I invited Masha V. Petrova to guest blog today. This year I am going to be exploring gaps in engineering education and their impact on the engineering-sales/business development interface. I couldn’t think of anyone more insightful than Masha to kick things off, so I interviewed Masha! Her responses to my questions follow.
Masha V. Petrova holds a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering and is a founder and CEO of MVP Modeling Solutions.
Babette: Masha, how well equipped were you, as a PhD engineer, to undertake a business development role in past companies you worked for as well as your current consulting company?
Masha: Aside from giving me a solid technical foundation, my engineering PhD did not prepare me for working in sales, marketing or for starting a company in any shape or form. Even for business development in a very technically oriented company, like MVP Modeling Solutions, skills completely unrelated to engineering become much more important. For example, being able to “see the big picture.” The process of getting a technical PhD teaches you the complete opposite – focusing on minute details, zeroing in on a very small focused area of research, looking at a very specific problem from every different angle, and researching your PhD topic to death.
Which is what you need to do, in order to conduct great research. Best technical papers focus on a very well defined problem and examine it from every possible angle. In business, especially small business, it is very important to have a big picture vision and to constantly correlate every action and task to that vision. They don’t teach you that in grad school.
Another thing grad school does not teach you, but that is crucial to a successful small company or to a consultant, is how to deal with people. In academia, especially in technical areas, the idea that being able to work with people is more important than your technical knowledge is seen as rather ridiculous. I cannot recall one piece of advice or knowledge from my instructors or from any of my classes that advised me how to work with other human beings effectively.
On the other hand, when I worked as a sales/marketing engineer at a software company, every single day I had an extensive lesson in human relationships and communication. And I can tell you from experience – learning people skills was harder then getting a PhD in Engineering.
Babette: As an undergraduate, how many courses did you take that cross-trained you to speak the language of business, as well as engineering?
Masha: None. Even though it was a great engineering program and graduates from my class went on to work in the corporate world right after graduation, we had practically zero preparation for any type of business related work. Sure, there were senior and junior design projects, where students worked with engineers in industry and where we had to adhere to a certain project budget. That’s about it. In fact our undergraduate curriculum, at the time, made it nearly impossible to have even a minor in any non-technical subject (such as business).
Babette: As a graduate student, were you encouraged to take marketing, sales or economics courses as well as grad engineering courses?
Masha: No. In fact, I knew of maybe one other student who took some courses after his requirement for the core engineering courses were completed. I enjoyed taking courses and continued signing up for various non-engineering courses until I graduated. But that was seen as rather strange and people kept asking me why I am bothering to learn stuff even though my course requirements for PhD were filled.
As grad students, no one really ever tried to explain to us how important it is to be able to understand the world of business and people relationships, whether you planned to stay in academia, work in industry or start your own company.
Babette: Would you say that your education was “typical” in terms of how engineers are trained, at least in the US?
Masha: For the most part, yes. I got a BS in Engineering from University of Delaware, although I did manage to sneak in a minor in Religious Studies. Which is probably not a typical minor for engineering students. That helped me enormously by developing written communication skills.
What was not typical in terms of my graduate career was that I had an absolutely amazing thesis advisor. Extremely knowledgeable and brilliant, he was also helpful, kind and liked by everyone who knew him. That’s a very rare find in academia. Professor Forman Williams is not a typical thesis advisor. I was very lucky.
Babette: What is the biggest disconnect, then, in terms of undergraduate engineers coming out of school and entering the workforce? Is this disconnect different after receiving a graduate degree? Why or why not?
Masha: I would say the largest disconnect was that in undergraduate school we were overwhelmed with to-do tasks. There were so many engineering courses to take, so much homework to do along with constant tests, that the main concern of an undergrad engineering student was to just get the tasks done. Typically, it was not to understand the subject in depth or to understand a particular problem, but to pick up just enough information out of the textbooks, and teaching assistants, to get the homework done and pass the tests.
Grad school taught me to think in depth about each subject I was studying and to actually understand what I was learning. However, neither grad nor undergrad education has prepared me for dealing with customers, dealing with a variety of people (not just other researchers), or understanding the sales, marketing and PR processes.
Babette: Should the structure of engineering education be amended in the future to create more engineers who are capable of assuming business development functions in today’s global economy?
Masha: Most definitely. That would give engineering students an edge in the corporate world and would foster more pleasant working environments and increase creativity and innovation.
Babette: What advice would you give undergraduate engineering students in terms of preparing their skillset for a successful entry into the workforce?
Masha: No one is responsible for your education, except you. University may provide you with a curriculum, with instructors and with career fairs, but at the end it will be you looking for a job, working with people and putting food on your table. So take every opportunity to make sure that you’re prepared. Always look for internships and apply for them. If you’re on a semester schedule, there is absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t have a different internship lined up for every winter and summer semester. Take business, entrepreneurship and liberal arts courses if you can.
Babette N. Ten Haken, Founder & President of Sales Aerobics for Engineers®, LLC, brings entrepreneurial mojo and business- and revenue-producing collaboration and communication tools to small and mid-sized businesses and startups. She was named one of the Top 50 Sales & Marketing Influencers 2013. Her book, Do YOU Mean Business? focuses on technical / non-technical collaboration strategies and tools.