Reverse Bias

Bias exists between engineers in academia and engineers in industry

3 August 2010

The following article is taken from the March issue of The Reflector, the IEEE Boston Section newsletter. It has been edited.

“Industry engineers are vocational.” These belittling words from academia introduced me to the long-standing battle caused by the biases between engineers in academia versus engineers in industry.

The response usually comes quickly, “We real engineers consider ourselves professionals who are solving real-world problems. Of course, you know the saying: Those who can’t do, teach.”

As a witness to this battle, I try to hold back the laughter. I’d like to meet anyone who has ever gone through an undergraduate program without encountering a Ph.D. who couldn’t teach his or her way out of a paper bag. Note: Having a Ph.D. is not a necessary and sufficient condition for being a decent teacher.

My second thought was, “Would you ever go to a doctor who never saw a live patient? Then why would we not want our engineers to have industry experience with putting theory into practice for the benefit of society?"

I’m considered quite an anomaly in the academic world because I came to the university from industry. Of course, showing up on campus in a pink suit and matching high-heel shoes didn’t help me blend in either. Nevertheless, I have continued working with industry and cannot imagine myself working any other way. If I didn’t have a real client application to target my research, I honestly think I would be bored. I also think the students in my lab wouldn’t be the most sought-after graduating students on campus. Their experience working with our industry collaborators makes them ready to jump in on projects as immediate technical contributors upon graduation.

When interviewing for one of my industry consulting positions, I recall the manager setting expectations very clearly. He said, “We expect that when you are done, you will deliver a working product and not some useless publication.”

This perception from the industry side considers academics as perpetual students who work in a vacuum because they never leave the comforts of school. (As an aside, I love to vacuum, not work in one—yet more proof that I am a walking anomaly.)

Industry complains to universities that students don’t get enough “training” in valuable skills that will allow them to be immediate technical contributors. Universities fight back by responding that skills are not “scholarly” and that students are learning to be innovative critical thinkers.

“Oh really,” says industry. “How is that possible when the people teaching them have never been outside the safety of the walls of academia and have no idea what it’s like out there in the real world?”

One professor responded, “Why do you keep saying we don’t live in the real world?” The industry response: “Because in the real world, you can be fired from your job, and you actually worry about economic downturns.”

At this point, I am ready to send the two sides into a dark room with rusty saws to fight it out.

INTERDEPENDENTCan one side live without the other? Industry needs fresh new perspectives that young engineers have to offer, while universities need industry to provide relevant experiences outside the classroom that exercise and strengthen everything students learn from lectures, laboratory assignments, and team projects. Why is the concept of creating a synergistic relationship that is mutually beneficial for academia and industry so difficult for some people to grasp? Maybe because some faculty members need to take those summer internships themselves and see what is really going on in industry. And maybe we need to get industry people into classrooms to teach and share their experience with young people.

But the news is good, for this is actually happening! IEEE members who are industry engineers are among some of our local institutions’ best assets. They are adjunct instructors at universities, and campus research labs are working hand in hand on industry-funded campus projects. Guess what? No one has caught cooties from walking on both sides of industry and academe!

IEEE has helped academia by getting students to take on real-world challenges. Recently, one of our Boston student members, Sampathkumar Veeraraghavan, won the People’s Choice Award in the 2009 IEEE Presidents’ Change the World Competition for his Information System on Human and Health Services database. This database is tracking more than 5 million children with disabilities to help provide early diagnosis and treatment, while researchers are using the data to identify causes for specific types of disabilities.

I find it inspiring that this young man has touched millions of lives with his innovative work. He had to work with doctors, politicians, and social organizations to accomplish a feat that governments have failed to overcome. He knew no limits and worked around red tape that most others would have run away from. He has made all of us at IEEE very proud, and we also should be very proud of his mentors and academic advisor for encouraging him.

Veeraraghavan’s advisor got it right because he had learned to reverse the biases. Teach the engineering, get students to think outside the box, collaborate with industry, and change the world. Yes, his advisor definitely walks on both sides of academia and industry. What is most impressive is his advisor does it all in high heels.

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