5 Tips For New Geotechnical Engineers No One Likes To Talk About

  1. Contractors Will Scare the Bejesus Out of You: Learning early on to embrace the inner and unspoken beauty of the angry contractor is an invaluable skill. Are some of them bat-sh*t crazy? Absolutely. But they are a good, hard working people whose families are all hundreds of miles away while they eat fast food from a suitcase for umpteen-bucks an hour. I have seen new graduates absolutely pummeled by contractors cranky over nothing more than a soggy ham sandwich. If you think you are boss of these grown men, think again.
  2. Always Work With, Not Against, Your Contractors: Contractors make engineering a reality. Without them, engineers have only pencils and computer games. In a very odd an unofficial way, the quality of a contractors work depends on the quality of an engineers attitude. They don’t have to like you, but they should at least respect you. The moment you lose that bridge of communication and trust, you ultimately risk crap production and an unhappy boss. Or worse, you risk jeopardizing the safety of a carefully engineered structure. When engineering fails, people die. Understanding this “contractor-connection” is key.
  3. Field Work is Not For Everyone: Every geotechnical engineer needs an understanding of field work to perform office work. The problem is, some of the headier introverts drown here. I once taught a PhD graduate how to use Duct Tape. As he fumbled with the tape unsuccessfully, a little piece of me inside died. He stood in the corner that day counting theorems like sheep. Meanwhile, I had to remind myself that some engineers are simply brilliant in more abstract ways, a conclusion I never fully sold myself on. Regardless, if you are one of these heady engineers that struggle with rudimentary tasks, expect to have a 22 year old kid awkwardly teaching you how to swing a hammer for two years. And expect a small piece of your manhood to go extinct forever. This can be a hard transition for some, particularly if they are used to killing it academically.
  4. Expect to Travel and Move Often With Little Notice: You can find a daily-grind close to home that requires only local travel, but it might lack the challenge and variety you are looking for. The rock-star projects that engineers like to boast about almost always come with a massive and sometimes life threatening asterisk:

    “We have this really cool opportunity for you… It’s in Nigeria and you leave in 3 weeks.”

    “Wait… Ni.. where is Nigeria again?”

    “It’s in Africa. Don’t worry, you’ll have 24-hour armed security. Are you free for the next 6-months?”

    “Do I need 24-hour security?”

    “It’s mating season and the hippos are killing people left and right. You will want security.”

    “Umm… hippos?”

    “Yeah, the terrorists are pretty calm here, but the hippos are out of control.”

    “Man… I really should have been a dentist.”

    One of the great things about being a dentist is that hippos do not usually try to kill you.

    Or you may love the idea of Nigeria, and see it as real opportunity… Both are valid perspectives. The point here is to think about which side of this coin you land on, because the moment of question will one day come. And how you respond will ultimately pave the path of your career, for the better or worse. Can you justify leaving a family behind to work on a project in a war zone?

  5. You Won’t Get Rich Quick: Crawling up the engineering ladder takes a lot of time and hard work. There are few shortcuts, and having all the academic credentials is still an industry expectation. As you climb these first 3-5 years, your keg-standing college roommate with the sub-par lawn mowing business will likely be making more money than you. Make sure you are OK with this, and OK with taking the time to patiently make strategic career moves. It’s a long game you are playing here, remember to treat it that way and invest accordingly.

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