How Much Do Degrees Matter? An Engineer’s Viewpoint

Do degrees really matter? And, if so, when? Here’s my take, which is an engineer’s viewpoint. As you’d expect, that means that the practical skills you learn along the way are considered to be the main thing, while the social value of the degree is not given much weight. I’m not claiming that this viewpoint is the best one, just that it’s worth thinking about.

Three Examples

My father, Ambrose D. Plamondon, in spite of having polio as a teenager and being unable to walk far, even with a cane, spent a productive career as an aeronautical engineer. This was surveyor landerback in the early days of jets and space travel: the Fifties and Sixties. He took on the monumentally difficult task of designing the stabilization control systems for many spacecraft, including the Bluebird satellite and the Surveyor moon lander. He designed the loading system for the TOW missile. He was one of the inventors of the Hughes Magnetic Memory Drum, a revolutionary advance in mass storage in the Fifties, which helped reduce the size of computers so they could be put into fighter jets.

But he didn’t have a college degree. He ran out of money partway through college, joined Hughes Aircraft as a draftsman, and taught himself the rest.

oranges on treeOn the other hand, my great-grandfather on my mother’s side, Arthur J. McFadden, got his bachelor’s degree and then a Harvard law degree. He opened up a practice in his home town in California, and worried so much about his client’s troubles that he gave himself ulcers. So he closed his law practice and became a successful farmer instead, with eighty acres of oranges.

Neither man let his credentials dictate his life, one way or the other.

As it happens, I have a college degree (in Electrical and Computer Engineering), but I almost didn’t. About six months before I graduated, I was interviewed at Atari and offered a job on the spot, to create video games for Atari’s Children’s Television Workshop series for the Atari 2600 home video game system. Had I accepted it, I wouldn’t have a degree, and that means that my career would have been … exactly the same. I would have started at Atari rather than Activision. Not a big difference.

 What Does a Degree Reveal?

A degree, of course, is based on your transcript. Your transcript is just a list of classes that you (presumably) attended and (presumably) learned enough from to pass. How much useful information was presented in any given class, and how much of it you retained even a month later, is hard to say.

This makes a transcript a weaker predictor of on-the-job performance than, say, on-the-job performance. A degree, which contains less information than a transcript, is weaker still.

Now, this is just me thinking like an engineer. I’m asking the question, “What conclusions can I confidently draw about a person’s existing skill set from their degree alone?” And the answer is one can infer some things from a degree with moderate confidence, but not enough to make a hiring decision. (Proof by contradiction: If a degree were enough to get you a job, then some people would be hired based solely on their degree, without a resume or an interview. But this doesn’t happen.)

On the other hand, people get hired via a resume and and interview, but without a degree, all the time. And every day that passes causes college days to recede further into history, and your more recent performance becomes more and more important.

Degree Strategies

When I was at college at Oregon State University, it was passionately believed that engineers needed to go out and get real-world experience as soon as they had their Bachelor’s degree. Graduates might return after a few years’ experience for a Master’s degree, but only if they needed specific additional training offered by a specific Master’s program. As for a Ph.D., this was considered sensible only if you chose to become a professor or an academic researcher, since that’s what Ph.D. programs are for.

I think this is excellent advice for the engineering student. Like every discipline, engineering is a broad field with many specialized niches and skills, and university coursework covers mostly the basics.

Sadly, this approach presents difficulties in some majors. Where a Bachelor’s degree is enough to turn you into a standard-issue “real engineer” who commands an excellent salary upon graduation, other fields leave you relatively unemployable at the Bachelor’s level.

For example, becoming a licensed counselor requires a Master’s degree and a lengthy apprenticeship, and even then your career only pays about half as well as engineering. Becoming a licensed psychologist requires a doctorate plus a lengthy apprenticeship, but the career still pays less than a Bachelor’s in engineering. This seems awfully hard on the prospective therapists.

Thus, the whole process seems prolonged and expensive relative to the payoff. To an engineer, this means that it is inefficient and poorly designed. These programs clearly didn’t come about as the result of discovering how to create highly effective therapists in the shortest amount of time! Yet the relatively low salaries clearly mean that a more efficient training system is necessary. As the return on investment falls, an area of study becomes less and less practical and more and more ornamental, which is not what anyone wants!

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