Lessons as a First Year Engineer


2018 was a really interesting and necessary year for me. It was filled with a lot of new challenges and growth. I graduated with my Bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering (technically Dec of 2017), jumped right into the workforce in January as a full-time Structural Engineer, and have been overcoming barriers ever since (or trying to at least).

I also officially became a homeowner last September and was STOKED to have achieved such an accomplishment in my first year as a professional. But I’ll share more of those deets another day!

Let’s talk about some of the toughest challenges I’ve faced in the first year of my career, lessons learned, and how all of those things have shaped me into a better person for 2019.

Mary Nguyen, Failure to Success, Lessons as a First Year Engineer, College to Career Transition
I realized that I have full control over my growth. That just because I fell short, doesn’t mean that I can’t drive myself to further learn and grow.
— Mary Nguyen

A little background: I started as a contractor/intern at NASA and was fortunately given the opportunity to choose between two at-the-time-available positions upon graduation. I had really enjoyed my experiences at NASA thus far, so naturally, I wanted to stay. However, the positions offered did not align with my areas of expertise, and that was OK!

In short, my path options were either Systems Integration or Structural Analysis. I, of course, decided to go with the more technical (and challenging) route.

I welcomed the unfamiliarity because I was taking on new projects the entire time I was an intern, so how bad could it be? Structures are definitely more Civil Engineering focused than Mechanical, so it was very out of my comfort bubble. But I was excited to learn and add another skill-set under my belt.

Receiving my first negative feedback

I guess it’s not all rockets and rainbows. I’m going to admit, it was a rough start. For the first time as a professional, the validity of my work was being questioned and challenged.

And at first, I took it really personal. Because I do not at all consider myself a slacker, or some kind of “care-free”, winging it on a daily basis, type of gal.

Yet, a team-member brought it to my boss’s attention (and then my boss to me) that my analyses weren’t up to par, that I might not be enjoying my job, and was overlooking important details.

OUCH! Do you know how much that hurt me?

I initially blamed it on the lack of mentorship, guidance, support, whatever. I started to question my worth and wondered if I should look for appreciation elsewhere. “Maybe this position really isn’t for me.” It drove me to mope around and feeling depressed for about a week.

And then I decided to boss tf up.

Be honest with yourself

I’ve talked about in previous blog posts about the importance of owning your worth, but honestly, sometimes we also have to own where we fall short.

The truth is constructive criticism is imperative in professional growth, and it’s going to be given quite frequently. It’s important to take all feedback with a grain of salt, because it’s either going to tear you apart or help you grow. But you get to choose.

I really had to sit down with myself and evaluate my own progress. Not only did I have to become apparent with myself in the areas I was deeply struggling in, but I also had to be frank with my team members so that they can help me.

I realized that I have full control over my growth. That just because I fell short, doesn’t mean that I can’t drive myself to further learn and grow.

I ended the victimizing, determined my room for improvement, and made sure not to repeat the same mistakes in moving forward.

Not only did I want to avoid repeating my failures, but to also achieve the highest level of success possible!

Put in the work, period

Despite the years spent in college, the real lessons are learned on the job. Problem-solving and critical thinking are skills that improve with consistent practice, time, and commitment.

So as much as I was trying to get by using the methods I was initially shown or taught, I realized that every project has new and unique challenges.

I learned that it’s important to continually obtain different perspectives and analytical approaches. And this required reaching out to others more to truly gain an understanding of the concepts.

I started initiating one-on-one’s with my teammates more frequently, to learn how to be more efficient in my stress modeling, comprehend detailed calculations, interpret bolts and welds designs, and how to apply all of these things to different projects.

Before, I was waiting and hoping someone would drop some of these resources in front of me. And then I realized it was solely up to me to initiate and obtain it, all of it.

And that is the biggest difference between the classroom, internships, and “real life”.

Fail your way to success

A lot can happen in one year and I’m really glad to say that using my challenges as a tool to push myself, has really allowed me to step up.

I started as a confused rookie to creating comprehensive math templates for others to use, revising and correcting Senior Engineers’ analyses, interviewing and training new hires, and now sharing my failures-to-success-stories with you guys!

I think a lot of times we shy from highlighting our failures, but some of my greatest achievements took failing many, many times in order to obtain notable results. Successful people use their failures as learning opportunities to reconfigure and determine what works best.

So if you’ve endured any setbacks recently, let me remind you that you are 100% capable of moving forward. Instead of letting it keep you down, continually recenter your energy and focus on the end-goal.