide advice and feedback on what it takes to be a successful engineer in that field. Make them tire of your asking “why?” and “how?”
The experienced engineers aren’t the only ones you should spend time with during your internship. See if you can get out in the shop or plant to work with maintenance, fabrication and assembly team members. Better yet, see if they will let you help, even if it’s on your lunch break. Not only will you make an impression on the team—an advantage should this company be in your cross-hairs after graduation—but you’ll get that real-world, application-specific experience you just can’t get in the engineering office.
My last bit of advice is also partly a qualifier; if you don’t absolutely love engineering, get out now. If you’re taking engineering because you’ve also seen the Payscale.com rankings and just want to ride the wave of success, I can’t tell you that you won’t be very successful. But to be truly great at something, you must truly love it. If you think about electrical schematics as you drift off to sleep, or if you read your textbooks during your lunch break, then you truly love it. If you annoy your non-engineering friends with your constant blabbering of jargon, then you truly love it. If you download engineering apps, or if you created your own engineering Twitter account then you truly love it.
When you meet someone whom loves what they do, your impression of this truth is obvious and immediate. You can tell they’re not merely “happy” with what they do, but rather they’re living the life they were destined to, and who doesn’t want to share that experience? If you don’t love engineering, don’t take it. Don’t waste your time, your professors’ time or your parents’ money. If you know this is your passion, stick to it and follow the rest of my advice. The fluid power world needs engineering geniuses to remain relevant long into the future, so why not you?