HowTo: Get the Most Value from Your Engineering Degree

A question you hear frequently from upper year engineering students is “How do I land my dream internship/job/career?” or variants like “I have X.Y GPA, why am I not receiving internship offers?”. Because I give this advice often, I’m “replying to public” and describing it fully here.

A good engineer has a solid toolbox of skills and resources they can rely on to get their job done, and being employable means demonstrating to employers that you have those skills and resources. Regardless of discipline, your toolbox should cover these five categories

  1. Technical Knowledge, Design, and Problem Solving
  2. Experience Building, Testing, and Fixing Products and Systems
  3. Communication
  4. Project Management and Leadership
  5. A Strong Network of Colleagues

Now if you put your head down, focus entirely on coursework, and earn a perfect GPA, which categories are you strong in? You’re probably solid in category one, but with the bare minimum in the other categories. So what should you be doing during those 4 5 6 several years of a degree?

Where Course Work Falls Short

Working hard in courses improves your skills in category 1. It builds technical knowledge and problem solving skills very well, and depending on your school can (but may not) do a good job of teaching the design process.

But take a look at the other categories. When it comes to building projects, the majority of school labs and projects are standardized and repeated. You end up solving the same problems as any other student, and have a TA nearby that knows the answer. Capstone project is often the only unique project you will do, and your only experience building a project of your own creation without somebody nearby telling you how things should be done.

How many times, over a full degree, do you have to stand up and present your design and your projects to an audience? It’s probably less than 10. If you narrow that to presentations where stakeholders are actively questioning your decisions and force you to defend the design, that number probably falls to 1 or 2. Engineering programs are woefully inadequate at developing graduates who can communicate and defend their ideas, and companies know this.

And speaking of projects, how many of your projects have more than 3 members? More than 10? In my undergrad, the largest coursework project was only 5 people. At that size little management is required, compatibility discussions can be made on a napkin, and resources are easy to schedule. When head off into a career, it’s easy to find yourself working as part of a 20 person sub-team on projects involving hundreds of engineers, competing for resources with several other projects. And while it’s rare to go directly into project management at entry level, it’s important that you know how your actions and decisions affect the overall project, and that awareness doesn’t come from being part of a 5 person team.

Networking, is completely outside your curriculum. It’s exclusively the domain of clubs, societies, and other extra-curriculars. You should make a few connections by studying with friends and working on projects, but that’s about it.

I don’t intend to completely devalue coursework, but it is not the only thing you should be doing. Coursework is mission-critical to getting that fancy piece of paper with your name on it, which is a prerequisite to Professional Licensing if your discipline expects it. But as the saying goes “C’s get degrees”, so don’t forget to focus on broadening your skill set beyond raw technical knowledge.

Extra-curricular Projects and Engineering Teams

These kind of projects are enormously valuable as learning experience, and your best opportunity to become a better engineer before you can land a co-op. You’ll be designing systems with a mix of the technical knowledge you’ve learned in coursework, while learning how to discover the things coursework didn’t teach you. Engineering teams will often have students working on tasks years ahead of their year standing, so you’ll be adept at teaching yourself, and have that background when it comes time to learn via coursework.

Once you’ve finished designing your system, you’ll almost definitely be the person who orders, machines, solders, assembles, and debugs your design. No TA around, no manual except the one you’ve written for yourself, and an endless stream of things that can go wrong. This stage never goes smoothly, and each build process teaches you how design things that are easier to build and test.

Projects and teams provide numerous opportunities for improving your communication skills. From the formal presentations and design reviews, to being forced to defend your ideas during meetings discussing the path forward. These types of communications are orthogonal to your communications in coursework,

For project management there’s no better way to learn than with extra-curriculars. Every project in coursework is designed, run, and supervised by people who aren’t students. Once you join an extracurricular project, students run the show. Students manage time lines, schedules, budgets, and org charts. Students run meetings, hold training, and produce deliverables. Larger teams run like a business, with students managing outreach and public opinion, fund raising and sponsorship, purchasing, and operations. Small teams are great for first teaching you how to execute a project, but taking a leadership role in a large engineering team will be valuable experience for how to participate in and run projects in your future employment.

And last but not least is networking. Because these projects are typically made up of the same students as coursework, you’re not going to immediately make a bunch of new contacts. But if the project is multidisciplinary you’ll build connections with students from other departments, and as you do outreach and competitions, grow your network further.

Co-Ops and Internships

These are the bread and butter of your education. They’ll provide deep technical experience in design and in project execution. You’ll participate in meetings and present your work, while working in a properly managed environment. You’re not likely to be leading any projects, but will be closely working with other engineering and managers in your field, building a network of colleagues. Now, in some regions co-ops are the norm, and easy to earn. But there are plenty of regions where they’re harder to come by. If for whatever reason co-ops aren’t an option, there is a backup.

Research Work with Professors

Working with profs is helpful, but not a complete replacement for co-ops. They’re a strong way to build technical knowledge and experience executing a project, while earning a (small) paycheck. You may or may not learn communication, but writing a paper of presenting at conferences is a valuable way to gain communications skills that are different from your coursework. Management and leadership are going to be lacking, given the small size of academic projects, and the fact that you’re likely to be on the bottom tier.

The 70-20-10 Model

The The 70-20-10 model says that 70% of your professional development will come from hands-on experiences, 20% from interacting with colleagues, and 10% from formal education. It’s developed for people who have their degree already, so a little skewed, but a good example of where your priorities should lie. Work experience is immensely valuable and bets provided by co-ops, but also by extracurricular teams, and a little bit by research work. That social interaction can come from coursework, co-ops, teams, and research, but don’t forget to include things like conferences and outreach. Finally is the 10% of formal education. Before you graduate, that number is going to be far larger than 10%, but it should not be 100%. Finish your degree, don’t forget all the other important things.