The T-shaped Civil Engineer

T-shaped people are those with a depth of knowledge in at least one discipline and a breadth of knowledge about innovation and entrepreneurship that allows them to work effectively with professionals on other disciplines to bring their ideas to life — Tina Seelig

Perhaps you think you have stumbled on an article you would read in a few minutes; then, I suppose you might be wrong. I expect you to devote about 10 – 15 minutes to reading and assimilating this treasure coated in words. It will be worth your time.

Shall we? Yeah.

Recently, a friend and I had a conversation where he blatantly told me that Nigeria has not been producing good graduates in recent years. Well, you can make a case for or against his opinion, but I think I agree with him. I agree with him because the decay of our education system is obvious, and you may be disappointed after engaging students or graduates in a conversation.

This malady then begs the question: Who is to be blamed? Me? You? The government or schools? Well, let me tell you about my blame-sharing formula quickly. When I was in school, I ditched 10% of the blames to the government and another 10% to my school while I took 80%.

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Do you know why I took the largest share of the blames? I did so because I believed that whatever I become or becomes of me, even within the unfavourable education system, totally depends on my choices. It depends on what I make out of my life. It also depends on how I use my time during breaks and strikes. Moreover, I do not have control over the system, government, or school. Therefore, I had no choice but to become a T-shaped student who is well prepared to take the industry by storm.

Building a set of T-shaped knowledge and skills is one of the most valuable things you can do for your future career and personal development

The T-shaped Concept

Generally, the T-shaped concept is a metaphor for an individual’s depth and breadth in their skills. The vertical bar on the “T” represents the depth of related skills and expertise in a single field. In contrast, the horizontal bar represents a breadth of skills and the ability to collaborate across disciplines.

For students, the T-shaped concept not only means possessing deep, technical skills but also having broader characteristics or qualities. I want to emphasize that developing into a T-shaped civil engineering student gives you a competitive edge and could make all the difference in attaining a stable and successful career after graduation.

In this article, I will share my model for a T-shaped student. This model is not theoretical, but one that worked for me during my undergraduate days and shaped me into who I am today.

The T-shaped Model

T-shaped model
The T-shaped Model

The T-shaped model is a tripartite model with the vertical bar on the “T” representing professional development and the horizontal bar representing academic excellence and skill acquisition/entrepreneurship/leadership on either side.

Fitting into this model and finding appropriate balance is essential for staying competitive and becoming well-rounded professionals after graduation. Below, I will tell you everything you need to know about the T-shaped model and why you must become a T-shaped student.

Academic Excellence

Perhaps you believe that school is a scam; it is not. Nigeria’s tertiary education system presently finds itself in several challenges, including underfunding of institutions, infrastructural decay and neglect, academic corruption and fraud, wastage of resources, and distasteful conditions of learning and service. I was in the system for quite a long time, maybe 6-7 years, and I know what it means to be a student in such a system. However, school is and has never been a scam, and neither is academic excellence.

By the grace of God, I was privileged to graduate with a good grade, and I can tell you that a good grade grants you access to opportunities, boosts your confidence, and helps you earn respect. Indeed, grades are not a measure of a person, nor are they even the sole measure of academic accomplishment.

However, people care about grades. Many employers also care because your grades tell them if you can successfully handle tasks and produce results with less training or close supervision. I have two stories or experiences to share about academic excellence below.

First, I got a full-time job after the first month of leaving school. How did it happen? A Quantity Surveyor who contributed to training me during my 6 months of industrial training and knew about my professional capacity recommended me for the job. Honestly, I did not meet up with the job requirements. However, the company’s principal decided to take a chance on me because of my academic grade and punctuality.

I also passed the written test on structural design and showed a willingness to learn while working for the company. It was more like I was employed straight away, though on 3 months probation. Eventually, I left the job for NYSC camp before the end of the 3 months, and I could not return to the job even though the company was willing to allow me to keep my job.

Second, twelve other corps members and I were posted to an establishment for our NYSC year, and an interview was scheduled. One of the interviewers asked for my grade, which was the end of the interview. At the end of the interview, 7 of us were admitted, and I was the first person on the list. The academic grade was the difference.

Education’s purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one — Malcolm Forbes

Dear reader, you cannot afford to dismiss grades as unimportant, even if you have reservations about them, as many of us do. Furthermore, without good grades, though, gaining entrance into a master’s or PhD program or winning scholarships becomes much more difficult. Therefore, I can tell you sincerely that having a good grade will result in a life with many advantages.

Skill Acquisition/Entrepreneurship/Leadership

I have often heard people ask: what if I did not or cannot graduate with a good grade? It is no big deal because it does not mean you are doomed. You can always leverage acquired technical, soft, business and leadership skills. Being successful in school is more than just earning good grades. Going to school allows you to focus on developing new skills, making new friends, and crafting a path for your future.

