Magazine for Student Members Turns 30

A look at IEEE Potentials’ past, present, and future

10 February 2012
30th potentials

Entering a field as fast-paced and volatile as engineering can be daunting. In just the past decade or so, such far-reaching developments as smartphones, social media, and cloud computing have debuted. Luckily, IEEE student members have had a reliable resource to help them stay on top of technology trends and ease their transition into the working world.

IEEE Potentials, a bimonthly magazine for student members, celebrated its 30th anniversary with its November/December issue. In addition to the usual articles offering career guidance, technical papers, and close-ups of student branches, the issue detailed IEEE Potentials’ history, including interviews with two IEEE members involved with the magazine’s past and present.

IEEE Potentials wasn’t the organization’s first magazine for students. In the 1960s, IEEE published the IEEE Student Journal, which was discontinued in 1970. Two years later, IEEE launched a student newsletter, but that also lasted for only a few years before it was discontinued.

By 1981, IEEE’s student membership had hit 40 000, out of about 234 000 IEEE members, and was rising. It was clear the students deserved a publication geared to their needs.

“IEEE leadership had faith that these students had the ‘potential’ to change the world every bit as much as their teachers and other predecessors,” according to the article “Happy 30th Birthday, IEEE Potentials,” written by IEEE History Center staff.

IEEE decided to take another stab at a student publication and in January 1982 student members received the inaugural issue of IEEE Potentials: The Magazine of Engineering Students (later shortened to IEEE Potentials). According to an editorial in that issue by Ted Bonn, IEEE vice president for publications at the time, the mazagine’s purpose was to make engineering “an attractive and fulfilling lifetime career.” The issue included articles on what electrical engineering jobs involve, the value of attending graduate school, and reviews of technical books—topics that continue to be covered today.

The anniversary issue includes interviews with one of the magazine’s founders, Charles Alexander, who served as chair in 1982 of the Student Activities Committee, and Darrel Chong, the 2011-2012 IEEE Student Activities Committee chair. Alexander, who went on to become 1997 IEEE president, reflected on the publication’s beginnings. “What was needed,” he said, “was a magazine that communicated career advice by actual practitioners, technical content designed just for students, and entertainment, mainly the Gamesman section,” a problem-solving column.

Choosing the publication’s name was not difficult. “I have always regarded the student member as the most important asset the IEEE has,” Alexander said. “Clearly, there is the meaning of ‘potential’ as it applies to the student member. It is also an electrical term signifying voltage and the ability to cause current to flow.”

Although technology certainly has changed since 1982, concerns about finding a job are not that different. “Surprisingly, the career issues facing students in those days were not unlike what they are experiencing now,” Alexander said. “We were coming out of a bad time for the world economy and seriously reduced opportunities in the job market.”

Job descriptions were changing quickly back then to keep up with evolving technology, and that meant instability. “Engineers no longer could look to job security as engineers had historically enjoyed,” Alexander added. “This led to a number of career-focused articles in IEEE Potentials.

“Fortunately, the job market for IEEE members developed into one of the best during the 1980s.”

Will the next generation of engineers see a similar turnaround in the job market? According to Chong, the potential is there. “We live in an era of tremendous possibilities around us—the iPhone, the Boeing A380 airplane, social media, megastructures—which all seemed impossible 30 years ago,” he said. But he cautioned that students must be prepared once they graduate for a “time of uncertainty and sluggish economic growth.”

So, how should they go about landing a job? Chong advised that they need to be “a lot more versatile in soft skills, broad in knowledge, and have a form of specialty in certain fields of interest.”

Joining an IEEE society—students can join societies once they graduate—is another way to get ahead. And, Chong added, don’t forget about volunteering’s capacity to provide students with leadership experience.

Looking ahead to the next 30 years of the publication, Alexander said employment-related articles will continue to be a focus “because careers will always be the most important concern students have.” He predicts that infrastructure enhancements, health-care advances, and energy distribution and generation will be among the technology subjects covered.

Chong envisions a focus on sustainability, clean water, green and nuclear energy, biomedicine, and artificial intelligence. “Who knows?” he added. “We may be talking about creating a similar atmospheric environment on a new planet because Earth is simply overcrowded.”

For more of the interview with Chong and Alexander, read "SAC to SAC: Talking 30 Years of Student Members." And check out another feature of the anniversary issue, a timeline of tech history from 1982 to the present.

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