Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Do today's engineering lecturers lack industrial experience?

This is something that I, and many others, have expressed concern about many times. So I was interested in an article in Elsevier's SciTech Connect, by Sean Moran "The Voice of Chemical Engineering".
Considering that many mineral processors, particularly in the Western World, are now taught in Chemical Engineering departments, his comments are sobering to say the least. He states things fairly strongly in his article, opining that the “Chemical Engineering” of academia has very little to do with the profession of that name any more. "As we have staffed our universities with people with no experience of the profession, this should come as no surprise to us. An undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering no more makes you a chemical engineer than a law degree makes you a barrister."
He goes on to say that "neither is there any such thing as a PhD in Chemical Engineering. All PhDs are in philosophy, irrespective of which department the candidate studies in. A PhD no more makes you a chemical engineer than a PhD in medical research makes you a doctor. Nor does carrying out research or teaching in a chemical engineering department make you a chemical engineer. It makes you an academic, doing the same job as the academics in the philosophy department. A real chemical engineer has an accredited postgraduate degree in chemical engineering, and a number of years of experience either designing or operating full-scale process plant."
Strong, provocative words, which I report with the hope that they will also provoke further discussion.
Twitter @barrywills


  1. I must compliment Sean Moran for calling "a spade a spade"; these are not strong words but hard facts. We have been talking on this(even during my "conversation" with you) that the profession is drifting and is not effective because of lack of industrial (professional, as Sean puts it) knowledge.
    The fault is neither with the industry nor with the funding agencies-- we just got into comfort zones and diverting the attention to "impact factors" of publications etc to measure/ award these academia which is in turn making the students to look at the profession in a distorted manner.
    Barry, this is excellent professional journalism. Good that you brought it out into public domain, the frank and passionate manner in which Moran was forth right to say the facts in such simple language.

  2. Great question! This is closely related to communication of industrial expectation to engineering students during uni.
    Robert Seitz, Freeport-McMoRan, USA

  3. This seems maybe unfair on the lecturers. How many chemical engineers in industry do we see coming back to want to research and teach? How many have the research cred and teaching skills to be effective in this job?

    To turn the question on its head, how would you get a "real chemical engineer" into the teaching profession? No amount of industrial experience can make a "real chemical engineer" a good lecturer.

    1. I think times and priorities have changed Dan. This is an extract of my recent conversation with Prof. Alban Lynch .

      "Camborne (School of Mines) had an international reputation as one of the world’s foremost mining schools for teaching mining engineers, who on graduating took their knowledge to all parts of the world, rather like the Cornish miners of the previous century when the tin and copper mines became uneconomic. Virtually all the staff had prior industrial experience, many like me on the Zambian Copperbelt. Research and publication of papers was of very low priority, but this was all to change in the 1990s as the school was absorbed into the University of Exeter (about the time that I decided to leave)".

  4. As someone from the 'inside', I think Dan's comments are to the point. While Universities do indeed have different priorities (teaching and research Quality) it's incredibly difficult to get industrial people to "come back" to academia. The salaries are not competitive. There may also be somewhat of a reluctance, especially during a down-turn: "when the industry picks up again, these guys will head back to industry".

    I do think it's a shame, especially given that mining education is vocational. It really should be boxed with medicine rather than STEM subject generally; we're training people primarily to go into industry, much in the same way medical schools train people to practice medicine.

    But, equally, for those who bemoan the lack of people with industrial experience: are you willing to come and teach? Are you willing to learn how to teach?

  5. Things have certainly changed since I entered academia in the 70s Chris. I left industry (with Johnson Matthey) to a big hike in salary. I was surprised when I saw lecturers salaries in the media recently - hardly a big incentive to leave industry these days!

  6. ...just one of several key issues.

    To take the Med-school analogy further, medical schools 'work' because of teaching hospitals and placements. Where are the teaching mines? CSM is where it is, geographically, because it was in the heart of a mining area. We try to get our students onto summer placements but we're totally at the mercy of economics; it's very hard for the students to find placements at the moment. Again, if industry is serious about the need for education, work with the (few) remaining Mining Schools to guarantee worthwhile placements.

  7. K.P. van der Wielen16 June 2016 at 14:16

    I very much agree, there's too little industrial relevance to academic teaching these days and I personally feel I had a lot of 'catching up' to do after leaving university. The teaching (across 5 universities!) was outdated and too in-depth/specific to the teacher's interests, with little of the broad foundation that you should build up, especially in first years of university.

    I think this is a symptom of the focus of universities from producing quality graduates to producing research regardless of industrial relevance. In the UK you'll easily need 100 students to match the funding that can be obtained by 1 productive researcher, the economics just don't stack up. On top of that there's little incentive for experienced individuals to make the move back to academia: pay is considerably lower, universities are notoriously bad employers, and (chicken-or-the-egg-style) academia seems to have a 'useless' reputation amongst the experienced engineers that have so much to offer.

