After completing graduate work last year at the University of Maryland, I began looking for entry-level geotechnical engineering jobs. I’d had minimal interview experience while finding internships, so my strategies for answering interview questions were a little iffy.
Many of my peers were busy emphasizing their marketing skills in the job market, but when they gave their mock-interview answers, it didn’t sound very convincing to me. I believe having an honest conversation about career goals goes a long way, in contrast to a marketing strategy which could potentially hit a dead end. I concluded that intrinsic performance and the understanding of career goals early on in an engineer’s life can drastically change your career path.
My intention isn’t to formulate a better marketing strategy to monetize your skills, but instead to discuss the best approaches to optimize work habits and intrinsic performance in day-to-day activities.
The Optimization Problem
Coming from India, I saw amazing universities and schools in the United States. But I always wondered what made Harvard lawyers, Johns Hopkins doctors, and MIT engineers stand out from the crowd. Essentially, we read from the same textbooks and have access to similar tools.
The epitome of civil engineering is the “glorified tinkering” of the world around you to find the right solutions to practical problems. Assuming all the engineering solutions are well-documented and available in literature, this would cast the performance of the engineer as an optimization problem. Strategically optimizing decision theory and analytical prowess can greatly reform the outcome of an engineer’s performance and transform the way engineering solutions are conventionally laid out.
Chess grandmasters have been studied extensively by behavioral psychologists to explore the world of optimization theory. It isn’t simply because they are master strategists; it’s that they operate in an environment with a finite number of rules. Chess masters use a sequence of chess moves prepared even before the game started, known as “prepared variations,” in the opening sequence of a game to get an edge on their opponent. As the game drifts away from their preparations, they have to come up with dynamic improvisations and other variations that can lead toward victory.
Being an avid chess follower and amateur player, I find the art of chess is a very interesting way of thinking about the optimization problem. Prepared variations are similar to the knowledge base that engineers acquire. The dynamic improvisations then make up the personal approach we bring to engineering and decision-making theory. These improvisations are those that we can consider work experience. This approach does work with the function of time but doesn’t help us solve the entry-level paradigm.
An interesting approach can be found in psychology. Malcom Gladwell, in his 2005 book Blink suggests that one can approach problems organically, and this idea of thinking without thinking was a game-changer.
But how do you think without thinking? The idea, essentially, is to develop a sense of understanding based on the idea of rapid cognition. It is an ability that one can develop consciously by fine-tuning the process of snap decision-making and the trusting of these judgements. These judgements are not based on data, evidence, or in-depth understanding of the problem. Instead, you rely on that first-look, snap-analysis that the brain births.
For me, the objective of my more-than-a decade of education was not to learn facts, formulas, or get better grades. It was to develop rapid cognition, so that whenever a problem is presented, I have the ability to find the solution. The end goal was never to memorize and retain everything that was taught, but to fine-tune instinctive thinking.
My original question of how an entry-level engineer can add value remains a bit complex for this discussion, but I believe the answer lies not in enhancing your marketing skills but by boosting intrinsic value, while enhancing your decision-making and analytical prowess.
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