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Engineering educators may be missing the chance to influence graduates' career choices.

Do students who complete engineering majors pursue engineering-related careers? Not necessarily. Wrestling with career choices, graduates often reach impulsive and transitory decisions. Institutions and family wield important influence, and students can be disproportionately swayed by single experiences, be they internships, interactions with faculty, or advice from mentors. Yet seldom, it seems, do they get career guidance from engineering educators.

Our study followed nearly 80 engineering students from two institutions — a private, comprehensive university and a state-funded technical institution — from their first year through the senior year. In senior-year surveys, fewer than half — 42 percent — were "definitely" planning to puruse a job in engineering. And subsequent interviews of 28 of the seniors revealed that only 21 percent intended to pursue engineering-related jobs, 25 percent were not going to, and 54 percent were unsure. Here are three examples:

Leslie was one of many who struggled with whether to pursue engineering after graduation. An aspiring missionary, she originally chose engineering as a major after being impressed by an organization that enlisted engineers work on an orphanage in Guatemala. But after her first internship, in a governmental entity, she asserted, "If that's what engineering work is all about, I'm not interested." By April of her senior year, she had decided instead to teach mathematics in public school. Then, six weeks later, Leslie announced that upon returning from a summer trip, she would seek an engineering job, after all — but only as a way to support herself until she started a teaching program. She explained: "Engineering pays better than Starbucks."

Kevin planned to become an electrical engineer until the middle of his junior year. Then he got an internship in finance, which he thought would give him added career flexibility. In his senior year, Kevin received job offers from engineering firms and from firms in banking and finance. While he valued the engineering background he had acquired, he took a job in finance because he believed the position would broaden his skill set and provide more career options than engineering.

Max was one of a very few in the study who never wavered in his career choice. He graduated with a job in the petrochemical industry. Like many who took engineering jobs, he considered financial security "a pretty big motivator." He said, "I want to be able to do whatever I want when I get old." He added, "I know people say money can't buy happiness — give me a million dollars and watch the grin on my face."

By a large margin, students at the public technical school were more likely to commit themselves to an engineering career. This finding appears to reflect the fact that their school offered few alternatives to engineering and few options for non-technical coursework. At the comprehensive university, by contrast, students had an opportunity to explore the sciences, art, and the humanities.

The results of our study ought to hearten engineering educators in one respect: Participants we interviewed valued the problem solving skills they acquired in their major and saw themselves as qualified to enter a broad range of fields.

Only rarely did we hear students describe specific, deliberate assistance in their career decision-making by the engineering department. Their postgraduate plans often were made without the influence or even the knowledge of engineering faculty. Our study showed that students' decision-making is malleable and careers can be marketed to them. Faculty could also collaborate with career centers and help structure internship experiences that meet a range of student interests.

Building such guidance into existing programs could ensure that qualified, talented graduates of engineering programs don't abandon the profession.

Gary Lichtenstein is consulting professor and Sheri D. Sheppard is professor of mechanical engineering in the School of Engineering at Stanford University. This article was excerpted from "An Engineering Major Does Not (Necessarily) An Engineer Make" in the July 2009 Journal of Engineering Education. It was co-authored by Heidi G. Loshbaugh at the University of Colorado, Boulder; Helen L. Chen, Kristyn Jackson, and Sheri D. Sheppard, at Stanford; and Britany Claar at the Colorado School of Mines.




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