Graduate programs should stress industrial teamwork skills

May 1, 2000
The education received by students in US technical graduate programs is well respected around the world and highly valued by the industrial hiring community, which pays a greater than 10% wage premium to newly hired MS graduates when compared to BS graduates entering the same professional field.

Ken Vickers

The education received by students in US technical graduate programs is well respected around the world and highly valued by the industrial hiring community, which pays a greater than 10% wage premium to newly hired MS graduates when compared to BS graduates entering the same professional field. This extra cost is justified by the graduate-degree students' deeper and broader technical knowledge base, higher level of problem-solving experience, and higher level of maturity in approaching job-related tasks. But graduate students often lack a critical industry-needed performance skill—the ability to work with others to accomplish a complex group task. Graduate programs have not routinely offered this experience to their students.

In the university environment, performance measures such as classroom grades are based largely on individual demonstrations of performance on homework and testing. Consequently, individual effort and single-person task accomplishment are the skills in which students build proficiency.

At the same time, industry has been adjusting its recognition systems to reward team performance as well as individual contributions. So, a newly hired graduate student often must immediately learn to change his or her work habits to maximize group effectiveness rather than individual performance.

Overlaid on this work-habit mismatch is a knowledge disconnection between the needs of certain technology fields (such as lasers, microelectronics, and photonics) and traditional departmental graduate degree program curricula. Professionals working in a field such as advanced telecommunications products must apply aspects of material science, physics, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, optics, and others in creating an integrated electronic-photonic system with both the bandwidth needed for next-generation products and the reliability to prosper in commercial use.

The current strengths of traditional technical graduate programs must not be jeopardized in the quest for more-relevant curricula. New graduate students still must learn individual research and problem-solving skills, acquire more career-specific technical knowledge, and learn new skills toward applying that knowledge in a complex work environment. Attempts by educational institutions to implement changes through experimental educational initiatives also must be supported by both industry and government to assure that the effectiveness and transportability of each initiative are fairly evaluated.

Experimental program underway

Dr. Greg Salamo at the University of Arkansas has led one such initiative in experimental education in the newly implemented microEP graduate program. This is an interdisciplinary program that accepts BS and MS graduates of traditional engineering and science programs and allows them the academic flexibility to create professional development type curricula specific to their career interests in the microelectronics-photonics field.

Each student's curriculum must include courses from both engineering and physics and must include at least one course addressing the management of technology.

It is in the realm of team skills training, however, that this program differentiates itself from traditional offerings. Under the financial support of the National Science Foundation EPSCoR and IGERT programs (www.ehr.nsf.gov/EHR/epscor/start.htm and www.nsf.gov/igert) and the Arkansas Science and Technology Authority (www.state.ar.us/asta/), an experienced industry engineering manager was hired as graduate program director. This director supervises all microEP graduate students as if they were an engineering group in industry. Each graduate student reports to both the program director and a research advisor, with success being measured by both individual academic performance and the academic performance of classmates.

The initiative at the University of Arkansas is an example of the type of experimental program that educational institutions can undertake with active support from government or industry. An important first step is to have representatives from industry and government employers actively pursue dialogs with the educational institutions that supply their personnel. Such dialogs not only help guide academic efforts but can significantly impact the education received by future professionals entering their field.

KEN VICKERS is director of the Microelectronics-Photonics (microEP) Graduate Program and a research professor in physics at the University of Arkansas, 226 Physics, Fayetteville, AR 72701; e-mail: [email protected].

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