Weekend Journal: Recruiting at a Top Tier Engineering School

I spent the past week recruiting for my company at a top tier engineering school in the northeast. It was a great time, both getting to tour the area and getting to experience the culture on campus. However, I was particularly struck with how things differ from a top tier school and a lesser known school.

First off, if you haven’t heard, we’re still in the grips of the Great Recession. Some even say that the conditions of the economy point to a second dip and we’ll see more layoffs from the recent pick up in economic activity seen in the past year. But you know what? None of that matters at a top tier school. The action at a career fair in these less-than-stellar times would convince just about anyone coming in off the streets that we’re rocking in the fast times of the late 90s. But no, that’s just the difference of a top tier engineering school versus the general employment situation.

What do I mean by a top tier school? Well, by some accounts, I could use the US News Top Engineering Schools (paid subscriptions needed to see the details of how they rank the schools, but you at least see the list). My school was on the top 50 list, as are many other great schools. However, I believe it’s really the top 10 schools that draw the most employers. In fact, the fair I was at had over 350 employers…in these “hard economic times” we’re having! So what gives?

Well, first off, there will always be need for top talent. In fact, this is one thing I wish I could go back and tell me from 15 years ago (assuming me from 15 years ago knew he’d want to be an engineer). The quality of education across many of the schools on the top 50 list is similar and rigorous. You will have an opportunity to learn just about everything you need about engineering, in my case electrical engineering. You’ll learn Ohm’s Law, KVL, KCL, Lorentz’s Law, Faraday’s Law, Laplace Transforms and a host of other necessary governing equations and concepts. But the big difference? Opportunity. The opportunity, namely post-grad opportunity, is what truly separates the top schools from the ones below them. And not just post grad work. Sometimes it relates to the professors you’ll be allowed to work with over the summer in a research capacity. Sometimes it will be the types of labs you’ll be doing during school and how relevant they are to the modern day work environment. But most of the time, it will be how many employers show up to your career fair.

As a contrast, the career fairs I used to attend (as a student seeking a job) often had 100 employers. These were companies and organizations that were looking for talented engineers, sure. But they were also looking for management students and liberal arts students and whatever they really needed for the positions they were looking to fill. Comparing this to the career fair I attended as a recruiter, I was one among 350 employers looking to score the chance to talk to some of this top talent and convince them that working for the company I work for was the best decision for them. No easy task given the wealth of opportunities afforded by the other companies in attendance that day. Oh, and did I mention that all of those 350 employers that were clamoring to have a chance at John Q Smartypants post graduation? Yes, so the 350 employers vs 100 employers is not truly a fair shake. Instead, it would be some portion of the 100 employers that I experienced in my job-seeking days. (Also, it might be prudent to note that my job-seeking days were mid-2006, if that means anything from an economic context).

Do I sound bitter? Perhaps. But this is what I’m trying to get towards. The difference in opportunity can be quite drastic and it all starts back in high school. I would have needed greater focus on my studies (I was not at the top of my class, but would have needed to have been), I would have needed even more extracurriculars (I was on student gov’t, 3 sports teams, the school play and a host of others), I would have needed higher test scores (more studying? More innate intelligence? I’m not sure on this one) and I would have needed the drive to slog through the application process in order to win 1 of 1000 spots out of nearly 20000 applicants. Sure, I could go back today and tell young-Chris to do all that, but would it be worth it? How the heck would I know? I didn’t do the necessary legwork to be presented with the opportunity to know the difference! I can only imagine what it would have been like to have been sought out by the CIA or Google as a top recruit.

Now, to bring some reality back into this situation, do I think that these students were that much better than me and my classmates at my top 50 school? Well, some of them, sure. Some of the prospective hires I talked to were brilliant. But the rest were just very good, not excellent. And knowing what I know now about real-life education, I know that it doesn’t matter much what students learn in the classroom, as most relevant knowledge comes through on the job training. Sure, if you’re working at Google, you really need to be able to sling some code. But it’s unlikely you’ve ever slung code like the stuff you’ll be expected to do once you’re there. I am a big proponent of cooperative education, which this particular school does not encourage, and that was an opportunity that made me the engineer I am today.

