The broad degree

I got my BS, MS, and PhD are in three different fields. My PhD is in a field that people refer to as broad, unfocused, and relatively non-engineering-like. But with the PhD you learn a lot of detail about your project so the broadness doesn’t matter as much. Plus, I have work experience before my MS, and my BS and MS are in pretty well respected disciplines (physics and a traditional engineering).

In industry, when I would hire, if someone had a “broad degree” for a BS, unlike more focused fields like electrical or mechanical engineering, they would come in and not be able to answer any of the technical questions I asked. Each person with the broad degree (I don’t want to mention it by name for fear of directly insulting people) had a little bit of knowledge in a bunch of topics, but not enough to be remotely useful. I’m talking about a criminal lack of basic math and physics. I never offered a job to any of these people.

So, I’ve been having a few first-year grad students coming to my office because they want an advisor that can help them get into the medical device industry. They come in with BSs in a broad field of engineering and when I ask them basic math and physics questions I’m learning the same things I learned in industry: they don’t know anything. This broad degree wasn’t originally a BS up until recently when colleges realized that kids wanted to get BSs in this field. The colleges are doing a huge disfavor to these students by allowing them to get a BS in this crappy field. I think this degree is fine once you have a solid foundation to build an MS or PhD upon, but the BS in this field is hurting students. I’m guessing, this is all to make some extra money off of these students. I understand there is a demand for a BS in this broad field, but if the students wanted a degree in drinking and road tripping to the beach does that mean we have to give it to them (I would’ve majored in that)?

I’m turning away every student that doesn’t have a solid math and physics background, but I’m concerned that good students are turning away from tradition engineering fields and physics to go to this broad degree and we’re going to end up with a bunch of incable engineers. I may get to the point where there aren’t any traditionally trained students to recruit.

That being said, so far I’ve recruited two students that I love, but these two have very solid foundations. Like building on wet soils versus solid rock. Terzaghi would have a field day with this.


3 thoughts on “The broad degree

  1. I think a lot of students just aren’t very good (background and motivation), and definitely aren’t good enough to do work for an advanced degree. Be prepared for the majority to royally suck.
    The fact you already have two you love is great!
    When I see how high school is structured, no wonder everyone is into non-math-heavy fields. They are taught by teachers who don’t like and know math, and they cowtow to kids’ aversion to math. As a result, you have physics taught without math, which is boring and stupid, and not until 4th year of high-school. In contrast, you have glorious chemistry and biology labs (also taught without math).
    So kids don’t want to learn math and physics, when bio and chem seem more fun.


  2. The biosciences are fine degrees. And, yes, kids do pick them because they’re more applicable, but we need people that spend their entire education on these fields or we wouldn’t have breakthroughs in medicine or polymers. I think she is referring to bioengineering (it was painfully obvious) where students don’t really learn enough to be relevant. Other applied fields don’t masquerade as something they’re not. Most of these bioengineering kids have a weak education in biology with a quarter-minor of the traditional fields.


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