HELP, my junior staff wants specialization advice!

Nancy Anderson
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When our graduate engineers and junior staffers challenge us with what the best specialty is today, what SHOULD we say? We have encountered specialties, subspecialties, and product specialties that didn’t even exist 20 years ago. We know that some of them worked out real well for a few folks, and not so well for others.

My experience on this topic taught me that my only honest response can be asking enough questions to cause aspiring engineer to answer the query for herself. There seems to be no limit on the variations of pathways, and I don’t want Jennifer to remember me as the screwball that just said . . . “whatever you’re interested in”.

Wikipedia defines “Engineer” as: “a professional practitioner of engineering, concerned with applying scientific knowledge, mathematics and ingenuity to develop solutions for technical problems. Engineers design materials, structures, machines and systems while considering the limitations imposed by practicality, safety and cost. The word engineer is derived from the Latin root ingenium, meaning "cleverness". OK, that clears that right up.

But then Jennifer gets around to the idea that she would like to learn to design computers and components. GREAT! Now we start by steering her toward an Electrical and Computer Engineering curriculum (“ECE”) at an engineering school offering that specialty area. Next we ask about sub specialties. What sounds most interesting, Computer engineering, Integrated circuit design, Power engineering, Devices and processing, Signals and systems? Jen counters with “Do I NEED a specialty?”

Isn’t it strange how that word NEED starts to bring out all the caveats in us?

Well Jennifer, on a general track, you receive a broad background in electrical engineering, without focus in a specialty area. The advantage of not choosing a specialization is selecting your electives from a broader range of courses. A broad background gives you more flexibility to enter different career paths. It also presents a perspective on how the different ECE sub-disciplines are related.

On the other hand, choosing a specialization can also provide advantages. It can offer you an edge over other job candidates when applying for a position that requires skills you’ve studied within your specialization. It can also make you a likely candidate for graduate research in that specialized area.

A briefing on the basics of some “reverse engineering” seems to help. Start with the end product and work backward through the steps it takes to get there, in writing, with dates and research needed identified. Start with the desired job and work in reverse through specialization levels until you arrive at the level of experience and education you already have. The end of what you just recorded is now the starting point of your roadmap.

Attribute this method to Socrates, Plato, or just not wanting to DIRECT someone who has not researched their own options yet. To paraphrase a Buddhist proverb: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear”. Our job is to help the student get herself ready!

Try it out next time, those guys were pretty smart!

You can do this!

By K.B. Elliott

K. B. Elliott is a freelance writer for Working many related positions in the Detroit area for over 30 years gives him a unique perspective on the process. To read more of his blogs, please go to, and be sure to check out the postings for jobs in nearly any industry at Nexxt

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