6 responses to “Your Way is Not the Only Way”

  1. gasstationwithoutpumps

    As you say, there are multiple correct ways of doing things, and it is worth discussing options and not just taking the first one that occurs to someone. That applies to the order of chapters in a thesis as well as to other engineering decisions. Writing a technical paper (like a thesis) is a lot like other engineering, with tradefoffs between quality and cost, and apparently arbitrary aesthetic choices in addition to essential technical choices.

    One correction: a PhD adviser is not a boss. The role of an adviser is to provide research problems, suggestions, and (if possible) funding. A good adviser will give you detailed feedback on your work so that you can improve—a really good one will argue with you so that you can improve your skills at making your case, and back down when you are convincing.

    Your thesis is your product, and you can’t allow an incompetent to mess it up. If your adviser is asking you to make the grammar wrong, correct him or her (using good sources so you don’t come out looking foolish).

  2. caudillo

    I’m never one to argue, and I generally try to steer away from it as much as I can. Unless it will jeopardize the integrity of my structures (I’m a structural engineer), or it will negatively affect the cost or the timeline of the construction, I just usually let them fight it out amongst themselves. Aesthetics, presentations, etc will always be a matter of personal taste, and someone will always have a different opinion about it, especially if you’re in a large team.

  3. riven

    “1/8″ pipe fittings instead of 10-32?”. In metric (3mm and 8mm), these are both standard sizes. I would have simply pointed that out. However I would have listened to what they had to say and then responded. Now if you had used 4 mm (or imperial equilivant) then there would be something to say.

    When someone has a critique (and usually the first iteration is very general) about my work I simply point out what I have done in response to the general critic. The person then has to be specific and in many cases, when they go to the specific phase you learn a lot of useful stuff. As engineers we strive on being specific and describing the details very well. The problem is when you have a manager for example who does not respond to specifics but still hold the same opinion. The key things are to argue your situation but be willing to learn and to be humble.

    Critique is a method of disciplined, systematic analysis of a written or oral discourse.

  4. Jed Sutherland

    Ms. M.O., I like the way you think.

    Once I stopped being an engineer (although I like to think that I never ceased being one), and moved into management (better pay), I learned about a whole new world of “right and wrong ways”.

    Not only did I have to deal with technical issues, I had to remember that I was often dealing with peoples’ issues as well. How do I deal with a performance problem? Should this person be moved? Promoted? Disciplined? Is there a right answer? What would a wrong answer look like?

    People with large egos, and/or insecurities, and/or power issues frequently assert that their approach to solving a problem is the right one and there is no other. As M.O. pointed out, there are indeed several perfectly acceptable solutions to a problem.

    Which one we choose may have to do with how we feel on a particular day. It may depend on the money or time available to solve the problem. We should not assume that everything we do is rationally thought out.

    I think there are also many really bad approaches to solving a problem and engineers frequently choose those through inexperience, stupidity or poor analysis. Think of putting out a grease fire by putting oil on it. Or water.

    You first need to eliminate the obviously bad solutions and choose from among the good ones. On further inspection, some good solutions will turn out to be not good.

    With regard to communication of issues to someone, it’s not a good idea, as your lab partner has done, to step right up and make a challenging assertion to someone (with the implication that they’re wrong). When this happens, all of us normally go on the defensive.

    One approach might be to say something like, “That’s an interesting method. Why did you do it that way?”, and listen to the answer. The person may then ask you your thoughts on the matter. If they don’t, and you really believe what they’re doing is wrong, it’s important to explain why it’s wrong.

    If someone challenges your work, you could ask what the person would have done in your place. And listen to the answer. This puts them on the spot to give you their ideas instead of groundlessly deprecating yours. It acts like verbal judo in that you are using their weight against them. They may have a point, but then again, they may be wrong.

    It is to be hoped in both of these situations, that after the initial exchange of opinions, a mature, professional conversation can take place.

    If you’re dealing with a thesis adviser, he carries the moral weight of a boss even if he lacks the title. It’s also based on the “Golden Rule”; the guy with the gold makes the rules. It’s alright to disagree with a boss because he/she may be wrong. But if someone absolutely refuses to listen to your side of the argument and makes you do something you don’t agree with you have to decide whether the issue is important enough to escalate the disagreement into a battle.

    As M.O. points out, you need to pick your battles.

  5. An old engineer

    If you give the same project to 4 engineers, you get 4 different designs.

    The important thing in design groups is that there is one person in charge. Trying to get something done by consensus in a professional atomsphere is almost impossible to do. Nothing gets done in a timely fashion.

    The military approach to getting things done work as long as the upper management (officers) and middle management (non-coms) know what they’re doing. If they don’t, things can go badly. How many generals did Lincoln have to go through before finding Grant?

    If you’re not in charge, you need to follow the direction of the group leader. Of course, proper decision making depends on having enough information to make a reasonable decision. Providing useful information to the group leader is just as important as leading the group.

    Not all of us know everything and learning to take information from various sources is important. However, you don’t always have the time or luxury to accumulate information. At some time, you need to make the best reasonable decision based on what you know at that time. That’s when the project manager or project engineer earns their pay.

  6. Jed Sutherland

    Hear, hear!