How to Become an Engineer: A Complete Guide to the First Year of Engineering and Beyond

This article will serve as a guide as to what every aspiring engineer should expect entering University and how those skills will apply later on in engineering and life at large.

The life of an engineer is an everlasting journey of the exploration of knowledge driven by the fascination of the curious intricacies of how the world operates. Nearly every aspect of life is engineered; from the way we get around, to our artificial environments in which we thrive - even all of our entertainment is brought forth and presented by engineering. Designing the stage for humanity is an honor and a privilege every engineer must earn the rite of passage to. Many people look up how to become an engineer, but few go on to complete the journey.

But the reason people drop out or give up on engineering is seldom due to a lack of intelligence. Rather, people give up the dream of becoming an engineer by losing sight of the vision of a visionary. Some become disheartened by a dropping GPA or become overwhelmed by poor organization and planning. It is unfortunate, but often times those otherwise would be engineers choose to remain ignorant rather than expand their understanding of the complex nature of the world we exist in.  

For many, the beginning of the journey of becoming an engineer begins at university where aspiring engineers are given a first glimpse into what engineering is all about. It does not take long to discover engineering is mostly applied physics and mathematics combined with a slew of approximations to create solutions which can be applied in the real world. Engineering is just not piecing things together to create a product, it is rather the process and methodology behind fabricating a solution to real-world problems.

What an Engineer Needs to Know

There are several dozen engineering disciplines to study, and each requires their own niche skill sets. However, there are also key engineering skills which are unanimously applicable across nearly every engineering discipline, regardless of which one it may be.

While engineers may spend their entire lives learning, the same core principles and skills are consistently applied and extensively used across virtually all engineering disciplines to design and integrate solutions in the real world.

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Across engineering disciplines, the skill sets tend to significantly diversify, even within subdomains of similar jobs. In university, however, many of the core engineering principles are taught unanimously across the world. Nearly all first-year engineering courses are based on physics and math, with typically a minor focus on the environment and technology. Also, most first-year engineering programs around the world focus on the similar core courses essential in building the fundamentals of engineering.

The classes every engineer should expect to take and eventually master includes (in no particular order); Newtonian physics, Calculus, Linear Algebra, Programming for Engineers, and Chemistry. It is also likely for a CAD (Computer Assisted Design) specific course to be taught in the first year as well. But what exactly do those topics cover, and why are they important to learn in the first place? 

There is a broad array of topics taught within each program, but before discussing what should be expected from course content, it is first important to address the skills and advice every engineer, whether entering or returning to university, should follow to find greater success in university and beyond.

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How to Become a Successful Engineer

Deciding to study engineering is ambitious and notoriously difficult. However, there is no greater feeling of reward and self-fulfillment than finding or completely inventing a new solution, be it to a physics problem to designing a real-world product. There is something beautiful, and perhaps even euphoric about leading and pushing the frontier of science and technology.

Solutions are an engineers drug, and without them, the world would not spin. Although, getting to the point of solving real-world issues can be difficult; today, the world is designed to work so well that problems are not easily noticed. It is the job of the university to help engineers explore the not-so-obvious problems the world is facing so engineers can attempt to apply ever lesser known solutions.

The new school year is quickly approaching, and with it, new students are preparing to enter the world of engineering as other current students prepare to return into the gauntlet.

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Many people may be investigating their journey ahead on the Internet. Unfortunately, however, the search leads to an ocean of results of varying guidance and advice, primarily focused around the basics of completing a degree and passing standardized tests without giving significant context as to why each is important, and few truly investigate and report what an engineer does, especially in the first year.

Although, this article aims to be different - answered by an engineer who too learned these lessons, albeit the hard way. Understanding the importance of the following tips could have saved much heartache and a couple bad grades. It should not be heeded because of how it will help lead to success, but rather, people should listen because those who ignored it failed. 

In a generic sense, every engineer should be expected to have exceptional organizational skills to keep on top of university while maintaining logical thinking and a natural curiosity. Some guides will also recommend maintaining some form of social life (perhaps one of the most difficult things in engineering above all) as well as participating in extracurricular activities within the school.

