Electronic Design

To Step Up Your Career, You’ve Got To Keep Learning

Knowledge is power and money, but only if you acquire and apply it. Here are some suggestions for your educational journey.

If you're not involved in some form of continuing education, then you are doomed to suffer the consequences of ignorance, peer contempt, technological obsolescence, and eventual obscurity—and then you retire. Well, okay, maybe it's not that bad, but in general that has been the prevailing opinion of many in the engineering community. Yet while most engineers see the need for continuing education, they're not preoccupied with it. Usually they only go that route when it becomes absolutely necessary.

As you know, your college education provided only a base of knowledge. It didn't actually prepare you for the highly competitive, fast-paced industry that burns through new concepts and products faster than the dot-com companies burned through venture funding. If nothing else, though, you at least learned how to learn in college, and that's generally all you need to stay in the electronics game. But only if you do it! The kind of continuing education you will need is strictly a function of your situation, and you have options.

WHAT'S IN IT FOR YOU?
Learning is a time-consuming and usually expensive process. The first question is if you really need it. If so, what do you need, where will you get it, and what will it cost in dollars and time?

Most of the time, you must learn new things to do a competent job. New knowledge may let you excel at your job, do it faster, or introduce knowledge and results that bring you or your company a competitive edge. That kind of continuing education is worth going after. The key is to be aware of what you need, then go get it.

Another common benefit is learning what will prepare you for a new or better job. One engineer told me recently that if he did not learn wireless basics, he could just begin looking for a new job. Knowledge of what's going on in your company is essential to determining what you need to learn. If one set of skills is on its way out and another is coming in, you either need to learn the new skills or those with the know-how will ultimately take your place. Continuing education for survival is as good a justification as any other reason.

You may also have your eye on a whole new career path that requires some new knowledge and skills. It could also eventually lead to a better job. Most education tends to open up new opportunities.

Personal satisfaction is another often quoted reason for learning. Engineers usually love the challenge of learning something new, even if it's just for the mental exercise, let alone the potential benefits of its application.

While participation in any form of continuing education is usually beneficial, it's no guarantee that you will hold on to your current job or find a better one. It certainly helps in both instances, but today's struggling economy continues to see companies laying off workers and resorting to whatever measures will get their engineering done faster and/or cheaper.

Using the H1B and other visas, employers can bring in qualified engineers for less money. You may be smarter, but as some employers see it, you make too much money (including the burden of benefits) regardless of what you know. Outsourcing is also quickly becoming popular. By sending the design work off to Russia, India, and other places where highly qualified talent is readily available, companies save tons of dough.

Yet you can't just roll over and die. In general, the more you learn, the more you earn... up to a point. You just have to factor in the timing, the opportunity, the competition, and the economy, as well as what you know and can do.

You should plan to identify needed knowledge, learn it, and then act on it. Make something happen, if no more than getting your boss or the management to recognize what you know. Promotion may be tough in today's environment, but your knowledge could help you hang on to what you have.

CONTINUING EDUCATION SURVEY
Recently we took a survey of Electronic Design readers to assess their attitudes about and needs for continuing education. The results are summarized in the table.

Not surprisingly, the responses to survey question number one indicate that most engineers (98% in this survey) think that continuing education is important. The technology changes fast, so if you're not continually learning the latest and greatest, you'll quickly fall behind and could run into trouble.

Those of us here at Electronic Design see the hundreds of changes occurring daily. Even with multiple editors keeping track of the multitude of new technologies, standards, components, methods, and business arrangements, we often feel overwhelmed by the daily tidal wave of material that comes our way. Our job is to boil it down, sum it up, and present it in a concise, compact time/cost-efficient way for you to keep abreast. More than most, we know how difficult it is to keep up to date.

In light of the blizzard of new technological developments, your best hope is still to focus and specialize. Become a guru in your technical specialty. Just don't box yourself in with nowhere to go if your specialty is replaced or superseded, or if it simply becomes obsolete. Try to look ahead and give yourself a second specialty that will allow you to move on if the worst happens.

The answer to question 2 indicates that 71% of your employers still pay for your learning. The more you know, the more valuable you are. Yet during this long downturn, many employers have minimized and even eliminated continuing education due to costs. Almost a third of you actually pay for continuing education.

Answers to question 3 were also pretty much as expected. Books, magazines, and Web sources almost equally account for the bulk of today's learning. That means, as engineers, you're self-learners and take responsibility for keeping current. Just over 50% of you also participate in formal classes and conferences. Most of us really enjoy formal short courses or seminars, if we can actually find one that deals with what we want or need to know. That's becoming more of a problem.

