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Minority Report: Academics vs Engineers

By: , Posted on: September 11, 2018

In my last blog post I wrote about the differences between engineers in different industries, roles and parts of the world and how these have become apparent to me in the course of writing my books and seeking reviewers to help with evaluating the content. But perhaps the biggest cultural difference I have discovered over the years is between academic and ‘professional’ engineering, an issue I have written about from various perspectives in the past.

The difference between an academic and an engineer is a bit like the old joke: “What’s the difference between God and a doctor? God doesn’t think he is a doctor.” Academics often think that they are engineers, even though engineers tend not to think of themselves as academics.

I’ve been an academic. The job involves what we might broadly term admin, teaching and scholarship in a highly individualistic environment. As Clark Kerr wrote, a university is ‘a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over car parking.’

The most valued positions in academia, an environment where status is everything (including, sometimes, that most prized marker of all: the parking space) are for those who know how to get their names on lots of papers in high impact journals and the linked skill of bringing in in lots of funds for a research group headed by the person in question. Such a person can effectively buy themselves out of teaching and admin duties, which tends to make teaching and admin lower status activities in academia. Thus, practicing engineering doesn’t really count in academia. It doesn’t get you promoted – it might even detract from your status. No wonder that the UK Royal Academy of Engineering struggles to find academics to take part in their funded academia to industry secondment scheme.

Instead of learning to be engineers, some academics have simply decided that they are already engineers, and taken over engineering institutions, so that these now agree with the academics’ self-appraisal. Thus, when I get review comments from such academic engineers, they often read like a denial of the existence of any problem.

I’ve also been an engineer. The job involves what we might broadly term admin, teaching and scholarship in a highly collective environment. Engineers are not, generally speaking, engaged in vicious competition with their so-called “colleagues” for resources (as academics sadly often are). The least unified engineering companies I ever experienced were havens of harmony compared with academia.

Engineers know what they are delivering. We design or operate things to meet a societal need.

Most engineers have in common with academics the fact that they don’t like things they perceive as ‘admin’ but, unlike academics, they have administrators to do their actual admin for them (whereas it often felt to me as though the role of university administrators was to give you their admin to do, rather than taking yours away).

The remaining tasks are actually the bits of engineering that engineers don’t like. Checking calcs, attending meetings and design reviews, talking to people, all that stuff. That’s most of what engineers do at work. There aren’t very many of us who get to do sums all day.

There is a difficulty here, in that when engineers talk to academics they might overlook this point, as engineers themselves have often not really reflected on what engineering is/should be about. This does not help those academics who are confused about the nature of engineering practice to become unconfused.

Read more articles from Sean Moran, The Voice of Chemical Engineering

Professor Sean Moran is a Chartered Engineer with over twenty years’ experience in process design, commissioning and troubleshooting and is regarded as the ‘voice of chemical engineering’. He started his career with international process engineering contractors and worked worldwide on water treatment projects before setting up his own consultancy in 1996, specializing in process and hydraulic design, commissioning and troubleshooting of industrial effluent and water treatment plants.

Whilst Associate Professor at the University of Nottingham, he coordinated the design teaching program for chemical engineering students. Professor Moran’s university work focused on increasing industrial relevance in teaching, with a particular emphasis on process design, safety and employability.

Connect with Sean on LinkedIn here, check out his Facebook page here and stay up-to-date on his thoughts, research and practice at his personal blog here.

The book is available, having published on June 5th 2018. An Applied Guide to Water and Effluent Treatment Plant Design brings together the design of process, wastewater, clean water, industrial effluent and sludge treatment plants, looking at the different treatment objectives within each sub-sector, selection and design of physical, chemical and biological treatment processes, and the professional hydraulic design methodologies.

Key Features:

  • Explains how to design water and effluent treatment plants that really work
  • Accessible introduction to, and overview of, the area that is written from a process engineering perspective
  • Covers new treatment technologies and the whole process, from treatment plant design, to commissioning

Sean’s latest books are also available to order on the Elsevier Store. Use discount code STC317 at checkout and save up to 30% on your very own copy!


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