Practicing Engineering

Engineering is a profession.
It is not simply an occupation, something that ‘occupies’ us. For some engineers, it’s not a career (an occupation of significant length), or a vocation (an occupation that one feels strongly suited to do). But for all engineers, it is a profession, an occupation that requires a mix of technical and practical knowledge. A professional is the intersection between a tradesperson and an expert: someone with a particular set of skills and the knowledgebase to inform use of those skills.
A lot of occupations are professions. Being a car mechanic is a profession. Teaching is a profession. ‘Consulting’ is usually a profession. Practicing medicine or law is certainly a profession. And, as I said earlier, engineering is a profession. Why does this classification matter?
Academia does not (generally speaking) prepare people for professions.
Suppose one becomes a Master of Arts in literature. Does this degree necessarily mean that they are an author? What about somebody with a PhD in physics? Does that piece of paper make them a physicist? How about somebody with a BA in business? Are they a businessperson?
Contrast these degrees to the degrees of doctors or lawyers. An MD or JD is fundamentally different than a PhD. The former are professional degrees, and the latter is an academic degree. The difference is simply that academic degrees certify that the holder has completed a school and learned a certain amount of knowledge, but that professional degrees certify that the holder is capable of practicing the profession, and has the requisite knowledge to do it.
The fact that engineers receive academic degrees and then become practicing engineers seems, on the surface, as fine as letting people with BA’s in business run businesses. It is, as many current engineers will tell you, fine. “Most of the skills you need you’ll learn on-the-job,” they say. They’re right. But the reason that engineers receive academic degrees, I hypothesize, is because of a key historical assumption about engineers that cannot be made about doctors or lawyers: Engineers already have engineering experience by the time they attend school.
Engineers of the past were tinkerers, carpenters, and artisans. Formal training doesn’t matter nearly as much as experience when you’re making things. But as humanity needed more and more complex things to be made, we began schooling the makers so that they would have a good knowledgebase to build the things of the future. People went to engineering school because they were already good at engineering, and it was a way to enhance their knowledge. Their experience contextualized their knowledge.
Education for doctors began in the opposite way: the human body has always been complex. In order to be good at healing people, one must understand how the body works, and intuition covers almost none of it. Even experience in healing people doesn’t make someone an expert; medicine advanced very slowly for thousands of years. But along the way, the formal training improved, and so did medicine. For doctors, knowledge contextualizes experience. You probably don’t know any doctors who went to medical school because ‘they were good at healing people.’ Doctors can only get useful experience once they’ve attended some school.
This brings me to my major point: the assumption identified above is wrong. It could have been true at some point, but today, many people attend engineering school with no experience in engineering. Math and science are thrown at them under the promise of ‘being useful’, rather than because they make easier what has already been done. That this assumption is wrong is a key reason for the Olin education being the way it is. We do projects to give us experience and knowledge simultaneously. It’s literally the definition of “do-learn,” as opposed to “learn-do,” the way that engineering had been taught for so long.
Maybe a takeaway from this is that engineering is not an academic subject, any more than medicine or pottery are subjects. There are certainly academic subjects that are important to engineers, like statics, or materials science, or semiconductor physics. But engineering is more a skillset that requires the use of these subjects. Engineering is more like research than physics, or information-gathering than history; it’s a lot broader, and a lot harder to teach. So stop saying that you ‘study engineering.’ You’re practicing being an engineer.
Most of this article was inspired by a conversation I had over the summer with some faculty. Especially influential were Ben Linder and Rebecca Christianson. Thanks also to Wikipedia: