I’ll Pay You to Quit Engineering…
October 14, 2019
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Wouldn’t it be great if this was the case; someone pays you (actual money) to quit your degree! Well, some of you may recall that back in 2011, this was the promise made by Peter Thiel (the co-founder of Pay-Pal); pay 24 students $100k each to quit college and pursue business ideas instead. This offer came as a result of Thiel’s proclamation that when the costs and benefits were directly weighed, college was largely a waste of time. Those who were motivated would be better served by driving headlong into pursuing their entrepreneurial ideas.

The first year it was offered, 24 students were selected; so what happened to them? In 2015, it was reported that most seemed to have enjoyed their experience, very few saying that they would not go back and do it again. One participant did offer some pertinent insight; there was no way to meet ‘normal friends’ during the program and ‘most people would be better off going to college’. So this obviously invites the question, are people truly better off going to college or is dropping out the answer?

Taking the specific case of engineering, there seems no strong (legitimate) alternative path to completing an engineering degree. Most organizations (public and private) require a bachelor’s degree in some form of engineering in order to work as an engineer and in most cases (not all) that degree has to have Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) accreditation, at least in the US.

The proposition also does bring into question just what the role of the university is. Is there an expectation that it produces people who are job-ready and able to slot into industry upon graduation or does it represent an opportunity to undertake intellectual and social exploration that can be difficult (for any number of reasons) to do upon entering the workforce? My view is that university (particularly for engineers) is a combination of both; you should at least gain an appreciation for what some of the issues and challenges industry (or academia) is facing but also be able to explore and begin to formulate ways you can perhaps provide solutions to them and other issues perhaps not even thought of yet. It is also a place for learning how to learn, to instil in you a desire for discovery that (hopefully) extends well beyond the confines of your undergraduate degree. The world, technology and engineering practice are constantly changing such that those who want to stay at the forefront of developments and remain a desirable employee (or at least employable), will constantly need to be learning, evolving, growing and adapting. Some other challenges Thiel’s proposition present are:

  • Presumes you ‘know’ the opportunity cost of 2 years of college exactly equates to $100k
  • Reduces college to a mere transaction, not considering all the indirect benefits
  • Discounts the social development resulting from college, one that connects you with and to a peer group, without which you can feel isolated
  • Provides an opportunity to mix with different cultures and socioeconomic levels
  • Enables exploration in a relatively risk-free environment
  • College is not a job, whereas paying someone for 2 years places on them an expectation to ‘perform’

To view an engineering degree as nothing more than a transactional exchange occurring between the student and university is to massively under-appreciate the role and ongoing personal responsibility everyone who call themselves an engineer has; that university provides you with a good foundation, a good starting point to your professional career, but it cannot guarantee anything. What comes next, depends on individual desire and motivation. At the end of the day, my belief is that a university degree can’t be equated to exchange for a certain amount of money in a 2-year program (because of all the issues I’ve mentioned to this point). Hence, the next time you’re finding it challenging to get through that next class or assignment, remember that engineering is meant to be difficult (it’s not just you), it’s not meant to be easy and if it were, everyone would do it.

Article contributed by Reece Lumsden

(Reece Lumsden has over 20 years experience in the Aerospace and Defense industries. His latest book ‘The View From Here’ is an action-oriented guide for recent graduates and graduates to be in navigating the engineering career landscape. Kindle, softcover and audiobook versions can be found on Amazon.com athttp://amzn.com/B07CKXS55C)

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