Friday, February 28, 2014

On the Question of Work Experience vs Master's Degree in Engineering

The often asked question among young engineers seems to be whether experience counts more than opting to go for a Master's Degree in Engineering.

Watch out as this favorite question is designed in a way to elicit strong responses from both schools of thought. But what's worse is that it is also a misguided question, designed to make it look as if the pursuit of an advanced degree is necessarily a deficit from work experience. Must it really be one without the other?

A senior engineer who worked for GE once told me that the definition of competancy, atleast the way he thought about it, was knowing what you're not good at. A fine definition.

Consider the experienced engineer who has been working for a number of years in selection and application of machinery from catalog of offerings. If this is how he started his career, he is marked from day one and more often than not, this is what he'll do for a number of years. Perhaps he'll continue to do this while the technological engineering climate outside keeps shifting tides rapidly.

For this engineer, things such as the intricate business of design of the shaft or bearings or aerodynamics of an impeller blade are outside of the scope of work. Ethically, they have no business to offer professional advice to anyone on technical matters outside their line of work unless they possess good advice based on evidence.

So what is this experienced engineer to do if through they find out that computational fluid dynamics is really piquing their interest? Or that they like to know more about microcontrollers in the actuators they are familiar with? Or that they are pulled by the field of rotordynamics and feel they want to contribute?

You will find that in big engineering corporations, there is little scope to shift your line of work into something entirely new, unless you bring a deliberate disruption to your education or harder still, find people to recommend you into that department.

One launchpad into a new line of challenging engineering work is higher education. This comes back to our question on competency. If the new line of work features tasks involving sufficiently advanced technical skills, you will find out very quickly whether you have what it takes. Some skills can be gained through practical experience. But no one will sit down and teach you fundamentals. Knowing your gaps in your skillsets is knowing the limits of your competency.

Fortunately or unfortunately, an undergrad engineering education in places like the United States is still in line with key elements of a classical liberal education. When I was in undergraduate school, it was very obvious to me that out of the 130 odd credit hours that an aeronautical engineering degree would take, only roughly 30 credit hours were devoted to core engineering topics that fit outside of what you would define "liberal arts".

In the pursuit of educating the balanced engineer, some things are lost. It leaves you asking for more when you enter the workplace.

Some line of work would exclusively require a master's degree and some years of specific experience. Do you want to design exhaust manifolds for a leading race car company? Or work on the combustion aspects for an advanced line of engines? Do you want to work as an aerodynamics specialist with a leading aircraft manufacturer? A master's degree in Fluids & Thermal Sciences for instance might be a great addition to your educational portfolio. It tells an employer that you've sufficient skills and technological maturity to hit the ground running.

What I described above is a "necessity-based" education. You'll find is that in big companies, if you can sufficiently justify the reason for higher studies to management, chances are that they would fund your degree by paying a portion of the yearly tuition. Most big companies I know of have an official work-study program. They wouldn't keep this if they thought higher education was a waste of their resources.

There are always other ways to justify the need for a Master's Degree. Unfortunately, our world is changing so rapidly that new ideas spout in interdisciplinary fields and in less mature, nevertheless rapidly advancing fields that didn't exist in the days you went to school. After exploring the engineering market in countries like the United States, where very nice development work is being done in key engineering fields, it looks to me as if the master's degree in engineering is a great insurance policy. Especially when those entry level jobs are hard to come by.

To find the joy of engagement, disrupt your career a little bit and continually expand your mind, I believe it is wise for the young engineer to take the courage to expand their competency. The worst feeling is knowing that at some point, you're an old dog who can't be taught new tricks.

It's funny how in your professional and personal life, you will meet a number of people who will not hesitate to tell you that more learning isn't good. That more theory isn't what you need. "Forget school, get to work lad, the money is (apparently) there'. What a short sighted load of rubbish.

To end, my chauvinism is strong on the specific question. If selected wisely, an advanced engineering degree should only augment engineering work experience.  A good theoretical grounding in engineering can only supplement the know-how you have, besides those added years of learning add to your maturity as a practicing engineer. Might I also include the fact that a Masters may become a consideration element in your promotion to management positions? 

3 comments:

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  3. Nice information shared regarding engineering work experience. GATE is also best engineering entrance exam get high jobs. There is requirement to prepare for GATE entrance exam through standard writer book include practice exercise.
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