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.
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.
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.
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!).
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.
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.
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...
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.
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Noting that we now live in an era of “confusion and ill-conceived stuff,” Ammunition design studio founder Robert Brunner, speaking at Gigaom Roadmap, said that by adding connectivity to everything and its mother, we aren't necessarily doing ourselves any favors, with many ‘things’ just fine in their unconnected state.
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