During a recent meeting with engineering-school faculty and alumni, we talked about whether their college should educate generalists or specialists. One of the graduates explained how his broad education let him solve a problem with fundamental information that bridged several specialties. One of the engineers with a deep knowledge in a narrow area countered that today many companies need engineers with specialized knowledge so they can "jump into" a problem right away without a "warm-up" period. I can see both sides of the generalist vs. specialist debate.
In electrical engineering, undergraduates often specialize a bit, perhaps taking more analog than digital electronics courses. But they receive a BS degree with a good understanding of many facets of electronics. In graduate school they can continue their education in narrower fields. Undergraduate engineering programs educate people about how to approach and solve problems, and how to think critically and examine problems from several perspectives.
The general knowledge instilled during four years of college also helps graduates evaluate a field and determine whether they want to continue in it. I know science and engineering graduates who have become surgeons, physicians, teachers, entrepreneurs, patent attorneys, and so on. The generalist approach served them well. This approach also lets people who aim for more education benefit from a variety of experiences in their discipline. So I would not recommend trying to push undergrad engineering students to become specialists in four years.
On the other hand, when companies and universities advertise job openings, they usually have a long list of specialized requirements. I found this example of job requirements on the Internet:
Minimum five years of embedded FPGA/ASIC design and/or verification experience;
Three-plus years of experience using System Verilog;
Strong working knowledge of OOP verification and verification environment;
Experience with OVM/UVM verification methodology;
Good verbal and written communication skills;
Self-starter who can work with minimal supervision in a team environment on site;
Experience with scripting languages (e.g. Perl, TCL).
Generalists need not apply. So here's my advice: Go ahead and specialize as you see fit either through an advanced degree or on-the-job training. But keep an eye on general knowledge in your chosen and related fields. If you want to specialize in motor control, for example, you should know how to write code in C, simulate control algorithms in MATLAB and Simulink, use LabVIEW, and so on. It also helps to know how to go to the shop and quickly machine a motor coupling you need to test a motor. You might become a specialist with a generalist's knowledge of many things, or a generalist with pockets of deep knowledge in a few areas. We have room for both types of engineers.
Readers, what do you think? Tell us in the comments section below.
While I do see the advantage to being a specialist (it might make you eligible for a very specific set of jobs), I lean toward the generalist approach. The problem is that most new graduates really don't have a good feel for what they'll be doing ten years down the road. The generalist approach is a great way to keep your options open. Engineering is a pretty specialized curriculum to begin with. I don't know if making it more specialized is a good long-term approach.
I think the term specialization is loosely defined in the engineering field. As a ME, I took a controls track in my undergraduate. I was hoping to move into the field of robotics and mechatronics. However, my current skill set has been developed in the field of thermoplastic injection molding (part, process, and tool design). My undergraduate studies in controls have little relevance in my current job (other than occasional automation projects).
Specialization seems to follow the engineers work. I took a job with an injection molding company. From that first engineering job, I have trained and specialized to enhance my productivity in this field of work. As a result of this specialization (nationally recognized certifications), I have a skill set that is highly sought by the injection molding community (I get frequent calls from head hunters). I cannot say this is true for everyone, but just conveying my experience.
I agree with GTOlover's statement, "Specialization seems to follow the engineers work." I started out as a product engineering technician working on NVRams at one semiconductor company at the beginning of my career and ended as Test Engineering manager at another semiconductor company at the end of my career. Along the way I also worked both in product and test engineering on hall effects (Only spent 5 minutes in school as part of a section on sensors), pbhotologics, LEDS, VCSELS, switched to IEEE programming and test set hardware and software design...before going into business for myself and doing some web page design, PIC programming, and horse trail obstacles design. As you can see, my interests have been all over the place - but the key to my success was not having learned a specialization in school, most of the time I was a complete newbie to the areas I have mentioned. The key for me was getting a good foundation in electronics and then having the initiative to find out information as I needed it. I think having a strong foundation and a desire to learn is very important. When I started school I didn't even know what a resisitor was and I didn't know when I left school that I would eventually become a test engineer but it seemed to me that being exposed to different areas in industry guided me towards my interests, then I worked hard to learn from the variety of resources available to become successful at what I was trying to achieve. I think if I specialized from the beginning, I would have been much more limited which isn't bad if you already know your passion - but I enjoyed all of the different things I have tried and I have been able to use so much of what I have learned in other endeavors...and generalist or specialist - we can't ever stop learning.
