An (Employed) Engineer Reflects on the Honors Program

There are many reasons students decide to avoid or to drop out of the University Honors Program (UHP): It is too hard. It might lower my GPA. I think poems are dumb. As an engineering student, I participated in the UHP to explore diverse topics inaccessible in the engineering curriculum (studies on gender, race, and psychology are curiously lacking from circuits class) and to strengthen my communication and interpersonal skills. At the time, I considered the UHP nothing but a fun addition to a strong technical degree.

Now that I work as an engineer at Texas Instruments, I have discovered that my honors experience was perhaps the most important part of my technical education. Yes, my work involves programming code and creating circuits; however, the complexity of real-life engineering systems renders nearly all technical information learned in school obsolete. My only useable tools from college are the communication, interpersonal, and problem solving skills that were honed over the course of four years. While all three were built up in the UHP, I will focus on the first two as the skills that were almost exclusively developed in honors rather than in my engineering curriculum.

Communication, both verbal and written, is the single most important skill an engineer possesses. The sheer complexity of the real world means you can only become an expert in a tiny slice of any one problem. In order to develop and test the entire solution, you need to collaborate with many other subject experts. With technical expertise I may personally solve 1/6 of the issue; succinct emails, carefully crafted meetings and presentations, and probing questions unlock the other 5/6 of the solution.

The curious and open mindset that is required when taking honors classes is a powerful interpersonal tool for the workplace. The honors program throws you into subjects far out of your depth so that you may learn from SMU’s subject experts (i.e., faculty) and other students. Be conscious, not just of your search for knowledge, but of the process you take when searching. Observe the mindset you assume, the questions you ask, the role you take in a group discussion, your facial expression and word choice and follow-up to clear and unclear answers. Consciously modify your internal mindset and how you externally broadcast your mindset to others. Make sure you broadcast a respectful, curious, and positive mindset. At work, your communication skills will allow people to understand you and provide the resources you need; however, your interpersonal skills will make them want to set aside the time to respond and to teach.

This article was written by guest writer Nick Saulnier ’15