You are correct that many things you learn about in engineering school are sadly rarely used again. I do not think this is a problem because engineering schools should teach a wide breadth and width of knowledge so an engineer knows the technique/knowledge exists. Very few engineers will correctly remember a complex formula or a long series of steps long after a test. Most will need to refresh their memory and practice a few times to get back in the groove. I recently had an interview where the interviewer asked a few SW/HW abbreviation meaning type questions of something I hadn't used in a few years and he was disappointed that I took a while to come up with an answer on the spot. He has probably been using that term frequently and thinks everyone else should know it also. Given a quick refresh, I could have given a decent answer. What needs to be taught in engineering school is how to find what is needed quickly, fill/refill knowledge gaps, and move on.
One sad fact is that many engineers who learn and master all those complex formulae and derivations in their curriculum, do not bother to learn some commonsense knowledge about their engineering discipline in their everyday life.
In one instance, I was interviewing an electrical engineering fresher and asked him about the voltage and current rating of the electrical outlets available in every home - He just could not answer this simple question!
Similarly while interviewing a fresh communications engineer , I asked him about what frequency bands are used to transmit the TV signals to our homes ( this was when the transmission was by VHF and UHF frequencies). he could not answer this question because he had not made effort to learn from the surrounding
I think if every engineering student makes it a habit of being inquisitive about whatever is around him then a lot of practical knowledge can be gained before you actually start working in a factory.
Some excellent comments above. One simple question I would ask when interviewing technician's and engineers: Given a BJT transistor circuit, describe the waveform at the collector (the drawing was a simple common emitter voltage follower circuit) with a clock input driving the output stage to saturation (sq. wave). I was suprised to see even some engineers stuggling with this one.
I remember asking a new grad a similar question, but I gave her a voltage input, input resistor value and a load resistor and asker her what value of beta or hfe would I need to drive 2A into the load. Her response: "Youv'e got to be kidding me"
I remember my first interview. I mentioned somthing about a pot core transformer which we had considered for our design project, but the truth was, I knew little about the component other than its name. Yep, I was name-dropping, trying to score some interview points. :) I didn't realize that the person interviewing was in charge of transformer design for the company (which built T&M equipment). "So tell me more about this transformer," he said. Suddenly I was wishing I had not brought up the subject. Gulp.
That said there are some subjects I wish I had studied harder, such as transmission lines. Perhaps someday I'll reread that text book. I should also dig out my Halliday and Resnick physics text and reread the electromagentism chapters. The recent news on the synthesis of a magnetic monopole has got me interested in physics:
The only caution I'd add to this article, is the interview "method" probably varies some by discipline. Most of the EE interviewing I've participated in at various companies evaluated technical understanding of everything from BJT operation to how an embedded system boots. Sadly, many modern graduates stumble on these basics that are still very important in day-to-day life in R&D.
I found your blog quite interesting. I'd agree with some of the other comments that at least in electrical engineering, all of my interviews have had technical questions to gauge my skill level as an EE. So all hope is not lost. I am with you though on how little I use some of the things I learned back in college..interestingly enough...about 10 years ago myself. It is amazing what they don't teach you! I've often thought it would be a really good class to go back and teach current students what the various roles a EE degree can get you into...product engineering, test engineering, technical marketing, applications engineering, packaging engineering, and design engineering...speaking of that last one, seems like all I remember college teaching me was to be a design engineer. There is so much more out there if that is what you want...
One can move relatively quickly into roles such as management or sales where detailed technical knowledge is not required, and therefor atropies over time. (No implied commentary on whether that's good or bad; I'd rather deal with managers and sales people who ONCE had the knowledge, rather than with those who NEVER had the knowledge...)
On the other hand, I've run into many instances in my current job where I used knowledge that I have not needed since my undergrad days, or since the days of my first job. That's an interesting twist on not needing some early knowledge! Then the trick is, how fast can you remember or come back up to speed? In any case, I'm rarely bored!
@LiketoBike makes a good point about having tghe ability to get back up to speed on subjects learned long ago.
There's another aspect of having been a practicing engineer decades ago - the old stuff becomes new as new engineers re-discover what we once took for granted. Sometimes the old skills are exactly what is needed to solve today's oroblems.
I had the same experience of having only one course in statistics. I still don't understand probability very well. It was a relief to discover that the human mind does not lend itself to an intuitive understanding of probability. Read the book "Thinking Fast and Slow" for more about that.
Here's a few things I learned on the job.
1) When you confront a problem you haven't seen before, you must throw everything you know at it, not just what you learned in engineering school. Eventually you get to an engineering solution, but you don't always start with one.
2) When you've worked on a really tough problem for a while, it often helps to examine how you feel about the problem. If you can determine what's bugging you about it, it often leads to where to look for the solution.
3) When I was a co-op student, older engineers would tell me that I'd never use calculus. Then, I became an assistant for one of the engineers with a doctorate. I realized that yeah, you don't need calculus or other higher math, unless you want to work on something interesting.
4) I learned how narrow one's view can get no matter how smart and educated you are. Again, when I was a co-op student, I had a conversation with two engineers with master's degrees. They assured me that semiconductors were a passing fad. I'm not kidding.
5) I learned this from another young engineer. If you can't solve a problem at first, think about how you'd describe the problem to somebody who you're pretty sure would know the answer, but don't talk to them. Instead, use the description yourself.
Unlike a lot of people, I got into electrical engineering and then electronics and then software because I was an artist who got hooked on computer graphics back when Jim Blinn, Ed Catmull, Alvy Ray Smith, and others were inventing it.
Having no background in anything technical and almost no science education, I was able to truly appreciate how one's mind is shaped by an engineering education. A few years after I got my BSEE, the first Mac became available. I guess if I had waited, I could have skipped studying engineering, but I'm very glad I didn't.
Besides the problem solving skills and technical background I received, it gave me an internal view of the engineering field you can't get without doing it. This has been very valuable now that I'm writing screenplays for high tech action movies.
For more about my journey from art through engineering to screenwriting, read my book:
Jim Blinn was working at Microsoft and is now retired somewhere in the Seattle area. He's pretty easy to contact from his website if you want a few more moments on memory lane. Thanks for checking out my book.
I totally agree with your point about the calculus. I worked in hardware design before. I often joked with my co-workers calculation wise all I need is simple math. Apprently, as an engineer, we need more than just plus, minus. But, I seldom found myself get into the situation where I need complex formula or calculus to solve the problem. I always use reasonable amount of of appximation. That will just do the job.
Thanks for reading! I'm sure some engineers need to use it, but I think it's pretty rare. As "liketobike" alluded to, understanding how to go back and relearn things is possibly the important part. That and the process of learning it is probably important.
I fall on the other side of the do-I-need-this-math debate. I'm an RF/microwave guy, with an electromagnetics background. I work at a small firm where we do lots of things. We do a mix of signal processing, RF, antenna, electro-optics, modeling and simulation, mechatronics, embedded, and a host of other things. I still work with Maxwell's equations (you CAN do useful quick-and-dirty things with them, believe it or not!). Others are doing matrix-heavy DSP that requires derivations. We use Matlab a lot. (Tools like that mean that I can use a function - after reading its documentation and making sure I'm using it where it is valid, with the expected level of accuracy, with arguments in the right range, etc - rather than having to code the function up myself.)
So don't count on NOT having to use higher math. Working at my employer requires it. :-)