That's so true Charles and its also a bit ironic - in the same company we would be struggling to keep up with current technology and having to explain to our bosses why we wanted to buy this software, that book, or go to that seminar or tradeshow so that we could meet customer requirements. But we also had test sets that were built 5-10-15 years ago and part of our job security was being able to work on the old stuff and keep it going - especially when the economy took a downturn...
Charles, I have always been grateful for a generalist engineering education, picking up specialties along the way. Completely agree that if you don't continue learning (generally or a specialty), you'll be out of work quickly.
Jon, the Institue of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Communications Society is going in the undergraduate specialization direction. They are proposing a BS in Telecoommunications Engineering (TE). The feeling is that in a EE program that a number of topics are not covered that are important to telecommunications engineering and that there is enough demand. Here in the Chicago area, as with the IEEE in general, the Communications Society is the second largest after the Computer Society (whcih I lead). The IEEE started as the Institute of Radio Engineers. It later merged with the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, so this makes sense.
There are really two aspects of general education at the undergraduate level. One, of course, are the liberal education requirements. The other involves the range of scientific and mathematical education. Frankly, if you want to become a generalist, you should study physics. That is how I started. We really looked down on the engineers. Since there were few or no jobs in pure physics I dropped out and followed many of my professors into the software (and later systems engineering) fields. We had the skills necessary to solve the problems we were given. I later got a computer science degree.
What I find interesting is that many of the authors of research papers in the IEEE journals are physics PhDs. I also know several PhDs in electrical and mechanical engineering who work at research labs with the title of physicist.
My feeling is that if you are going into engineering then you are specializing. One of the options is to have a shorter general engineering program, followed by a specialized program. Some universities do this. In the first year or two everyone covers basically the same material. For companies that really want people to just jump in, they might want to consider just hiring people with masters degrees. I think what we will see is the specialization of degrees along the line of what the IEEE Communications Society is doing.
Many specialists get scooped up before they even graduate undergraduate studies, I have noticed. Whether it be by some company or person, or they go on to create their own businesses. Insanely successful examples would be Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook. These guys go on to hire more specialists. Why? They want a job done fast at any cost.
Businesses that are only moderately successful tend to seek generalists, from my experience. Why? Because they want a variety of jobs done for low cost. And they don't have to do a great job at them either.
After years of experience and observation, I have only one recommendation for engineers, using these terms: Become a specialist at whatever you wish and start a business around it.
Your comment on starting in Physics is interesting. An observation that I have made over the years is that in general engineers don't seem to understand physics well enough. Or if they do know physics, they doesn't seem to BELIEVE physics.
ttemple, interesting observation. Another aspect of the debate, in addition to generalist vs specialist, is the amount of theoretical vs practical training should be required. Some time ago, it was deciced that many engineers did not have a good enough grasp of the science and mathematics behind their fields. As a consequence, many programs added more science and math classes. I guess it is not enough.
I think industry needs both. More importantly each individual should strive to fit those aspects of a career that are in their zone of comfort (augmented by a little sweat to have a working knowledge outside their comfort zone). I firmly believe this to be important if you are to enjoy your working career.
Using any of the profile tests available we fall into many zones. Let's pick two:
The left brained individual (disciplined, task oriented, goal setting, focused, etc) will most likely be happiest in an engineering specialty dealing with as much certainty as possible.
On the other hand the right brained individual (undisciplined, variety thinking, likes many different tasks, somewhat unfocused) may be happier working in undefined areas and dealing with unknowns.
I am from the latter. My lack of discipline was not a friend when struggling with my undergrad Electrical Engineering. Flunked out once, went to another school and graduated in spite of my study habits. Ten years later I completed two M.S. degrees in Applied Math and in Computer Science.
I enjoyed R & D and New Product Development and relished the challenges of uncertainty and solving unforeseen problems. I have had the opportunity to manage many coop students and feel that it is wonderful to see them gravitate to one particular area where they were able to shine when having been rather vanilla in a different area. The coop experience avoids getting that first job in you vanilla area which can be a career true damper.
Being a closet generalist worked out for me. Managing and troubleshooting at companies that introduced among the first electronic typewriters, electronic sewing machines, specialty watches and inkjet printers, including the hotmelt technology that lead to early stage parts manufacturing via 3D printing and "lost wax" parts fabrication. Lots of patents in lots of fields, I really enjoyed my career. Still read to keep up.