Those with the real up-to-date knowledge are actually the engineers doing the work. They typically don't teach, write books or articles, or create online materials. Too bad. Though they're focused and effective, seminars are usually expensive and require travel, not to mention the two to five days or so away from work. See the online listing for some sources of useful seminars.

Conferences can also be an effective learning tool. Most offer talks, papers, and workshops on a variety of subjects. The exhibits are just as enlightening. Again, the time and cost factor keeps many away, but it's worth going when you can. Keep asking. There's nothing like three or four days at a conference immersed in the subject matter to stimulate your interest and creativity. For me, conferences are often serendipity in action. Even if it stimulates one new solution or idea, it's usually worth more than you paid.

There were many and varied responses to question 4, which asked what topic you'd most like to learn. Those mentioned most often are, in order, DSP, C/C++ programming, communications and RF design, and analog design. That list isn't surprising, considering it's getting more difficult each day to identify an electronic product that doesn't include DSP. For that matter, just try to name a product that doesn't include an embedded processor. No wonder you need to know C/C++ programming. And of course, the hottest electronics topics today are communications, wireless, and networking.

Most engineers who are more than a few years out of school actually never learned these subjects in school because over the years most schools either eliminated or downsized communications, RF, and analog design in favor of more digital. Given the resurgence in the wireless space and the recognized need for good analog design, some schools are bringing back these critical topics.

Finally, question 5 cements the fact that engineers are self-learners. Most of you get in that mode without being aware of it. If you've never planned and executed a formal self-learning project, give it a try (see "How to Teach Yourself Almost Anything," p. 44).

ADVANCED DEGREES
Most of you have a bachelor's degree, and a relatively high percentage of you already have a master's degree. If you don't have a master's, consider it, especially if you wish to move upward in a technical organization. An MSEE or MBA will make you more competitive, and it could be the deciding factor between failure and success. Tackling a graduate degree while working full time is a real commitment of time, money, and energy, particularly if you're married and have kids. It will take several years part-time to get that degree, depending upon how aggressively you pursue it.

If your work requires more complex analysis and design, a technical master's degree can really add to your knowledge and skills. You will learn new math and more advanced methods of analysis, simulation, and design. Often, MSEE programs are flexible enough in electives so you can tailor your degree to your job needs. What you learn one day you can apply the next.

What about a PhD if you already have the master's? Forget it. Unless you are going to teach or your job involves advanced research and development with more difficult analysis and design, then maybe, just maybe, you should consider it. In most cases, a PhD simply isn't necessary, and because of the overwhelming cost and time commitment, there's rarely a payoff or any kind of ROI. Those who seek out a doctorate want the title, ego gratification, and prestige that it seems to bring.

As for an MBA, consider it only if you've decided to abandon the real technical side of engineering to seek opportunities in management or marketing. Management is a whole new ball game. Sure, it pays more, but will you enjoy the people problems, budgeting and money problems, and the politics? Many not only enjoy it but actually thrive in that atmosphere. On the other hand, I've seen engineers promoted to management who discovered that they hated it.

During the boom days prior to 2000, an MBA was well worth the investment. Companies were hiring every graduate in sight. Today, an MBA is next to worthless when looking for a new job. New MBAs are literally graduating into unemployment. But if this is your decision, just be sure it's what you really want and be prepared to wait for the return of good times to make it pay off. With today's online MBA programs, it's never been easier. Perhaps if you start now, you will hit the upswing just as you graduate.

DISTANCE LEARNING
With the Internet and an astounding interest in online education, distance learning has gained new respect and a huge following. In fact, most major engineering universities now have distance-learning programs, including the prestigious Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and others. Not only can you get a master's or even doctorate degree online these days, but you can also access a multitude of short tutorials and other courses offered in this format. With so many of these programs available, a comprehensive listing isn't practical here. The online table gives you a starting point if you wish to pursue this approach.

Keep in mind the major benefits of distance learning: First, you get to do it at home or in the office. You don't need to commute to another location and find parking. Second, you can do it on your schedule. If you don't see what you're looking for in that online table, go to the Web site of the university of your choice and see what's available.

If you haven't recently participated in any form of continuing education, take a look at your own situation and plan something for yourself as soon as possible, even if you have to pay for it out of your own pocket. Just remember, continuing education to maintain your knowledge and skills is still tax-deductible.

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