When Jeanne Knight's husband was recently interviewing for a mechanical engineering job, he was asked what the letters "E" and "I" stood for in a bending equation for a structural beam.
Once he correctly replied "modulus of elasticity" (E) and "moment of inertia" (I), he then had to explain what each of the concepts meant.
"Hiring managers will ask these types of questions to find out if the candidate is a true practicing mechanical engineer or a paper pusher — one relegated to writing reports and doing documentation," says Knight, a career coach who has worked with mechanical engineers as clients.
First and foremost, engineering interviewers want to determine what type of engineer you really are, or what you do best, according to Maureen Crawford Hentz, manager of talent acquisition, development and compliance for Osram Sylvania.
In her own hiring role, Crawford Hentz asks candidates what types of mechanical engineering tasks they're most interested in. "A bad answer is 'anything,'" she says.
"There are people who understand process manufacturing, and there are people on the bench, drawing products or designing larger systems," says Crawford Hentz, who in her previous job as director of career services at Wentworth Institute of Technology prepared about-to-be college graduates for engineering interviews. "A bench engineer is significantly different from someone out on the floor. A bench engineer has a pencil in his hand, while a floor engineer has a screwdriver."
What else will the typical engineering interviewer try to assess about you? Here's a quick look at key interview questions you'll face, using mechanical engineering to illustrate what you might expect across other engineering disciplines.
What Software Do You Really Know?
When Crawford Hentz questions mechanical engineering candidates about their experience with software packages like SolidWorks, Pro/ENGINEER and AutoCAD, she's looking for more than surface-level working knowledge. "I ask, 'What's the coolest thing you know how to do with the package?'" she says.
Here, the employer is attempting to gauge fluency, or applied expertise. It's nice to merely be familiar with, say, COSMOSWorks, says Crawford Hentz. It's another thing entirely to use the program for finite-element analysis on the LEDs Osram Sylvania manufactures, which "don't mind getting cold but hate to get hot," she says.
Are You Keeping Pace Technically and Technologically?
Just because you felt technically and technologically up-to-date two years ago, it doesn't mean you'll be viewed that way today.
"The half-life of knowledge for mechanical engineers is shrinking," says Greg Hutchins, principal engineer for Quality Plus Engineering. So, he advises, ask yourself: "What are you doing to keep current in technology?"
If you want to be taken seriously, be able to share a detailed listing of thoughtfully chosen continuing education activities with the interviewer. Perhaps you're pursuing your professional engineering license, or maybe you're completing a short online course on sensor technology.
Can You Solve Problems with Your Hands as Well as Your Head?
It's one thing to tackle engineering problems in a theoretical, cerebral context. But often you've literally got to get your hands dirty to make something work the way it's supposed to.
Do you tinker on your own car? Are you handy around the house? You'll probably get interview questions like these "as a measure of [your] practical knowledge," says Dominic Halsmer, dean of the School of Science and Engineering at Oral Roberts University.
Do You Truly Understand Clients/Customers and Teamwork?
There's a difference between the fantasy of engineering as a form of individual expression and the reality of engineering as a business.
"When you're in school, you're designing to please yourself," says Crawford Hentz. "You get to 'build a robot.' But in a manufacturing or product development setting, you're dealing with 'build me a toolbox that looks like this and can sing [the national anthem].'"
So expect to be questioned about how you've dealt with client/customer concerns and personalities in the past. And be sure you're also ready to explain how you've collaborated with diverse colleagues to meet the sometimes demanding expectations of clients and customers.
"We want people who bring value to the group, not only with their technical skills, but also their creativity and their personality, because your ideas aren't the only ideas," says Crawford Hentz.