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Some of the advice may appear repetitive, appearing in much literature across many platforms. It may seem redundant, but it is imperative to internalize each tip and use them in your studies and beyond. At the very least, it will be helpful, and at the most, it could very well prevent yet another student falling victim to the engineering drop-out.

Key Advice Every Engineer Should Follow

There are a few reoccurring themes engineering students will hear time and time again, and while it may be annoying to hear repetitive advice, heed those messages, and never forget them. It could save your GPA, and perhaps keep you in school. Here are the tips aspiring engineers should follow, and why they are important in the first place.

Attend all of your classes - even if professors upload lecture notes. Professors can help explain complex topics, and it is significantly easier to listen through a lesson then attempt solutions over approaching a problem direct. Even more importantly, with professors who still swear by the chalkboard, lecture content will only be available in class in some cases, making it all the more important to show up to have any chance of being successful in a class.

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Get comfortable approaching professors - While they may be intimidating at first, granted their status and often incredible achievement, there is reason to hold the utmost respect to professors, but do not be afraid to approach them with questions! Professors are typically kind people, and they are in their profession out of their love for academia. Most will gladly answer questions during their office hours which are typically always somewhere in the syllabus. 

Ask the right questions - Technically, there is no such thing as a bad question per se, however, there are certainly poorly formulated ones. It is extremely helpful to ask professors questions direct, but no one likes doing someone else's homework. Come in with as specific questions as possible. Address the topic, but also make sure to explain a question you tried, explain what is understood (or what you think you understand) and also what you do not understand. "I don't get it" is frustrating to hear, and even more so to answer. Instead, ask, for example, "I do not understand why a derivative becomes negative when the function is 1/x". Professors will be much more inclined to help out when they know what it is that you do and do not understand.

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GET INVOLVED! - So many engineers will pass through university and may even do well the whole time before getting to the real world and realizing they understand nothing. The real world is not as perfect as a textbook problem; there are infinitely more variables and so infinitely more ways to approach any problem.

Joining clubs and teams will absolutely help any engineer get through university and eventually find a job. Robotics teams, motorsport teams, and even sports teams are excellent options for students to meet new friends, develop interpersonal skills, and gain the knowledge no classroom can teach. Specifically, engineering related teams are often overseen by professors who help directly mentor and guide the teams to success in their respective fields.

There are competitive teams, like the university teams who participate in the University Rover Challenge (URC), a challenge in which university teams build rovers and test them in the desert. Teams who compete in challenges like the URC can gain a wide spectrum of knowledge in the fabrication and implementation of a real-world project. From within teams, there are a variety of sub-teams to become a part of, each addressing a different part of a design. It is on these teams where real engineering knowledge is gained into not only the design and fabrication, but also the teamwork, planning, critical thinking, problem-solving, organization, and so many also key skills every engineer should know. 

Prepare for bad grades - but be willing to work through it - Engineers maintain one of the highest workloads which can be overwhelming and disheartening at times. And with that, a couple missteps in any course can lead a final grade several points lower than expected. It's no secret engineering has one of the greatest drop out rates, but many drop out over the fear of a few bad grades. However, it is possible to work through a few C's or worse. People have recovered bad grades before, some engineers have professed to even work through GPA's which have plummeted below 1.0.

A bad grade does not mean the engineering dream is over, but it does mean evaluating how you spend your time, and perhaps how you should reevaluate and reorganize yourself moving forward with your studies.

Hard work trumps all - the more anyone progresses through engineering, the more it becomes apparent that the best engineers are the ones willing to try anything to get a project to work. It is the hard workers who get ahead, and just like in real life, even the hard workers in university can outperform those who are "smarter" by nature. Many "smart" students will not put in the effort, and those who are willing to do the work (and who are not as "smart" per se) often achieve greater marks and greater success. 

Express and Explore your Ideas - If there is one thing that will stand out on a résumé, it is work backed by a professor. Professors are always looking to further explore ideas in their respective fields, and sometimes those ideas are built on the new inquisitive minds of the Undergrads.

