Engineering Careers and Academic Reputation

A new survey and article in the Chronicle of Higher Education looks at the disconnect between students’ criteria for picking a college (university) and what employers care about.  Basically it says that applicants who spend a lot of time and effort trying to pick a university with the best “reputation” are possibly wasting their time.

According to the survey results,  19% of employers in the area of science and technology feel that “academics” are most important (i.e. the student’s grades and where they attended), but 50% of employers are more interested in “experience” (presumably the other 31% don’t care or are equally interested in both factors).  The article goes into some discussion about various examples and anecdotes.  But the main message is that a graduate with some good and useful experience will be attractive to employers, even if they are not the top of the class and come from a less “reputable” institution.

As a researcher, from time to time I have to select or hire graduate students or other research assistants, and I would agree with the 50% that experience and practical aptitude are most important to me.  A person that got 99% in differential equations and can solve a Sturm-Liouville problem might be good, but may also be useless to me if they lack creative problem solving in the laboratory and can’t trouble-shoot experimental equipment or see the relationship between theory and practice.  Students that have some co-op or summer work experience in a related field are always most attractive no matter what their marks, because I can have more confidence that they will know how to work independently and successfully.

Of course, when Waterloo Engineering was started in 1957 this was the whole point.  A person’s full potential is not realized until they’ve had the opportunity to learn and apply both theory and practice, so why not accomplish both at the same time in a co-operative education program?

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