Episode 78 — Grad School

equationsWe discuss the pros and cons of returning to school for an advanced engineering degree in this episode of The Engineering Commons podcast.

  • After knocking over a beer, Brian asks about the “industry exemption” for engineers.
  • As a point of reference, Jeff has a PhD, an MBA, and an MS in Mechanical Engineering. Adam has a Masters in Civil Engineering, and Carmen has an MS in Electrical Engineering. Although Brian attended grad school for a while, he does not (yet) hold a graduate degree.
  • Brian makes an inquiry about PhDs in industry.
  • Jeff explains why the subject area chosen by PhD students is normally very deep and not very broad.
  • Should we put this podcast on Stitcher Radio? Let us know in the comments, or via Twitter, or with the Contact link on our home page.
  • Our pros and cons for obtaining an advanced degree are distilled from the list put together by Petersen’s Guide for Potential Grad Students.
  • Pro 1: Earn more money. According to January 2015 Salary Survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the average starting salary for engineers in the US with a bachelor’s degree is $63K, while the mean starting pay for those with a Masters degree is nearly $70K. If you move on to a PhD, the starting salary increases to $88K.
  • Estimated lifetime earnings for engineers are tabulated in a US Census Bureau report.
  • Con 1: Grad school is a highly competitive environment. According to Sayre’s Law, “The politics of the university are so intense because the stakes are so low.”
  • Pro 2: Advance your career. You may be able to distinguish yourself from other candidates for a plum job if you have the proper credentials.
  • The American Society for Civil Engineering (ASCE), the National Society for Professional Engineers (NSPE), and the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) are advocating that engineers obtain education beyond a bachelor’s degree, although this position has caused some debate within the engineering community.
  • Con 2: You might like student life too much. If you get really comfortable with the grad school life, you may discover that you’ve become a perpetual student.
  • Pro 3: A higher potential for future promotion. Your graduate degree may help you move up the corporate ladder.
  • Con 3: Grad school can be very stressful. This is discussed in an article titled “Dealing With PhD Stress The Right Way.”
  • Pro 4: Get recognized for your professional efforts. You can become well-known in your industry or field if you uncover a new physical phenomenon or process.
  • The Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering recognizes engineers for ground-breaking innovation.
  • Con 4: Writing a thesis. It can become a chore to organize your research into a cohesive document. Many PhD students get stuck in a state of having completed All But Dissertation.
  • Brian references the movie Particle Fever as illustrating how years of research effort can be quickly derailed by new experimental results.
  • Pro 5: Join an elite population segment. Only about 5% of practicing engineers in the US have a doctorate.
  • Con 5: It can take many years to finish. If you’re doing novel research, it’s impossible to know in advance how long it will take to produce meaningful results.
  • The Michelson-Morley experiment is the rare case of a negative outcome (disproving the presence of Luminiferous aether) that was accepted by the research community as having great value.
  • Pro 6: Work on ground-breaking research. Grad students sometimes find themselves performing research that has the capability to change the world.
  • Con 6: Grad school is expensive. Not only do you have to pay for books, tuition, and housing, but there is a large opportunity cost to attending grad school.
  • Pro 7: An advanced degree can open up teaching opportunities. A PhD is usually required to teach engineering at the university level, especially since US News and World Report dings institutions for using instructors without doctoral degrees.
  • Con 7: No guarantee that an advanced degree will result in a higher salary. If you can’t find an employer who values your skills, you’re unlikely to be highly compensated for your abilities.
  • Pro 8: Work with state-of-the-art tools. Grad students sometimes design and build new devices that can revolutionize old industries, or create new ones.
  • Con 8: You may be perceived as “too qualified.” One has to judge whether an advanced degree will be a help, or possibly a hinderance, based on the type of work they wish to perform.
  • Pro 9: Because you want to. Grad school is a great opportunity to expand your professional horizons if you have a passion for research and study.
  • Con 9: Because you don’t want to. There’s no reason you can’t find a satisfying engineering career, even if you don’t have an advanced degree.

Thanks to Clay Shonkwiler for use of the image titled “Studying….” Podcast theme music by Paul Stevenson.

Episode 77 — Remote Host Toast

toastWe chat with software engineer Elecia White about embedded programming, self-driving cars, and why internet appliances must connect to the web more quickly and easily if they are to find commercial success.