If you come up with an idea, talk about it with a professor. If it has solid grounds, they may help you get the idea off the ground to create a new device. Otherwise, they are more than happy to explain why or why not a given system will work. At the very least, they can redirect you to another professor who is more knowledgeable in a given area. At any rate, if you come up with a good idea, or build a relationship with a professor to the point of them hiring you (as a lab assistant or otherwise), then the experience and knowledge which will follow will become far more valuable than any GPA.

Employers want people who are efficient problem solvers, and if a professor is willing to back you and your ideas, then a company is ever more likely to hire you.

With the obvious necessary skill sets aside, it is also important to understand what first-year engineering will look like and where it will lead in future studies and beyond. Like aforementioned, nearly every first-year engineering student will begin learning the same core courses; that being Calculus, Physics, Linear Algebra, Programming for Engineers, and typically some form of CAD course (and chemistry, although chemistry is one of the lesser applicable courses which appears once in first year and only comes back in certain disciplines in later years).

Becoming a successful engineer will require becoming a master at all the above mentions and more, however, it is important to thoroughly understand the core principles before moving on to more complex courses.

A Guide to First Year Engineering

It should come as no surprise that to become a successful engineer, one must eventually master all of the fundamental skills in mathematics and physics, both of which will almost inherently require a certain level of organization and work. But discovering exactly how those skills apply and why certain courses are needed can be rather confusing if not downright daunting to investigate without context. Beyond the basic skills every engineer should have (or at least understand the importance of), every engineer should have a thorough understanding of the following concepts and courses.

What is CAD?

Often mistaken for a single program, CAD, in reality, is any program which assists the design process. It is not considered to be one of the core principles of engineering, but as engineering firms transition to nearly entirely incorporate CAD, it is quickly becoming increasingly important.

CAD is a powerful tool that allows for rapid prototyping of 3D computational models which can be accurately simulated in a variety of ways. There are dozens of CAD programs out there, namely SolidWorks, Siemens NX, AutoCAD, Fusion360, and more are available as CAD software to design, simulate, and fabricate different systems and products. Unfortunately, they are all rather expensive. The above are some of the most recognized CAD software, however, there are other lesser known alternatives which come at no cost and offer a sufficient basic platform to begin CADing. 

Free CAD Software to Learn CAD

There are two specific companies which offer excellent free CAD software, those being  OnShape and FreeCAD. Each features a range of options to begin designing basic CAD models. While they do not feature advanced simulation capabilities, both are sufficient enough to teach any aspiring engineer the basics of CAD.

Universities may also offer free software to students looking to advance their skills. Contact your university's technical support team, and inquire whether there is any professional software available to you. If not, it is entirely possible the university has access to discounted software - at any rate, it never hurts to ask.

How to use CAD: The Basics

Once settled in with a CAD program, the next challenge is opening a new project to begin designing a part. Each software is different, and setting up a new part can be a little complicated. Often times, it is easiest to consult YouTube and simply look up how to make, for example, a wheel in a given software. 

Follow online tutorials exactly and learn the process of computer design. Once the basics of CAD are learned, it becomes very easy and quite enjoyable to build objects on a computer. It is like solving a puzzle, only you get to make your own puzzle pieces as you go and there are a million ways to do it.

CAD is not yet considered to be one of the fundamental courses of engineering, but the notion is quickly changing. Most Universities require engineers to take at least one CAD course, although nearly every degree has courses in later years where CAD is greatly beneficial when it comes to building projects. 

The important things to remember with CAD are: Functionality - does the design work and does it serve its intended purpose? Also, is it practical and can it be feasibly manufactured? In the programs themselves, it is also important to pay attention to planes and axis, where parts connect and how much space there is between them. Always make sure lines connect properly before moving on to designs, and make sure to delete any unnecessary parts, they slow the software down and can cause unnecessary errors. 

Making and simulating a turbine blade is an excellent way to begin thoroughly investigating CAD. Do not get hung up when the software does not act as anticipated though. Things sometimes go wrong for bizarre reasons. Just keep investigating each surface and connection point to find where something went wrong; likely candidates are materials intersecting, improper connections, and not fully defined shapes.

