College has always been a time of anxiety and excitement. But for engineering students, that sense of uncertainty has grown along with the growth of the global economy. It’s not simply a matter of competition with foreign counterparts, although that definitely factors into the equation. The global economy means that more products are coming to market far faster. But that doesn’t merely shrink design cycles. It also means new technologies arise at a far faster clip.
Four years can be an eternity in product development and technological growth, but engineering students are challenged to plan a curriculum without being certain that their areas of specialization will still be in demand when they graduate. It’s hardly likely, but it remains a nagging doubt—is it possible that some part of a hard-won engineering education will be outmoded by the time graduation rolls around?
About 88% of the engineering students we surveyed said they began their college careers as engineering majors, while the rest switched over to engineering after trying something else. Nearly 42% said they made the choice to pursue an education in engineering on their own, while about a third (32%) said a teacher or professor influenced them and 34% said a parent or other family member involved in engineering influenced them. About 21% said a parent not involved in engineering helped them choose their major.
Only 59% of engineering students today believe a career path in engineering and the potential for salary advancement is as promising now as it was when they first started pursuing their engineering education.
“Too many experienced engineers are currently unemployed,” said a postgraduate student attending the University of Colorado in Denver. “There doesn’t seem to be a stable career path. Job security appears to have disappeared.”
One postgraduate student at Virginia Tech complained: “When I entered my studies in medical physics we were told there was a huge demand and that everyone got a job. Now my friends who have graduated spend months searching and end up taking any job they can find, even if it’s not at all what they wanted.”
But most undergrads remain upbeat about the prospects for a good living in engineering. “I still think that engineering graduates have a unique skill set in problem solving and generally getting stuff done that isn’t fostered in graduates from other majors,” said a senior at Rutgers University. “Companies recognize this and generally offer good career paths for graduates with this type of training.”
One confident student at the University of Utah put it another way: “Biotechnology is still a growing industry. Besides, if I can’t find a job, I will make one.”
Despite the difficulties that some see for the engineering job market, an overwhelming 92% of the engineering students we surveyed said they would still recommend engineering as a career path to another young person looking to choose a profession. “I never went into engineering for the salary potential,” said a junior at Notre Dame. “I went into it because it’s something I thought (and was correct in thinking) I’d enjoy.”
More than a third (36%) of the students who responded said they’re involved in corporate-sponsored projects, while 42% work with professors in technology labs on projectsfor commercial applications as part of their curriculum. And 45% said they’ve entered technology/design contests at their school.
On average, students said that about two-thirds of what they learn in school is theoretical engineering (gaining a fundamental understanding of engineering principles) compared to learning how to apply those theoretical principles to real-world problems. But is this really the best approach? Nearly 63% of the students we surveyed believe they would benefit more if colleges put a greater emphasis on teaching practical applications.
“Each engineering course should have labs associated with them so that the students can apply the theoretical understanding of the material into a practical design and observe how devices are actually made,” said a junior at Temple University.
A student at Boise State University put it this way: “Students that don’t already have a firm grasp on what engineering covers don’t really get the most from their classes. For example, when teaching op amps, maybe we should understand why we use them. What do they do for us? What are some practical applications where you would see an example of this circuit?”
Some of the students we spoke to complained about being subjected to outdated textbooks, teaching materials, and techniques, while others complained about the spotty quality of tenured professors, too few labs, and a general lack of funding.
“Tenured professors (of which there are many) are uninterested in teaching,” claimed a student from Syracuse University. “And 80% of the courses taken toward my PhD were a complete waste of my time, skill, and money.”
“One of the major issues at my university is the issue of budget,” said a senior at San Diego State. “Of course, every university across the nation, especially public ones, has had to deal with this problem. However, I feel that budget cuts have directly affected engineering, which is a hands-on practice. One or more labs for classes have been cancelled, giving students less opportunity to try their hand at what I would call real-world engineering.”
About 20% of undergraduate students say they take online courses. Nearly three out of four plan to go on to obtain a postgraduate (master’s or doctorate) degree, while most of the rest haven’t made up their minds yet. Of those who plan to continue their education, the majority (53%) plans to pursue their postgraduate degrees immediately after graduation, while 26% will hold off until they’ve landed their first job.
Undergraduate students keep themselves busy. Nearly half (43%) work part-time or full-time jobs while attending school, while 86% either currently participate in or plan to participate in internships or co-op programs. A slight majority (53%) of those engineering-related field, and on average working students put in about 20 hours a week on the job. Only about one in four (24%) said their employer provides some sort of tuition assistance.
Today’s crop of engineering students is a fairly entrepreneurial bunch. About 20% plan to start their own company within five years of graduating, and another 29% said they probably would strike out on their own at some point in their career.
“My dream is to start up a high-tech company in the telecommunication field,” said a student at Vanderbilt. “As a PhD student at the university, I like working in research positions. And since my area of expertise is wireless communications, I’d like to start something in this field.”
Not surprisingly, today’s engineering students are decked out with the latest technology. About 90% use mobile devices (the Android platform is the smart phone of choice, used by 24% of those polled), and 45% either plan to get an iPad or already own one.
Nearly four in five engineering students have a Facebook page, and most (52%) also belong to LinkedIn. A third have Twitter accounts, and 87% watch videos on YouTube. Engineering-related videos on YouTube are watched by 60%, and one in five peruses engineering channels on the video site. And nearly a third have posted videos of their own on YouTube.
Most engineering students believe that social networking sites will continue to play a key role in their lives once they’ve graduated from school, with close to two-thirds (62%) saying that social networking sites will be useful tools in their future engineering work.