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Get the Most Out of Professional Development Opportunities

By John Platt

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

— William Butler Yeats

“Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is.”

— Isaac Asimov

Like fine wines, engineers and other high-tech employees tend to get better with age.

But fine wines have it relatively easy. They get to spend months, years or decades in dark, climate-controlled rooms, resting comfortably on their sides. During this long rest their flavors tend to improve � and sometimes their monetary value increases along the way.


It’s harder for human beings. Sitting in dark, climate-controlled cubicles for month after month leads not to refinement but to stagnation. An engineer who stays in one place for too long can become the equivalent of an undrinkable bottle of wine, whose taste has gone sour, flat or weak. Unlike wine, which thrives when it is left alone under certain conditions, people tend to get better when they they are exposed to new situations, new ideas and new people.

That’s where professional development comes in. Experts say lifelong learning is critical for success in today’s top industries. “Because these are high tech fields, technology moves at a very rapid rate,” says Bhaskar Pant, executive director of MIT Professional Education. “Knowledge becomes dated or obsolete pretty quickly. I just read the other day that the half-life of engineering knowledge may be two to five years. That’s pretty short. And information technology, in particular, is probably at the lower end of that scale.”

Beyond that, professional development can also add something to your skill set beyond just technical knowledge. “A purely technical background doesn’t emphasize important skills such as writing and patents and communication,” says Steve Welch, director of continuing education for IEEE. “In today’s job market and technology market you need to be better rounded than engineers had to be in the past.”

Assessing Your Need

One of the first things to realize is that you are pretty much on your own when it comes to continuing education, even if your employer expects you to constantly be improving and updating your skills. “The growing trend right now in the field of continuing professional education is that the individual has to take a lot more responsibility for their own education and development,” Welsh says. Although your employer may ultimately supply the funds for whatever class you take, it’s up to you to identify the right courses, find the time to fit them into your schedule, and attend them.

Part of that trend comes out of necessity. “In today’s fractured environment, it’s difficult for an employer to be able to know that employee X needs training Y,” Welch says, “so that puts more responsibility on the individual employee to take ownership of their professional development.”

It’s also up to the employee to set his or her own goals, says Mark Smith, director of multidisciplinary programs at Kate Gleason College of Engineering at Rochester Institute of Technology. “The first step,” he says, “is to fill your near-term capability gaps” with cost-effective and expedient courses that will help you in your job as it exists today. Once those gaps have been filled, you can use continuing education to address medium or long-term goals, looking three to five years ahead.


Welch says figuring out what professional development is right for you is a complicated question and requires a fair amount of prognostication on your part. “It’s being able to look ahead at the job that you’re in now, what’s likely to come down the pike next, and in the next job you want.” That might help you see the skills and information you will need in the next stages of your job. He also advises paying close attention to the most popular articles or search terms on industry news sources and in databases like IEEE Xplore. “If you’re seeing topics that you’re not terribly familiar with, you might want to start getting terribly familiar with them.”

Pant also recommends that people take a holistic approach to their development, tackling not just technical courses but the so-called “soft skills” that will make them more well-rounded employees. “These are people skills which allow you to work in teams more effectively,” he says, “or to help you communicate well, even across cultures, or to develop leadership skills. Engineers can’t remain just engineers, they need to be individuals that are effective in their organizations, and for that you need other kinds of skills.”

Developing these skills now will probably pay off down the line. “Most engineers who stay in their job long enough will eventually wind up being managers,” Welch says. “Most engineers, however, have zero training on how to be managers.” That creates an enormous opportunity for professional development, not just in the soft skills side but in specific areas such as how to interview potential employees. “The truth is, those skills are pretty essential,” he says.

In-Person, Online or Hybrid?

Professional development opportunities exist almost everywhere, Welch says. IEEE offers some through the IEEE eLearning Library and many more through local sections or at conferences and workshops. Indeed, most professional education in high-tech fields these days is still conducted at live events. “There aren’t a whole lot of dedicated training companies in the fields of interest to IEEE members and their training tends to be very conference-oriented,” Welsh says.

These in-person events tend to be focused, providing their training over a single day or a stretch of three days to a week, providing a very immersive experience. MIT, for example, typically designs its courses to run from two to five days. “They are specifically designed for people in industry,” Pant says.

Ingrid Hansen, president of the big-data analytics company ICS NextGen, says her team prefers these in-person events. “We’ve found that the on-site experience is more interactive and helps us collect information such as trends and the current competitive landscape, in addition to the educational content.” She says the events also boost morale and energize her staff to interact with each other, which keeps them motivated once they return to the office.

But online events are starting to become more popular. “E-learning is growing,” Welch says. “In our field of interest, it tends to be more webinar-based, so quick, one-hour kinds of things.” Larger online courses like MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) offer good opportunities, but they can be stretched out over six to eight weeks or more, something which Welch feels is “not typically how the adult professional learns.”

But MIT thinks online has great potential and just announced its first online professional course, “Tackling the Challenges of Big Data,” which will run for four weeks starting March 4. The $495 course will feature 12 instructors from the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL).

“It’s a pilot program,” Pant says. “We wanted to launch with a big bang and to offer something that would really catch people’s attention.” He says their goal was to offer a hot topic that would be valuable to industry and professionals while also using the course to figure out the advantages and deficiencies of online education and how it could be optimized in the future.

Smith suggests that people look at their lives to help choose which courses and settings are right for them. “Usually, the format of professional education is determined by flexibility of the participant,” he says. If you travel a lot, an online course may be best for you. If what you’re learning requires a lot of hands-on work, an in-person workshop might offer better opportunities.

Moving Forward & Getting Started

“Continuing professional education is really in a time of transition,” Welch says. “I think it’s fair to say that in five or ten years a whole lot more of this is going to be online than it is now.” Until that happens, Welch predicts we will see a lot more “blended opportunities” � courses that combine online and in-person training.

But no matter how you take a course, Pant says there are continuing development opportunities waiting for you around almost every corner. “Accessibility is so high right now. You can take online courses, you can enroll in professional development courses, or you can travel or take a class online or do a hybrid, blended experience. The choices are enormous and quite frankly it’s up to each individual to make use of these things and be able to focus on what they really need to advance themselves.”


John R. Platt

John R. Platt is a freelance writer and entrepreneur, as well as a frequent contributor to IEEE-USA InSight, Scientific American, TakePart and other publications.

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