    In my eyes the solution, especially for 3rd BSc. and MSc. students, is bringing in experienced engineers for 1-2 week intensive courses. It frees up regular lecturers to do research and keep the course on track/give students the support they need, students get a sense of 'urgency' as this person is only around for a few weeks, they learn directly relevant skills and quite possibly start building their professional network. For the individual coming in to do the teaching, it involves relatively little commitment, and it may well fit in with their professional development plan and/or the company's CSR policy.

  8. Richard Tamblyn16 June 2016 at 17:07

    I feel obliged to comment that whilst there are certainly concerns here, there are surely some interesting anomalies to the criticism. One of these is the EngD scheme at University of Birmingham, UK) which I should disclose I am a graduate of. This is an alternative to the traditional PhD, and I spent my 4 years of research in the labs of Imerys in Cornwall learning a lot about a wide range of minerals processing techniques (and indeed applications for the minerals), but also doing (hopefully half-decent!) PhD level research into a chosen topic (for me it was understanding vertically stirred mills using PEPT). I use this as an example, but I think there are many others where there are much more industrially focussed options for post-graduate research.

  9. As Barry and some others have pointed out , we need not expect people in industry to come to teach; that would also be a disaster sometimes because they will not have in depth knowledge of principles of unit operations. All we need is to build incentives (may be make it mandatory) that the Teachers spend their vacation time in operating plants; go on industrial tours with students; they may give industry related project work to students (as Dr.Lynch did so successfully at J.K.) and teachers can be with the students so that they can discuss the project work on the shop floor; they would also be able to interact with the operating persons of the plant.They will know the importance of data collection(which data to collect to start with), how to analyse the data, the inter dependance of performance of each unit operation on the others etc etc. Walking on shop floor will give so many ideas for carrying out good research also.
    For me a healthy and vibrant relationships built on these interactions will enthuse students and make concepts clear to teachers.

    1. "vacation time"? What's that? Most academics, in the UK at least, spend the teaching term teaching and administrating (and very little else). The summer term is spent preparing for the next term, supervising MSc students, trying to write grant applications and papers and, if possible, doing some research. This perception that we 'enjoy' a long summer off really winds me up. I feel very lucky that I've managed two whole weeks of holiday this year.

    2. That said, I do broadly agree that joint student projects with industry are good. Our students try to find industrial placements as part of their curriculum over the summer.

      However, there are real difficulties in forming long-term, stable relationships with such a volatile industry. Mining has a real problem with the seemingly unbreakable mining boom and bust cycle. During certain periods all our students will find great projects with an engaged industry. Other times it's very difficult for many of them to find anything in a very 'closed' industry.

      At CSM we do try and expose our students as much as possible to the 'shop' floor, but some years it's easier than others..!

  10. I think it is important to get key issues such as teaching mix, student mix and desired careers in balance. We need teachers that provide a mix of good industrial experience, strong teaching skills and strong research skills. We need a mix of students who seek employment in research, teaching and industry and are prepared to relocate to achieve employment. Getting the mix right across the board is the challenge. This task is made easier with strong support from Government, industry and alumni.

    1. Yes,Phil. You got it right. The issue raised in this Blog is not to defend what we have been doing but find or fine tune the exciting system so that we pay attention to what you articulated.

  11. Areas of competency we view as important for mineral processing engineers include:
    1. orebody metallurgy
    2. plant processes (comminution, flotation, solid-liquid separation, material handling)
    3. structured problem solving
    4. process management (manual and automatic activities)
    5. seeking value
    6. leadership
    With the first stages of competency building being awareness and understanding... What is being provided at university?
    Perhaps awareness for some of these important areas, but others are definitely missing (1, 2). Fair enough, in a typical chemical engineering curriculum they are not seen as important.
    Areas 3-5 - Hmmm... Lacking experience, is there appreciation of the value of these?
    Those lacking industrial experience (i.e., the practice aspect) will inevitably struggle to pass on industrial practice
    Robert Seitz, USA

  12. The whole concept of engineering needs to be revisited and redefined to improve industry standards. Engineering goes way beyond designing a piece of equipment or plant that achieves a certain task. It needs to address safe functionality under most concievable situations (this is where industrial experience will certainly help) as well as broader impact, and futuristic changes.
    Whilst industrial experience will help, lecturers must inspire imagination to create beyond what we already know.
    Enzo Artone, Principal Consultant at METOPS, Australia

  13. Good discussion. I like the work experience programs that many universities have implemented, in which students spend up to 6 months per year working in industry to get exposure and perspective on their field. Maybe this is something that can be adapted for lecturers too. In spite of these programs, though, I would agree in a broad sense with Moran's article (although there are always specific students or lecturers which are the exceptions), but I also think that the "philosophy" bit is just as important as the technical aspect.

    For example, one of things the "philosophy" part should address (and that is often missing from current current curricula) is that the tools, models, and methods that the students acquire are provided to help understand complex systems and processes, but they are not a substitute for understanding.

    Another key piece that I think is often missing is the ethical/social bit. Often engineers are faced with decisions in which doing what's right is not the same thing as doing what is best for your career, and I believe this is a factor in some current incidents (accidents, design failures, tailings dam failures, etc). I don't think our young engineers are well-enough equipped to handle these situations (where to seek advice, how to communicate issues, legal ramifications, etc). As it is, all they have to fall back on are a few promises made years ago when they got their professional engineering license, whic is (unfortunately) often just considered another check box or letters on a business card.

