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Stuff You Don't Learn in Engineering School

:: Carl Selinger, an independent consultant in various industries including aviation and transportation, has written a timely book for engineering students called Stuff You Don't Learn in Engineering School: Skills For Success in the Real World 1. He is also a contributing editor to IEEE Spectrum, writing the career strategy column for the magazine. Twelve of his career strategy columns were subtitled with the same title as his book, as part of a professional development series for younger engineers.

Stuff You Don't Learn In Engineering School covers a lot of ground for a 178-page book, and is designed to help the new graduate prepare for life in the corporate engineering world. Its purpose is to help new engineers learn the important "soft skills" they will need to succeed and grow in the workplace and beyond. Topics covered include writing, speaking and listening, making decisions, getting feedback, setting priorities, being effective in meetings, understanding yourself and others, working in teams, learning to negotiate, being creative, workplace ethics, developing leadership skills, adapting to the workplace, coping with stress, and having fun.

What's missing, of course, is research and information gathering skills. Are such skills not critical to the success of the new engineer, or simply not considered "soft skills"? Words like "library", "database, and "research" do not appear in the index. Mr Selinger holds two engineering degrees, and has extensive college teaching experience, and as such, must be aware of the major research tools of the engineering profession. I wonder why he chose to exclude this important component of the engineer's professional career from his book? Stuff You Don't Learn in Engineering School is peppered throughout with quotations from engineers Mr Selinger has met through his seminar series. The first quotation reads:

What you don't know will hurt you and hold you back. - Consulting engineering at Cooper Union Seminar
My question to that engineer is: would "what you don't know" include a lack of knowledge and awareness of major engineering information and research resources? Ron Rodrigues, in his article, "Industry Expectations of the New Engineer" (requires subscription to view), lists numerous reasons why developing strong research skills and expertise in using online databases would help the engineering working in industry 2. These include finding licensable technologies, checking to see if an experiment has been done already, identifying research frontiers, locating and creating patents and other intellectual property, developing new products or upgrading existing ones, improving processes, solving equipment-failure problems using root cause analysis, and many more.

Perhaps Mr Selinger does not consider research and information gathering skills to be "soft", and I want to give him the benefit of the doubt until informed otherwise. However, new engineers need to be aware of the information resources that serve their profession, and how to use them. In his 2001 article, Mr Rodrigues notes that "Engineering literature is growing exponentially and beginning to move more quickly towards a digital future." In 2005, this is a reality, as publishers are making their indexes and abstracts, for decades available only in print, now available online back to Year 1 of publication. These include Compendex, Inspec, SciFinder Scholar (Chemical Abstracts), NTIS, and many others.

If and when Mr Selinger decides to publish a second edition of his very timely and useful book, I hope he decide to include a chapter on research and information gathering skills. Meanwhile, do consider adding this title to your engineering collection. Since first becoming aware of it, I have mentioned the book in every information resources session I teach in mechanical, chemical and materials engineering.

1. Selinger, Carl. 2004. Stuff You Don't Learn in Engineering School. Piscataway, NJ: IEEE Press; Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley-Interscience.

2. Rodrigues, Ron. 2001. "Industry expectations of the new engineer." Science & Technology Libraries 19(3/4): 179-188.

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Comments

As the author of "Stuff You Don't Learn in Engineering School," thanks for the great review! Also thanks for giving me the benefit of the doubt ... I think that information and research skills -- while of course critically important -- are not really "soft" skills like the others covered. But we are on the same page: I'm now covering other skill areas not in the book in continuing articles in IEEE Spectrum, and the 1/05 web-only article on "Drowning in Data" deals with information overload & keeping up ... and emphasizes the importance of staying current in your field, and gives a few tips on researching issues.

"As the author of "Stuff You Don't Learn in Engineering School," thanks for the great review!"

And this is the guy who talks about the importance of communications! Strunk and White for you, Sir.

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