For the engineering student, seek out your true interest profile and design your engineering career around it. Get the basics so that you can understand the task needs and read continually outside your specific field to add a generalist capability to your bag of tricks. Then you can go well in many directions!
AGHock, I agree. A talented engineer is a well balanced individual skilled in general knowledge of engineerng fundamentals and armed with special skills in advanced technology. I too mapped out my career having a strong background in basic electrica-electronics knowledge but pursue developing skills in Embedded Systems. Both engineering backgrounds continue to serve me well and have never regret this career path.
BOTH Generalists and Specialists. They do not have to be exclusive in an educational institutiion, though curicula tend to promote one or the other. This does NOT have to be.
Further, many of us do not get a good handle on what we are good at until some years into our career. I think that what is really needed is to be able to learn more, academically, about spicific areas without having to devote full-time to a class program. In fact, many institutions basically force you to enroll in a degree program to get those graduale level courses. That should NOT be so.
Writing as a research support factuly person at a mid-level engineering univerity, with lots of industriial experience.
I'm more from the specialist-turned-generalist school myself, but I can see it either way depending on the individual. Engineering in particular has eveloved so much over the last 25 years, that some degree of specialization is inevitable in order to be useful to employers. Fortunately most employers of any size offer opportunities to pursue those specializations that are most important to their business. Foundations in the basics is key, but a willingness to learn new disciplines and to stretch your mind is the formula for success. Now if colleges could only teach that.
I think you're right on target, AGHock. We need both types of indivduals. For some people, it definitely makes sense to specialize, especially if they've found their technical passion. But many engineers change jobs and careers more than once and may not always use a specialization. Still others end up filling jobs outside of engineering, where their technical accumen may be useful as background only.
A skyscraper without sufficient foundations will fall down.
While the Leaning Tower of Piza is an interesting icon, it is necessary for graduates to have a sufficient grounding (foundations) in their subject so that they don't get blown over by the winds of change.
Over a lifetime, the specialisations that many seek will have disappeared. We've moved on from valves and morse code, and we'll move on again from the current mass market methods pretty soon, so some level of generalisation, and importantly, an underpinning level of knowledge and understanding, will be essential for the sucessful engineer.
There are certainly places where both types are needed and will fit well. A very large organization may need somebody who is a master with some particular model number FPGA, and nobody without a lot of experience with that part will do them much good. On the other side of the picture, how many places woulkd that person fit? and how soon would all that expertise become outdated and of marginal value? Besides that, how possibly can a university provide such a specialization that is not "past it's prime" the day the student graduates. And what if that same specialist needs to add an interface and amplifier for an A/D converter?
Headhunters seem to be a group that is either seeking an "entry level person with 6 years experience", and sometimes that experience on a device that has only been in production one year, or they want expertise in a wide range of areas, well beyond what is reasonable.
But a good grasp of a general engineering should be useful in a number of areas, and the background is vital for being able to develope a specialization.
I don't design logic chips, I design custom automation, among other things, and it is not economical to design a chip that would only be used in a dozen systems. So the ability to work in a more generalized manner has been quite worthwhile for me.
William, the situation you mention with the FPGA is an interesting one. Frankly, if you have a job that is quick turn around for a parrticular part what you need is a consultant, not an employee. Frankly, the idea that you need years of experience with something that specific is a bit of a problem. In the current technology environment there is really not very much that is the same for that long. Witness the promise by chip manufacturers that a particular part will be available for ten years. This is for areas such as automotive, where a model may be built for that long and the manufacturer does not want to have to certify a new chip during that time. Let's just say that the guy who has five years working with one part is not that likely to innovate (I have lots more examples).
I have run into the situatioin similar to you mention where headhunters want an entry level person with six years experience. It was a while ago, but it was not unusual. The request was for a consultant with five years experience in a particular operating system that had only been out for a year or so. It was a standard requirement. Most headhunters have no idea of what they are recruiting for. They are only there to take the load off the hiring manager.
I agree with you that what is useful is a grasp of general engineering principles and techniqies. Many projects do not fit neatly with one area or another. I know several people in the aerospace and robotics fields who, while starting with one degree (mechanical or electrical) get a master's in both fields. In the FPGA example, I recently ran into one organization where FPGAs were used extensively. They were programmed by both electrical engineers and software engineers. It seemed like whoever was available at the time.