    So bottom line: agree about the challenges with respect to the practical, but by no means does that mean we should forget the philosophical.

  14. Well, I don't know the situation today but when I was in an engineering college, half a century ago, in India none of the staff members including the HOD had any industrial experience. I don't think the situation has changed much over the years. If anything, it may have deteriorated somewhat as, from what I hear and read, the prime engineering colleges in India are facing critical shortage of teaching staff. I may be wrong,
    Ravi Sathe, Consultant, India

  15. Digitisation has turned Engineering on it's head and both academics and industry are unable to cope. Industry is determined by banking and universities are greedy for funding.
    I went to a British university where the staff were abysmal and the finances were excellent. Seventy percent of freshmen were discarded after the first year so the numbers in attendance were definitely cooked upwards. I fought through and started work only to find that I was subordinate to the folk who had failed the matriculation process. My satisfaction was that these failed superiors were exposed by the regular failures of their companies.
    It is a double edged sword where incompetent industrialists are at loggerheads with unconcerned gurus. The whole process is out of date.
    John Gateley, ConveyO'Wright, Indonesia

  16. When I was in undergraduate, the majority of my professors had significant industrial experience, and even continued while in acadamia by doing real world consulting. Sadly this is changing, partly through the blurring of lines between science and engineering. Engineering USED to be (at least in North America) mostly about the practicle application of scientific principles, now it seems to be more about theoretical concepts. What was engineering is now classed as technicians work.
    Mike Albrecht, Roberts Companies, USA

  17. I think the root of the problem is students that study Minerals Engineering without knowing what the industry is about.

    Let me explain: I recall starting my compulsory exposure year with Anglo Platinum as a bursury student with many others. The exposure to the dusty environment reduced the size of our group significantly as the year went by.

    Many others without the exposure beforehand, realise somewhere during the 4 years what the industry is really about and opt to remain on the academic side, not he dusty plants.
    Karen Keet, Cape Town, South Africa

  18. Enzo Artone Perhaps we should also consider how lecturers selected. I suspect it is like many situations where those that hang around university long enough to get to know who's who eventually end up lecturing, these are the ones with little industrial experience (the scholar for life type!). On the other hand those who have significant exposure to industry speak a different language to university types and therefore don't get a look in! To me the big benefit of having lecturers with industry experience is to ensure University course material and structure is aligned with industrial needs and developments.
    Enzo Artone, Australia

  19. It's difficult to argue with Sean's article or many of the comments above. I would point out that the solution is more complex than "industry experience". The importance of on-the-job experience was drilled into my head the entire time I was in college and my own time in the field has reinforced the message, so I certainly do not minimize it's importance. At the same time, other factors weigh into the equation of what makes for effective instruction. Some people can teach well and some cannot, etc. However, I think it safe to say that our current post-secondary education system suffers from scope creep and is long overdue for a course correction.

  20. Part of the issue is the university's obsession with publications. I applied to a University once for a lectureship and was told by the chair of the hiring comittee he would love to hire me, but I had no chance due to a short list of piblisher papers. Most of my work has been done under secrecy in industry...
    Jarrod Hart, Imerys, UK

  21. There seems a gap between shop floor and class room exercises. The production, managing people - materials- schedule and profitability weighs more in shop floor while process efficiency is normally given importance in most of class rooms. The teachers of the university and engineers of industry should join hands in such a way during the academic holidays the teachers - engineers should undergo refresher practical/field - theoretical training at plants site respectively, preferably along with students also. Strangely applied research - improvement case studies are given less prominence to academic publications with exception in some cases. Naturally as humans, shop floor technicians are reluctant to embrace small change from routine ideas for fear of paradigm shift. Monetary benefits should never be attached to this type of exercise. The institutes can offer certificate for the shop floor technicians on flexible hours basis as return gift for their academia plant training.
    B P Ravi, VSK University, India

  22. Hi all,

    interesting discussion. I expand upon the ideas in the article referenced here:

    Seán Moran

  23. The fundamental problem with the actual discussion is lack of reliable facts. As far as I can see the article is a general whinge. " Nor does carrying out research or teaching in a chemical engineering department make you a chemical engineer. It makes you an academic, doing the same job as the academics in the philosophy department." Really? Anyone who truly believes that (and has a PhD in mineral processing) should self-disqualify their own qualifications. And for those who actually bothered to read the article, the article also went on to say that basic equations such as A= Pi R**2 are academic; and not of direct value to engineering.
    I am disappointed Mineral Engineering gave substance to the article; yet explains the reasons why mineral processors simply haven't grasped the importance of either fundamental maths or research; how could anyone seriously support a wholesale attack research call research 'not true engineering'.

    The author conveniently ignores research that is now integral to engineering (do I have to spell this out as well).

  24. Where are the facts to support your various assertions, Stephen?

    My arguments are supported by both facts, and relevant experience.

    Incidentally, my article does not make the claim you dismiss.

    I suggest you read it again. You clearly didn't understand it.


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