So is a top tier school the only way to get a job? Hardly. It mostly points to how many offers will be coming your way and could (though not necessarily will) affect how much you make coming out of college. Eventually many of these things will equalize and the true talent will rise to the top (I’m an optimist, I realize this isn’t always the case). But in terms of the opportunities afforded directly out of school and the marketability of one degree over another, it’s hard to deny the differences in opportunity. And perhaps even more so, the ability to network with alumni from a top tier school over a lesser tier school cannot be ignored.

So what about you? How crucial do you think a degree is, especially one from a top tier engineering school? We’d love to hear examples of those who did or did not have degrees and to compare how they differ in their success. Please let us know in the comments!

Thanks to usfbps for the picture

11 responses to “Weekend Journal: Recruiting at a Top Tier Engineering School”

  1. Dave Vandenbout

    For undergraduate degrees, I don’t think it makes much difference where you go anymore. For academic subjects, you can get access to great coursework on the net that more than makes up for any deficiencies in your local instructors. (And there are deficiencies in undergraduate instructors in every university.) For lab work, you can get free/low-cost electronics kits (for the EEs/ECEs), and great simulators for the ChemEs/CEs/MEs/NucEs. For making contacts, the net has made it easy to reach out and interact with people in industry. (I know that many students won’t do any of these things. These are the ones that aren’t really interested in engineering no matter what school they attend.)

    For MS degrees, there may still be some justification for attending a top school, but that’s waning for the same reasons listed above and because the MS is still more for those going to work in industry. For PhDs, you definitely need to go to a top school since many of those students want tenure-track positions at universities where a major criterion for hiring is what school you attended.

    Over the next decade, I expect that the emphasis on college will shift (even for engineering) as the economy struggles and people see undergraduate degrees from prestige schools as a bad investment. Coming out of school with a large debt actually restricts your opportunities because you can’t start or work for a small company and still service your loans. More people may begin to apply some of the techniques Bach talks about in “Secrets of a Buccaneer Scholar”. This change in attitude may pop the tuition bubble and lead to a lot of interesting restructuring of universities.

  2. Miss MSE (@MissMSE)

    I don’t think the real difference is in the school ranking: it’s in the leverage of the alumni network. SnowTech is a remote location, solidly in the top 20 for several programs, but overall, the rankings don’t favor them, because their admissions requirements are largely set by the state, and hence, not super selective. Yet even in 2008 and 2009 there were still ~200 companies for a campus of ~5000 undergrads and ~2000 grad students. Almost every one of these companies sent a SnowTech grad as part of the recruitment team.

    On the subject of rankings, what I want to see are the ABET rankings of different engineering programs: I think it would be a lot more informative than the US News nonsense.

    1. Chris Gammell

      I didn’t realize ABET did rankings, I thought they only did accreditation. I would be more interested in that as well, though I’ll admit that I’ve used the US News ranking as a guide since I started looking at schools.

      1. Miss MSE (@MissMSE)

        I don’t think they do, but I do think they ought to: they’re much more informed about what actually goes on within the departments.

  3. Bill Porter

    Not related to Chris’s post but these ratings are nonsense. I was taught electronics in a class of 10 students by someone who has been in SPACE on multiple shuttles and my school isn’t even in the ‘un-ranked’ section.

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  5. GMP

    I can speak from an academic standpoint. Where you get your PhD is absolutely critical for subsequent academic success. If you are coming from a top-50 but not top-10 place, you have to be twice or three times as good as someone from a top-10 place to get any doors open for you as a faculty candidate. Some doors are forever closed really (like those to a position at at top-10 place if you don’t come from one; you have to be a freakin’ rockstar and probably in your 50’s and super accomplished to perhaps have this “pedigree deficiency” compensated for). I do find, however, that this pedigree issue is much worse in basic sciences than in engineering.

    And I think kids in engineering and physics looks at US News report, and the good ones will gravitate towards the places more highly ranked therein.

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