askST: Is engineering boring and will my career options be restricted if I study it in university?

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Sandra Davie
Senior Education Correspondent

As part of a series on university education, The Straits Times responds to a question on engineering degrees.

Q: My father is an engineer and so is my maternal grandfather. I have been inspired by them to study engineering as well, at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) or National University of Singapore. But my friends say that with my grades, I can aim for something more competitive and exciting. Some of them feel that engineering is a boring subject and such a degree does not really offer many career options. What is your advice?

A: It is good that you feel inspired by your father and grandfather to take up an engineering degree. What engineers do is indeed exciting and inspirational.

What makes engineering interesting is that it covers a wide range of disciplines - from rockets to mobile phones to hip and knee replacements.

At the heart of it, an engineer is a problem solver. Engineers use their knowledge to provide solutions to complex problems.

I asked NTU's dean of engineering, Professor Louis Phee, what he tells young people seeking his advice on engineering.

NTU's engineering education has been ranked highly in some league tables. Engineering and technology, as a broad subject area, has been ranked fourth best in the world by London-based education consultancy QS, for instance.

Prof Phee, who is also the university's vice-president of innovation and entrepreneurship, said if you are the type to wonder why golf balls have dimples on them or why split-level houses experience more damage in earthquakes, then engineering may be the right choice for you. It can help you answer questions and push you to ask new questions and find new solutions.

Learning to think like an engineer is another good reason to enter the field, he said.

"Your entire thought process changes. You acquire logical thinking and critical analytical skills. Decision-making skills are improved. You become more objective and less emotional when it comes to work.

"All of these skills are greatly needed in the professional world, in any field. So, engineers tend to do better no matter which sector they choose, and they also tend to make good managers. So much so, engineering is the most common undergraduate degree among Fortune 500 chief executives."

At the core, engineers are problem solvers - and students completing an engineering degree would have acquired the skills and confidence to deal with any kind of problem, even beyond working life, he said.

"You will know exactly how to go about it and where to hit it. No problem - no matter how big - will seem insurmountable. In fact, you will start viewing every problem as a challenge and an opportunity to grow.

"It is also an education for the present and the future, where we are faced with complex, global challenges, such as climate change.

"Imagine a special coating that could one day turn every window into an energy generator while insulating homes from heat, or 'self-healing' concrete that allows cracks in buildings and roads to be fixed just by reacting with rain.

"Such innovations would require one to harness a combination of civil, electrical, materials and chemical engineering approaches. In this sense, engineering is never boring but full of different challenges where different perspectives are required," Prof Phee said.

Hence, engineering education around the world has become highly interdisciplinary in nature. At NTU, there are new pathways for experiential and collaborative learning, such as the Interdisciplinary Collaborative Core curriculum rolled out last year to expose students to disciplines beyond their field of study.

For instance, with the growing importance of data analytics, all engineering students must take a course on data science and artificial intelligence.

First-year engineering students in the upcoming academic year in August will be able to opt for a new second major in data analytics.

NTU also places a strong emphasis on inculcating an entrepreneurial mindset. Since last year, it has offered a second major in entrepreneurship.

Beyond the classroom, NTU offers a broad range of programmes that offer unique learning opportunities. For instance, its strong ties with the industry at large means engineering students get the opportunity to work with heavyweights such as Dyson, Alibaba and Rolls-Royce. Students also benefit from global education, cultural immersion and work-learn programmes at both local and overseas universities.

Credit: Dyson NTU Studio

Since you want a rigorous programme that will stretch you, you may want to consider NTU's Renaissance Engineering Programme, a four-and-a-half year, dual degree programme that provides broad-based interdisciplinary engineering education which integrates engineering, science, business, technology management and humanities.

This programme takes in more than 40 academically bright students each year, and they will graduate with a Bachelor of Engineering Science and a Master of Science in Technology Management.

Students on the programme are encouraged to view problems not in silo, but in totality, resulting in a distinctive breed of engineers with the ability to bridge the gap between science, engineering and business.

These students also have the opportunity to spend the third year overseas at one of the renowned partner universities.

Prof Phee said the demand for engineers is growing across a wide variety of industries. For one thing, the ambitious targets set under the recently announced Singapore Green Plan 2030 underlines the fact that more engineers will be needed.

In the private sector, technology firm Dyson is set to grow its engineering team in Singapore by 50 per cent, and it is one in a long line of companies doing so.

The recent banking scam also shows the importance of cyber-security engineers in the finance sector.

Ms April Khong, a financial-crime risk analyst with FinTech Railsbank, studied information engineering and media at NTU.

The 24-year-old said many of her peers went on to degree-related jobs such as in user interface design. But when Railsbank, where she had been an intern, offered her a permanent job, she asked if she could take up a new role as a financial-crime risk analyst.

Ms Khong, who was involved in a few social service start-ups while studying at NTU, said: "Scams affecting elderly people really tug at my heartstrings and I want to do something about it. That's why I asked my employer if it would let me take on the position of financial-crime risk analyst."

Although her job is not related to her degree studies, she emphasised that at the end of the day, her job is about analysing a problem, understanding it and solving it - which her engineering education prepared her for.

"You often hear about how engineering prepares you for all kinds of jobs, in all kinds of industries. It's not just a marketing slogan. It's true."

Source: Straits Times © SPH Media Limited. Permission required for reproduction.

Published Feb 13, 2022