Programming

Programming is slightly more recognized as a fundamental skill an engineer should have, even more so than CAD. However, that is also quickly changing and dependant on Universities. Nevertheless, at any rate, nearly every engineer will encounter at least one programming specific course as well as a few others which will incorporate some level of programming.

Engineers will be introduced into the idea behind Binary and how it creates the logic of a computer. Then comes learning to programme, and most typically begin with Python or C++. Both are high-level programming languages which can accomplish a variety of tasks with a few simple inputs. 

When programming, it is important to understand how a computer reads and given code. A program does not know what it is going to need to do until the moment it executes a code. You need to tell compilers (programs which translate high-level programming into machine programming a computer can read) exactly what kinds of functions will be executed in the code so the right tools (or libraries in computer talk) are available to carry out lines of code. 

Every program begins with a call for what libraries are required to compute the code. The libraries are typically called in the Header or the beginning of the code. There, libraries are called to tell the computer to display messages on a monitor, receive input from a user, or to prompt the tools to solve complex math functions. 

Next up, a program should clearly prompt the user with exactly what the code will do and what they need to do to make it work. From there, coding breaks down in every which direction. However, the important things to consider are:

1- Calling appropriate libraries to tell the computer what tools are needed to execute code

2- Make sure the program prompts the user with exactly what the code will execute

3- Make sure all variables are properly defined and that they change appropriately throughout the execution of a code

Programming is all about logic - bending rules typically never works, it is important to understand the process of how code is read and executed to make sure you can write a program which will work as intended. 

As with most first-year courses, plenty of tutorials are available online to begin teaching the basics of code. C++ is one of the most commonly taught code, and you can begin to investigate the language by looking up how to program basic functions, like displaying a name, adding two or more variables, allowing a user to input values for a program to calculate, and more. 

First Year Physics for Engineers

Physics is a broad area of study and is typically broken into two different courses to be taken over the first year. The first part of Physics taken in first semester (often regarded to as Physics I), is effectively an extensive overview of high school Physics. The topics covered focus on Newtonian physics which is the idea of transferring energy from one form to another, one object to the next, with the underlying principle that energy cannot be created or destroyed.

The concepts are relatively simple and can typically be solved using common sense. For example, the way simple objects move and how energy is transferred between colliding objects is reinvestigated. The work is virtually the same as high school, however, problems typically include multiple systems and transfers of energy such as a ball rolling down a hill before striking a spring and bouncing back.

The most important lesson to take away from Physics 1 is the idea of how energy moves from one thing to another, and how that energy affects the movement of an object. 

Physics II

Most engineers will find Physics I relatively easy, granted majority of the course focuses on regurgitated information from high school. Unfortunately, it does not set the pace well for what typically comes after Physics II. Besides perhaps extremely simple circuits and lens equations, Physics II covers virtually all new material most have not seen before in Physics I or high school. Topics are heavily focused around magnetic fields, electric fields, and a significantly more in-depth look into circuitry. 

Many find Physics II to be one of the more challenging first-year courses, but with the right resources, it does not have to be. Universities typically hold review sessions and go over problems in small group sessions - make sure to look these up and schedule them well in advance. The classes are extremely useful and students flock to them - so sign up before all the seats are gone.

It is also a course where buying the textbook is a great idea, textbooks typically offer far better and more in-depth explanations of certain topics in multiple ways to make an idea significantly more clear than a lecture slide. It is also useful in investigating something you missed or did not understand in class, which can help formulate a better question to ask a professor. 

Khan Academy also has many amazing tutorials featured on YouTube offering great explanations into some of the more advanced concepts presented in the class. There are other YouTube channels who offer physics help, but appropriate videos with caution; many use simplified equations and atrocious approximations, as well as outright get questions wrong.

Consult a physics textbook before watching random videos, watching one of poor quality will leave you with more questions than answers, not to mention the aggravating frustration as you follow wrong steps to get a wrong answer.

