Chris Alexander

On Engineering

Why you will always use your degree

18th October, 2009

Having just switched from my third year at University to do a placement (“sandwich” - unfortunately not edible) year at TweetMeme, I’ve been talking to a lot of people about University, what you can get out of it, what you want out of it, and whether this placement is the right thing to do (it turns out I’m doing it now, so I won’t discuss that here).

What I would like to talk about, however, is why I think a degree is important to have in your education.

Before I start, I must acknowledge that a degree and University life isn’t for everyone. I still find it stressful and incredibly frustrating at times, and I can see why people would not want to do it and move on to the “real world” so to speak.

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One of the key things for me to get out of the placement I have just started is that I get to go back to University at the end of it: I can consolidate all the knowledge I obtained, finish off my development in the University environment and then I will be ready to be unleashed upon the world and to whatever my future holds (don’t ask me what I will be doing, I don’t know yet and won’t for some time I should imagine).

I think you learn some things at University that you may not be able to in your own development, at work, or inherit/learn from your parents.

One of these is critical thinking; the ability to look at a problem that you cannot solve, break it down into manageable pieces, expand your knowledge intelligently so as to not only know just what you need to in order to solve the problem, but sufficiently to know that your approach is the most efficient and the best way of solving this particular problem.

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Yes, yes I know that they teach “critical thinking” at GCSE and A-Level today. And, to some extent, you can pick this up from a professional career (especially in programming / engineering), and you can naturally have a talent for this kind of thing. But I can’t help thinking that there’s nothing quite like a good Engineering degree to really get this skill in; and when it’s in, it’s there for life.

Admittedly, there are situations in “real life” where you can learn this, and in some cases the hard way - I spent a substantial amount of last week fixing an issue that had arisen solely because I had not fully understood the technology that was being used (I also claim this was down to very poor documentation and usage instructions, but that is a debate for another day).

I’m intrigued to know what you think of this - did you do a degree? What lead you to that decision, and did you get what you wanted out of it? Would you have done it differently in retrospect? Drop a comment below.