Talking about leadership, taking up leadership position(s) as a student is a no-brainer because becoming a student leader will help you to develop innumerable leadership skills, including conflict resolution, cultural intelligence and professional advancement. Furthermore, becoming a student leader allows you to find how to build a team, how you work with others, and where your areas of improvement might be. Lastly, you will gain valuable soft and management skills, build networks and connections, and improve your CV or resume.

Having mentioned the importance of leadership skills and experience, I would like to remind you that losing focus on your academic and career goals is easier if you get financially stressed or frustrated. Do I also need to remind you that having access to money when you need it is enough to keep you going? Therefore, you must learn a skill or venture into a business that can earn money because trying to find your feet in the AEC industry can be very frustrating and overwhelming.

Furthermore, at the start of your journey, you may have to do many unpaid jobs or internships to get the experience and exposure you desire. Therefore, having a skill or business that pulls in money for you can make your journey much easier.

For example, I am not the type that is good at business (at least for now) and am not a fan of tech, but I ensured I left school with three skills — research, writing and teaching skills. These skills are what I have been leveraging from my penultimate year in school until now. Through these skills, I have been able to keep financial stress and frustration away with the earnings.

Photo credit: LinkedIn

Furthermore, I stumbled on a post on LinkedIn some time ago highlighting that it is wrong not to have a plan B, at least. In this post, the person in question lamented how he has been searching for jobs for almost two years without getting one. He even went as far as tearing his certificate. He must have been frustrated. Thankfully, he was able to get multiple job connections through the post.

Dear reader, with income-generating, leadership, and strong entrepreneurial skills and experience, not only will you have the option of bringing your projects and dreams into existence, but you are also likely to find yourself in high demand among potential employers who look for a mix of entrepreneurial and other professional skills.

Professional Development

How can you do better in a field when you don’t know better? It is vital to be true to yourself at this point. Do I have to remind you that great engineers are not born? Truly, they are made through professional and personal development. Therefore, evolving into a better you is the only way you will reach new heights professionally and personally.

Perhaps you had the chance to ask me what topped my priority list when I was in school; then, I would tell you it was striving to be a well-versed professional with high esthetic standards and a passion for excellence. I ensured I made use of every opportunity to advance the achievement of this goal because I never joked about it.

I did talk earlier about the importance of getting a good grade. However, your certificate holds little water compared to your experience. Therefore, you should never joke about internships and strike periods as undergraduates because they are great opportunities to gather relevant work experiences.

Similarly, if you are a recent graduate, I would advise that you pursue internship and apprenticeship opportunities that would give you relevant work experiences, even with little or no pay, rather than going for jobs with little pay and offering no relevant work experiences.

For example, from my experiences, I have discovered that anything that is meant to teach and instruct you will require patience, flexibility, growth and stretching. Engineering is not that easy because most of the concepts we adopt are partially abstract and partially concrete. Therefore, most of these things require time and careful direction or mentoring to understand and apply, and this is where your patience and willingness to learn through internships come into play.

Personally, internship experiences have changed and shaped my life and charted me on a path of career realization and helping people. It seemed like I was just being used or doing too much at first, but the benefits have been enormous. Funnily, I did not even get a penny until after my first 6 months at the organization, but I ensured that I put into practice all the skills I acquired, which has built my expertise. As a result, even while I was still an undergraduate, I was able to build my expertise and empower others alongside.

Dear reader, professional and personal development do not happen overnight but over time, that is, slowly and deliberately. It is a daily practice and lifestyle — a lifelong process!

Final Words

You cannot afford to be ordinary; come up higher

As I round up this article, I want to tell you that self-confidence is the most beautiful thing you can possess in this field or career path. Unfortunately, many a time, young and aspiring engineers struggle with confidence issues because of their inability to measure up with the T-shaped model. Consequently, this results in fears that affect one’s performance and productivity.

However, the great news is: that you can do many things to measure up and help boost your confidence levels. Now is the best time to work on your confidence level and the lagging areas. Sooner, you will see yourself reach the heights you desire, after hours, days, weeks, and years of constant work and dedication.

To the young and aspiring just starting in their careers, please, invest in yourself, your learning and your career; and be unapologetic about it. The process is not always fun or easy but always beneficial. You can restart from the basics and no matter how challenging it gets, never forget to show up every day. Don’t give up. It will be worth it.

Lastly, my dear colleague, dream big, develop yourself, unleash your potential, collaborate with others, play to your strengths, work on your weaknesses, enjoy the process, share your unique gifts with the world, and grow your greatness by testing yourself, expanding yourself, learning and improving.


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