Calculus for Engineers

Calculus is an art that is often given a poor name in bad taste, simply for being misunderstood. Think of Calculus literally as a tool to precisely describe how things change. A derivative is simply the rate at which one thing changes in respect to another, and an integral is just the area between two things. The two are described as Integral and Differential Calculus.

They are daunting at first, but beneath the surface, it is important to remember integral Calculus is working to solve how steep a line or field is at any point, and an integral is solving for how much area or volume is between a given region. 

These concepts can be better explored on The Vital Skills Needed to Become an Engineer: CAD, Programming, and Calculus or through a generic search on YouTube.

The important topics to investigate include the First Principles of Calculus, substitution methods for solving simple derivatives and integrals, and vectors and fields. 

Calculus is certainly one of the fundamental skills every engineer should know.

Tips for Linear Algebra for Engineers

Linear Algebra for Engineers is a course dreaded by many. However, it is a very useful tool to solve the variables of many equations all at once. Traditionally, in mathematics or physics, solving for a variable requires extensive rearranging and substituting before arriving at a solution, back substituting, and coming up with a final answer.

Linear Algebra allows a system with many variables to be solved in a few simple steps by systematically solving each equation in a simplified form known as a matrix. Trivial solutions can be found far faster and calculated with far fewer mistakes than painstakingly rearranging and substituting equation by equation. Linear Algebra is difficult, but it is a powerful tool which can be used to quickly solve many equations simultaneously. 

As with the other courses every engineer takes in first year, many tutorials are available online to begin teaching the fundamentals of matrices. To help start out, begin looking for how to solve 2x2 matrices, 3x3 matrices, 4x4, and so on. From there, investigate matrix transformation, alternate coordinate systems, and vectors and spaces. 

Each addresses a different aspect of Linear Algebra, and all can be used to supplement the engineering process. 

The Best Websites to Learn Engineering

The internet has created a vast network of information ready for engineers to tap into and explore. It is perhaps the most important tool in an engineer's toolbox and should be extensively used to investigate new solutions or find ways to improve old ones.

There are many amazing websites to learn engineering, however, here is a list of some of the best and most commonly used

Khan Academy - A website well loved by engineers around the world, Khan Academy is a website and YouTube channel who hosts a variety of topics both in engineering, math, and other sciences. It is a one-stop shop for many subjects with in-depth solutions and practice examples to try out yourself.

Derivative Calculator - Sometimes derivatives and integrals get messy. Missing something as easy as a negative can send anyone on a massive tangent of solving a now unsolvable question. The derivative calculator offers a step-by-step solution to derivatives with excellent descriptions on why and how a certain computation was made. It even offers a check to see whether the answer you got is correct but in a different form to the answer they derive. 

Chegg - Unfortunately, unlike the previous, Chegg is not free to use. It is a premium service which offers one of the world's greatest tutoring websites where students upload their problems (sometimes from your university or even class) and a Chegg representative solves and explains a solution. The platform also offers live tutors and great examples to try on your own on a given subject. It is pricey, but Chegg is one of the greatest websites for engineers to use. 

The Journey of an Engineer

There is no single guide which will help an engineer find success. Some lessons can only be learned while walking the path of engineering. The lessons come hard and can wear heavy. But do not lose sight, be a visionary, see where you want to head, and take any path to get there, even if it means wandering off a beaten trail. 

Career

Can You Become an Engineer Without an Engineering Degree?

Grades are important, but what is more important is experience, and that comes with stepping out of comfort zones applying yourself to teams and clubs within a university. Engineers are there to learn, and one of the best ways to learn engineering is through hands-on experience. But beyond clubs and projects, being prepared for what is to come and understanding what it is you are learning and how it is applicable is imperative in finding success in engineering. 

Engineering is truly a lifestyle of devoted dedication to a lifetime of curiosity and problem-solving. It is daunting, but one of the greatest and important life decisions a person can make. Engineers are the designers of the world, and without them, the world would not spin. The need for engineers grows greater with every passing day, and so it falls upon the new generation to find the inspiration and dedication to keep the progression of engineering, and humanity at large, moving forward for many years to come.

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