Dear Dr. Schmidt,
I found your book most interesting. One thing that struck me about your description of graduate studies in physics is that some of it is equally applicable to undergraduate engineering. Problems are presented as puzzles that obscure the underlying physical processes. You’ve got to memorize a lot of tricks since you can bet that an understanding of the fundamentals won’t let you solve enough examination questions to pass.
Straight after high school I enrolled in an engineering program. In the course entitled statics, which involved analysis of pin-jointed trusses, I was amazed that some of the people who were getting A’s and B’s didn’t understand the basic application of Newton’s laws that made the analysis possible. I failed that course. I couldn’t memorize the tricks. I found that in physics things were a little different and that the same people were asking me how to do the weekly assignments.
The next year I switched my major to physics. I had actually done quite well in the electrical side of engineering. Entering physics I figured I’d be light years ahead, understanding phasors, and so forth, and set to the electrical problems with gusto. I got a rude shock. I had to stop and study the textbook carefully because I suddenly realised that I didn’t really understand what a phasor represented, and that the techniques that had worked for me in engineering weren’t going to get me by in Physics. (Physics graduate work, at least in the U.S., is different. As you have graphically portrayed in your book. Much more like engineering. A boot camp).
I suspect the horrendous workloads imposed on engineering undergrads (worse, by most estimations, than that imposed on their physics compatriots) are there for just one purpose. Graduating engineers have proven, if nothing else, that they are willing, without question, to be ground into dust.
I don’t know what the status of engineering is in the U.S., but in Canada and Australia, the two countries I am familiar with, the professional engineering bodies are very powerful. Membership confers the privilege of holding certain jobs. Employers do not hire engineers who are not members. People who hold titles such as “technician” get fed up with the low wages, go and get an engineering degree, come back to do almost exactly the same type of work, with the title of “engineer” and twice the salary. An older friend of mine who had been doing his job for twenty years, was told by the engineering body that he could no longer hold his job since his title was “Supervising Engineer.” He had no degree, could not gain entrance to their organization, and was therefore not a real engineer. His employer ruminated about this, then changed his title to “Engineering Supervisor.” The issue never came up again. His job stayed the same.
I’d like to point out that at most Canadian graduate schools in physics that the horrendous qualifying exam does not exist. I did graduate work in Canada and had to study second and third year undergrad texts for an oral exam. I actually memorized some derivations, but it wasn’t particularly arduous. I was ready after a couple of months of part time study. If you clam up in the exam (like I did) they generally ask you simpler questions that let you demonstrate an understanding of basic concepts. I squeaked by. I learned later through clandestine sources that the committee’s assessment of me was that my theoretical knowledge was “adequate but not impressive,” but that I had the ability and willingness to become a physicist. I was a bit lucky I suppose. Other people’s committees were somewhat less forgiving, but few were draconian.
I think that the Canadian system might offer a good middle ground between the American boot camp system and the British one which is now, frankly, inadequate.
This really is the Dilbert era. I work mainly in the high-tech sector. Everyone I’ve met in the business who first came across that comic strip has said, “The author must work for our company. He’s got our corporate culture down pat.” Of course it’s an industry-wide phenomenon: mind-bogglingly stupid managers, insane policies. Perhaps it’s because the high-tech sector is still in its formative stages; its employees are not used to the professional structure of, say, doctors and lawyers, and this is what gives the Dilbert strip its edge. A strip about health care or the legal system might be just as valid, but I doubt doctors and lawyers would identify with it so much, having long since accepted and internalized the values of their profession....
Best of luck,