  • Carmen is looking forward to burning images of Darth Vader or Fry from Futurama into his morning slice of toast.
  • Rather than looking at pre-programmed images when he butters up his toast each day, Jeff envisions reading the day’s weather forecast, or reviewing the best route to work.
  • Despite a multitude of promises that the Internet of Things will improve our lives, there seem to be a lot of technical and social details that have yet to be sorted out.
  • We continue to look for listeners willing to share their engineering stories with us. Please use the Contact page to let us know of your interest!
  • Our guest for this episode is software engineer Elecia White, co-founder of Logical Elegance, an embedded systems consulting company based in San Jose, California.
  • We determine Brian was the only co-host to play Command and Conquer, as he seems to be the only person knowledgeable about the proper use of engineers in that video game.
  • Although not taught as frequently in engineering universities as it once was, the Fortran programming language is still widely used for numerical analysis.
  • There are a variety of definitions for an embedded system. Our guest notes that an embedded system needs software (thus requiring it to include a programmable computer), but is not itself a general-purpose computing device.
  • Brian asks about the relative importance of being familiar with more general concepts and protocols, such as I2C and SPI, versus understanding vendor specific commands and methods.
  • Sam Feller’s analog clock is mentioned by Carmen as an example of a hardware product requiring a great deal of engineering effort.
  • Embedded system programmers usually come from either a computer science or electrical engineering background.
  • Elecia’s first interview question for embedded system engineers is “Were you in the robotics club?”
  • While many employers want to hire “full-stack” developers that can handle all types of programming needs, our guest points out that it is virtually impossible to be equally proficient in all areas of programming.
  • Elecia recently served as a judge for the 2014 Hack-a-Day Prize.
  • A least one internet toaster actually exists, as it reportedly attempts to find a new home if you don’t use it frequently enough.
  • It is also possible to remotely determine how many eggs are in your refrigerator.
  • Our guest identifies the rapidly dropping cost of processing power, sensors, and radio transceivers as driving the current fascination over the “Internet of Things.”
  • As explained in an xkcd comic, many of our existing problems can be cured be developing yet another standard.
  • An Electric Imp developer was interviewed last summer in Episode 202 of The Amp Hour podcast.
  • Brian asks Elecia about the challenges of writing software code under the guidelines of DO-178B, “Software Considerations in Airborne Systems and Equipment Certification.”
  • In a previous job, our guest worked for ShotSpotter, a company that produces a gunfire detection system.
  • Elecia discussed various aspects of interviewing in Episode 51 of her podcast, Embedded.fm.
  • Listeners can learn more about embedded systems from Elecia’s book, “Making Embedded Systems: Design Patterns for Great Software.”
  • The EggBot from Evil Mad Scientist is mentioned as potentially providing inspiration for a new type of toaster.
  • Brian raves about the Embedded.fm episode with guest Jack Ganssle, titled “Being a Grownup Engineer.”
  • Elecia recommends the episode about test-driven development with guest James Grenning, titled “Eventually Lightning Strikes.”
  • Our guest can be found on Twitter as @logicalelegance, and can be reached via the contact page on her Embedded.fm website.

Thanks to Windell Oskay for use of the image titled “hello, world.” Podcast theme music by Paul Stevenson.

Episode 76 — Creative Diversity

creativediversityWhat is your creative style, and when might it be most effective? We talk about creative diversity with electrical engineer Kathryn Jablokow in this episode of The Engineering Commons podcast.

  • Brian finds it best to have multiple solutions ready for every engineering problem he encounters, because potential solutions have a nasty habit of failing to be fully effective.
  • Carmen jokes that his preferred problem-solving style would be to pull a “Castanza” and sleep under his desk.
  • Our guest is Kathryn Jablokow, an Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Engineering Design at Penn State University. Her teaching and research interests include problem solving, invention, and creativity in science and engineering, as well as robotics and computational dynamics.
  • Despite an initial interest in physics, Kathryn transferred her major to electrical engineering so that she could “build things” and programmatically control them.
  • As part of her graduate work, our guest help build a giant walking machine, officially known as an “Adaptive Suspension Vehicle.” Do any of our listeners know to which corner of the earth this vehicle has disappeared?
  • We decide against describing the mathematical details of three-dimensional rigid body dynamics in a audio podcast; our listeners breathe a sigh of relief!
  • Kathryn authored an article titled “Engineering Styles” for the ASME website in March 2011.
  • Creative diversity can be described by four key variables: creative level, creative style, motive, and opportunity.
  • Creative level describes the potential capacity that one brings to the creative process; this includes raw talent, experiences, education, and practiced skills.
  • Creative style describes one’s cognitive preference for either adapting existing structures and methods to new uses, or innovating completely new structures and methods.
  • Knowing someone’s creative level tells us nothing about their creative style.
  • A well-known model of cognitive style is Kirton’s Adaption-Innovation theory. A normal distribution exists across this continuum, both for the general public and for engineering professionals.
  • Our cognitive style remains fairly fixed over time, although we are capable of engaging in creative activities that are either more adaptive or more creative than we like, hence making us “uncomfortable.”
  • Neither adaptive creativity or innovative creativity is better than the other; each can be beneficial depending on the problem and situation at hand.
  • We perceive those with a differing cognitive style to have a lower cognitive level.
  • Motive describes our willingness to stick with a problem until it is solved, and each of us is motivated by a different set of intrinsic and extrinsic factors.
  • Opportunity describes whether or not we perceive the conditions around us as being amenable to creative solutions.
  • Technical managers may have to overcome both “person-person” and “person-problem” gaps.
  • We debate whether companies and managers really want “creative thinkers.”
  • Inventive problem-solving techniques such as TRIZ and SIT can lead to new solutions, regardless of one’s creative style.
  • Kathryn recently helped teach a massively open online course (MOOC) titled “Creativity, Innovation, and Change.”
  • Our guest co-authored an academic paper( pdf) that examined concept maps drawn by engineering students with creative styles ranging across the Adaption-Innovation scale.
  • Kathryn can be found on LinkedIn. She can also be reached via email: kwl3 -=+ at +=- psu.edu.

Thanks to JohnathanMcCabe for use of the image titled “20141129_i.” Podcast theme music by Paul Stevenson.

Practical insights for the engineering crowd