Industrial machinery companies need engineers with even broader knowledge. I believe an electrical engineer needs to know about gear ratios, about making a basic mechanical drawing. At every job, I've seen electrical engineers either turf out a simple bracket for their electical assembly, or draw it with 4-place decimal dimensions for sheet metal work that will be done in 32nds of an inch.
Conversely, mechanical engineers need to know the difference between PNP and NPN, know what voltage the controls will use so that they can specify the sensors for the machine.
Lately I've been reading Sherlock Holmes for inspiration. In the first Holmes story, "A Study In Scarlet," Watson is shocked to learn that Holmes doesn't know that the Earth revolves around the sun:
That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.
"You appear to be astonished," he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. "Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it."
"To forget it!"
"You see," he explained, "[...] there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."
"But the Solar System!" I protested.
"What the deuce is it to me?" he interrupted impatiently; "you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work."
I think this describes some engineers' attitude towards knowledge outside their chosen field of specialization.
However, modern neuroscience contradicts Holmes' claim that every time you learn something new, you forget something you already know. Our brains are not data storage devices with a limited memory capacity. It would be better to compare the brain with a muscle, which gets stronger whenever you excercise it. It has been shown that every time you learn something new, your brain forms new synapses (connections between neurons). The number of such connections increases the brain's ability to retain information. So learning something new actually helps you to remember the things you already know. In other words, learning new things makes you smarter. Who would've thought?
For what it's worth, in the later Sherlock Holmes stories, Holmes is shown to have wide-ranging, eclectic interests that go far beyond detective work.
My point is that the assumption that one can either know one topic very well, or else many topics poorly, is flawed. For engineers today, it's essential to know multiple subjects extremely well.
By the way, a knowledge of topics outside of engineering (such as neuroscience, or 19th century detective literature) never hurt anyone, either. My advice to aspiring engineers would be to learn as much as you possibly can about as many subjects as you possibly can, and never stop learning.
Some have alluded to the subject line without making an explicit comment. I'm a Life Member of IEEE (joined the IRE in 1961!). 95% of what I learned in school (undergrad and grad) that was NOT underlying fundamental science stuff was obsolete within a few years of graduation, and some by graduation itself. In fact, I had my career path pretty well thought out in high school, but my areas of interest (and sense that thay would be the foundation of whole new fields) didn't even have names yet! As a young ham (also a LM of ARRL) I had a strong interest in RF, but also in the infant world of digital "stuff." Studying the new world of Information Theory (undergrad course, led to my master's field) I felt sure that the ultimate thing in EE would be digital communications, the convergence of EVERYTHING electronic! Funny how that turned out.... sad that the IEEE has essentially bifurcated into the Communications and Computer Societies that are both so involved in my career.
To return to the subject at hand, I've seen an incredible number of "lifetime specialties" successively become the "next big thing" then quietly fade away to be replaced by the next fad. This is nowhere more obvious than in programming languages: FORTRAN, Pascal, ADA, C, C++, etc. to name but a very few. Caveat educator.... and student!
So, after working in the "real world" for a decade or so, I realized my forte was really high-level systems conceptual design. Unfortunately, at that time 1970s) the title "systems engineer" had been co-opted by the (new) field of Computer Science, and meant a mainframe systems architect (which I certainly was NOT). So I started calling myself a "specialized generalist," with the intent of demonstrating broad knowledge of (and at least basic competance in) nearly all EE areas, and depth in quite a few. That's what I've done for about 40 years now (and am still active and fully employed doing today).
Bottom line: I vote for GENERALIST (usually with a full staff of specialists implementing my systems!).
It's interesting to see how many commenters have mentioned the value of a more general engineering education. I would have disagreed strongly with that shortly after I graduated, but after many years I now see the value in it. Specific knowledge is great to get a job straight out of school, but a greater breadth of knowledge is more valuable across a career.
For industrial control applications, or even a simple assembly line, that machine can go almost 24/7 without a break. But what happens when the task is a little more complex? That’s where the “smart” machine would come in. The smart machine is one that has some simple (or complex in some cases) processing capability to be able to adapt to changing conditions. Such machines are suited for a host of applications, including automotive, aerospace, defense, medical, computers and electronics, telecommunications, consumer goods, and so on. This radio show will show what’s possible with smart machines, and what tradeoffs need to be made to implement such a solution.