Life with an EE education: better than some will tell you

I graduated from Georgia Tech with a BEE in 1976. Being broke, I had to work for a few years to accrue some savings. Then I returned to Tech, obtained my MSEE, and planned to pursue a PhD in EE. Gradually I made three important discoveries. First, my interests in EE were too narrow for me to get the PhD. I was passionate about telecommunications and specifically such subjects as information theory, coding, and digital modulation. However, I didnít care much about electromagnetics, control systems, and a lot of other subjects that were on the PhD prelims. Because I had taken off several years between the BEE and the MSEE, my knowledge of those less-interesting subjects had already faded. I didnít want the PhD badly enough to re-do the junior year of my undergrad program. Second, I wanted to travel the world extensively -- and at someone elseís expense. Right or wrong, I couldnít see that happening as a professor. Third, I found out that in industry, the differential in compensation between an MSEE and a PhD in EE was small and transient. (The differential between a BEE and an MSEE is large and long-lived.)

I left the academic world for good and took a job in industry as an engineer. Years later, somebody published a paper on what would have been my dissertation topic. I didnít mind; I was happy to see the math all worked out.

Very quickly I ran into MBAís who worked at my employer. I got along with them great. They were smart, and they knew things I didnít know. On the other hand, I knew that I was reasonably intelligent. Also, I knew things that they didnít know. We worked together to launch new products. The longer I hung around them, however, I came to realize that what I knew and what they knew wasnít relevant. What was relevant, and remained relevant throughout my career: it was easy for me to learn what they knew, but it was impossible for them to learn what I knew. That was a powerful insight. After entering industry, my assignments in ďpureĒ EE lasted only three years. I took a management role to run programs in market research and corporate planning. Later in my career, I took assignments in customer service, marketing, sales operations, and contract drafting and negotiating. Particularly in those last two assignments, once again I ran into people who knew things I didnít know. And once again, I discovered that I could learn the basics of finance and law a lot faster than accountants and lawyers could learn the basics of EE.

Throughout my career, occasions would arise about once a month when my EE training was invaluable. Some type of management decision would be needed, or some kind of operational problem in the business would have to be solved. The ability to speak with an engineer as a peer, earn his or her confidence and respect, and get the information needed to illuminate the question or develop a course of action was absolutely necessary for me to succeed. I didnít have to be an engineer, but I had to be an expert in working with engineers.

Eventually I left the company in 2009, having traveled on business to almost every country that I had ever wanted to visit. Although the career didnít make me fabulously wealthy, it was financially sufficient for my lifestyle. Looking back at the career, I have a sense of great sense of accomplishment, although my name isnít on any patents, nor did I make it to the Board of Directors.

Do I second guess my decision to get the BEE/MSEE, instead of a liberal arts degree followed by an MBA or a JD? Definitely not. I kept my classic textbooks in information theory and coding, as taught by Dr Aubrey Bush. Every few years, I re-read those textbooks for pleasure and better comprehension. To this day, I marvel that a spacecraft one billion miles away can transmit photographs of Saturn to Earth using just a 20-watt transmitter and a two-meter dish. Thatís so cool, even today, and I understand how it works. I also kept my handwritten notes from Dr William Rhodesí superb graduate class in Fourier Optics.

I probably could have made more money with an MBA or a JD. But those people have their own problems: burn-out, disillusionment, the consequences of a hyper-competitive environment. You read about the millionaire entrepreneurs and lawyers, but you donít hear about the people with those degrees who never get the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow Ė or never even see the rainbow. Iíve met some. My time in engineering school was priceless in many respects:

Has technology changed since I graduated? Sure. But almost all the essentials of cellphones were understood in 1980; it just took time to realize and integrate them (and to drive down the production costs). I use a nice Linux system at home, but I remember taking a class in Computer Graphics at Tech in 1976. The lab computer ran Unix 1.0, one of the very first installations of Unix outside Bell Labs. The Unix command line hasnít changed much since then.

People overstate the pace of technological advance. Donít let it frighten you. If you want to stay a practicing EE all your life, you must stay current. Thatís doable. If you choose the path I did Ė to work with engineers, but not as an engineer -- you must broaden your knowledge instead. Thatís doable too.

To summarize: the BEE/MSEE opened big doors for me. I faced two forks in the road: one between academics and industry, the other between a career as a practicing engineer and a career that required interaction with engineers. Iím happy with the choices that I made. Best wishes as you make those choices for yourself.


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