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American Society for Engineering EducationNOVEMBER 2006Volume 16 | Number 3 PRISM HOMETABLE OF CONTENTSBACK ISSUES
Fields of Fuel - By Bethany Halford
Higher Ambitions - By Alvin P. Sanoff
The Burden of Plagiarism - By Thomas K. Grose

REFRACTIONS: Identifying Ourselves - By Henry Petroski
LAST WORD: Gender Bias in Academe - By Alice Merner Agogino

Piecing It All Together: The Learning Factory provides engineering students with a more hands-on learning experience. By Lynne Shallcross
Book Review: The Dance of Molecules: How Nanotechnology Is Changing Our Lives - Reviewed By Robin Tatu
YEAR OF DIALOGUE: A Conversation With a Center- By Karl A. Smith
On Campus: Winning Combination - By Lynne Shallcross

REFRACTIONS: Identifying Ourselves - By Henry PetroskiHenry Petroski  


I have been wondering about the designation, “Professional Engineer.” Does it help our image to qualify the achievement of being a registered engineer with the adjective “professional?” Since we consider engineering itself to be a profession, isn’t “professional engineer” redundant?

Since we consider engineering itself to be a profession, isn’t “professional engineer” redundant?In 1935, at the first annual meeting of the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE), it was resolved that licensed engineers should be addressed by the simple title, “Engineer.” The idea was ridiculed by the Engineering News-Record (ENR), which asked in an editorial if engineers were willing to carry the suggestion to its logical conclusion, which would mean addressing doctors as “Physician Jones, Dentist Smith or Chiropractor Brown,” since those professions were also “licensed in the interests of public safety.”

The distinguished bridge engineer David Steinman, president of NSPE and originator of the idea, responded in a letter to the editor of ENR, which he signed “Engr. D. B. Steinman.” He gave two related reasons behind the proposal. First, restricting the use of the title Engineer to those who were indeed “professional engineers” by education and experience would help eliminate public confusion about exactly what it meant to be an engineer.

Second, he did not believe that engineers could expect the public to hold their profession in “high esteem” if they themselves did not demonstrate pride in it. Each engineer could do so by consistently using the designation Engineer, which Steinman abbreviated Engr., the way physicians use, “without self-consciousness,” the designation Dr. and expect to be addressed accordingly.

It was Steinman’s expectation that American engineers would gain recognition and stature by being identified in a similar way. He knew that engineers in Spanish-speaking countries routinely used the prefix “Ing.” (for Ingeniero) when introducing themselves. This develops an expectation among the citizenry to address an engineer as such.

In addition to using Dr. with their surname, medical doctors are very conscientious in appending the letters M.D. after their full name. In fact, the relentless use of “Dr.” by medical doctors has on occasion presented problems for doctors of philosophy. When a Ph.D. identifies himself or herself as “Dr.,” it is often assumed that medical doctor is meant. When it is not so assumed, the question that may be asked of the person is, “Are you a real doctor or a Ph.D.?”

Surely lawyers, who receive the degree J.D., or Juris Doctor, could also assert the right to preface their name with “Dr.,” but they do not do so. Perhaps this is because of the seemingly virtual copyright that medical doctors have asserted on it. Some lawyers do affix the distinguishing suffix “Esq.” to their name, but the vast majority of lawyers identify themselves simply as “Mr.” or “Ms.” Still, most engineers seem to perceive that lawyers get more respect.

What both medical doctors and lawyers definitely do not do is call themselves is “professional doctors” and “professional lawyers” or “registered doctors” and “registered lawyers.” They and their patients and clients understand that these professionals must be licensed or admitted to the bar in the state in which they practice, but this is seldom made explicit beyond the certificates hanging in their offices.

Ironically, it was David Steinman who, having lost his battle to have engineers identified simply as what they are, promoted their registration as “professional engineers” and the use of P.E. after their name. It is probably unrealistic to try to turn back the clock, but it might be possible to change slowly the culture going forward by encouraging engineers to identify themselves more explicitly as such. In the proper context, Steinman’s proposal to use the prefix “Engr.” might be one worth reconsidering.

Engr. Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. He is the author of “Success Through Failure: The Paradox of Design” and other books on engineering and design.




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American Society for Engineering Education