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Make it a Double

- By Chris Pritchard   

Australia's engineering undergrads have wised up— almost half of them are pursuing dual degree programs and getting employers attention.

Marcelle Gannon was in good company three years ago when she graduated from the University of Melbourne with two bachelor degrees, one in engineering and one in commerce. Nearly 68 percent of the university's engineering students (up from 60 percent a year ago) are taking combined degrees. At Monash University, just across town, the figure tops 40 percent. And at Australian universities nationwide, the number hovers between 20 and 60 percent. Enthusiasm for combined degrees is strong in other disciplines as well. There's growing interest, for example, in pairing in medicine and law.

Gannon, who works as a hardware and software engineer for Silverbrook Research, a technology development company in Sydney, initially planned to concentrate solely on engineering. But after talking to other students, she discovered that many of them were enrolling in combined-degree programs. "I decided that if my prospective competitors for jobs were going to be armed with two degrees, I'd better be equally equipped," she says. She opted for a commerce degree that included economics and accounting, a decision that allowed her to pursue an interest in economics. In job interviews, she'd often been asked about her non-engineering abilities "and I got the idea that two degrees were a definite plus." What's more, she notes, "I can read an annual report and do a lot more."

It took five years to complete the two degrees, rather than the four an Australian engineering degree takes on its own. Students generally have to add one year for a combined degree, except when they're pairing engineering and law. Then it's two extra years because the disciplines have less in common that most other combinations.

The engineering component of combined degree programs is fully accredited, and no core engineering material is lost, says David Shallcross, associate dean of the University of Melbourne's engineering faculty. "We now accept that it's not important to teach everything we once thought an engineer should know. Some non-vital material must be sacrificed, both in engineering and the other strands of combined degrees," he adds. Marcelle Gannon says scheduling generally worked well for her, "though there was one course that clashed with another so I couldn't go to lectures, but in the end I did all right studying on my own."

But is the workload too much for students? "Absolutey not," says Shallcross. "The university won't permit us to overload students and we wouldn't attract such large numbers if we did so." With the extra year, he says, students don't have to work harder than they would with a single degree.

At many schools, engineering students have a big choice of second degrees to pick from, including architecture, arts, commerce, law, and science. Engineering and education combinations are currently in the works at the University of Melbourne, along with engineering and music.

The advantages of combined degrees are numerous, says David Wood, recently retired dean of the University of Melbourne's engineering faculty. Graduates, with second degrees in fields such as botany, chemistry, or economics will be able to address societal needs such as environmental protection and sustainability. Those with second degrees in computer science, physics, genetics, or microbiology can enter developing fields, including information technology, nanomaterials, and tissue engineering. Graduates with combined degrees in most disciplines have learned teamwork, leadership, and communication skills. And who, asks Wood, is in a better position to develop new products than engineers with second degrees in biochemistry, microbiology, pharmacology, or physics?

Mike Parkinson, former executive director of the Institution of Chemical Engineers, still smiles about the student who combined engineering and arts so that he could study classical Greek. He didn't want to mix socially with just engineers and had always had a love of classical Greek. But he saw his career path as being engineering-oriented. A combined degree was a chance to pursue education for its own sake. "And that's marvelous," says Parkinson.

Still, the University of Melbourne's Wood cautions, "we have to make sure that fundamental elements of engineering education are retained." While he believes the combined degree programs in Australia have been an unqualified success, there is a downside. It has become more difficult to get students to pursue Ph.D.s. The combined degree holders often feel they've spent long enough on campus and want to join the workforce where they'll be in demand and earn good salaries.

 

Enrollment on a Roll

Combined degrees got their start in Australia when they were offered in the late 1980s to staunch a decline in engineering enrollments. They were an immediate hit, says Melbourne's Shallcross, "and now most of our students are in combined degrees." Declining enrollments was the key reason that faculty members embraced them so enthusiastically. Now more students are pursuing engineering, including some who otherwise would have gone to science or commerce, he says. "They don't have to make a choice—they can do both. And Australia ends up with better, more rounded engineers."

In a combined program, students can't earn an engineering degree simply by completing an extra year after having picked up a diploma in another field. The two must be integrated in advance because of the overlap of some courses and the counting of some courses toward both degrees. "A sound knowledge of mathematics, physics, and chemistry is important to both degrees," says Shallcross. Combined degrees, he adds, have forced educators to examine the material they teach more closely, eliminating what's irrelevant and placing greater emphasis on what will be most useful in the combined degrees.

Parkinson, who also is an honorary fellow in chemical engineering at the University of Melbourne and an honorary associate in chemical engineering at Monash University, keeps a close watch on engineering education around the country. He emphasizes that students with combined degrees are highly marketable. The engineering and commerce combination is in particular demand—not just from engineering companies but from financial companies and others as well. "The engineering faculty was worried initially about a brain drain from engineering to commerce and science. But the ability to do both while investing only one additional year appeals to bright, eager students. He sees a growing interest, too, from law firms in combined law and engineering degrees. "They want lawyers who understand engineering issues for specific cases," he says.

Parkinson says that combined degrees are a win-win for everyone concerned. The quality is the same as for two separate degrees. His personal opinion is that a combination with commerce or law makes more sense than one with science, "because science and engineering are too similar," he says. Marcelle Gannon agrees, "Many of my friends were combining engineering and science—so for them it was more of the same, where I did something completely different in choosing commerce, and this combination helped me land a good job."

The local arm of oil giant Exxon, Esso Australia, also puts great stock in the dual degrees. Esso's Stuart Jeffries says his company is a major recruiter of Australian engineering graduates, and of those employed in the past three years, almost half have combined undergraduate degrees, including economics, arts, law, and science. "We've found that graduates with combined engineering degrees tend to have a breadth of skills that are valuable to a diverse business such as ours—including economic analysis, alternative perspectives in decision making, and additional vocational skills," he says.

Whatever the reason, whether it's to improve one's chances of landing a good job—or in the case of one student to expand his circle of friends—combined degree programs have hit it big down under.

 

Chris Pritchard is a freelance writer based in Australia.
He can be reached at cpritchard@asee.org.
 


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