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To be a specialist or generalist in engineering?

  1. Feb 8, 2015 #1

    I am currently in a dilemma in choosing between mechanical engineering or mechatronic engineering at the University of Waterloo, Canada.

    In the mechatronic curriculum, about 50% of the courses concern mechanical engineering and the other 50% concern electrical/computer engineering. This mix of disciplines allows a wide variety of engineering jobs, but does not go in depth in neither mechanical or electrical engineering. Thus, I would become a jack of all trades but master of none with a mechatronic engineering degree.

    On the other hand, the mechanical engineering curriculum only contains less than 20% of electrical/computer courses. This allows a more in depth study of mechanical engineering. However, after reading about important skills for mechanical engineers, interdisciplinary skills and programming skills ranked among the highest skills in demand.

    Since mechatronic offers more interdisciplinary skills and mechanical engineering offers more specialization, I would like to know whether specialization or generalization is more important for future mechanical engineers. Job prospects, stability and security are important factors to me.

    Please provide your opinion about which program is better suited for our modern era.

    Thank you

    Text about important skills for mechanical engineers: https://www.asme.org/getmedia/75244...-Mechanical-Engineering-Today-and-Beyond.aspx
    Last edited: Feb 8, 2015
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 8, 2015 #2


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    It's not clear what you mean by being a 'generalist', especially in an already broad field like mechanical engineering. It seems to me that mechatronic engineering deals with a specific application of regular mechanical engineering. Just because you may use programming skills, for example, is not that unusual in engineering these days. The ubiquity of computers and software and their use in solving engineering problems demand that most engineers should be familiar with such things, not just mechatronic engineers, and certainly not mechanical engineers in general.

    As a broad rule of thumb, the more skills and knowledge you acquire and develop during your career, the more valuable you will be as an engineer. It's part of what acquiring experience is about.
  4. Feb 8, 2015 #3
    Thank you SteamKing for your reply.
    By "generalist", I meant knowing multiple fields of engineering such as electrical and mechanical but not very in-depth. On the other hand, "specialist" means being specialized in a particular area of engineering without knowing much about other disciplines.
  5. Feb 8, 2015 #4

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    I almost wrote exactly what SteamKing did. I do not see "mechatronic" as a general degree. I see it as specialized.
  6. Feb 9, 2015 #5


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    You really don't need to worry about the specialist/generalist isssue until you are looking at grad school or a few years into your first job.
  7. Feb 9, 2015 #6
    Right. You don't become a generalist in school. Once you start working you will see. Say you're working on a heat exchanger. The boss comes in and says "the problem isn't the heat exchanger it's the control valve, fix it..." if you go online and thru textbooks and figure out nyquist plots and transforms and that stuff, you're becoming a generalist. If you tell the boss you're not the controls guy, guess what? The difference between specialist and generalist is just in the things you focus on in your never ending quest to learn new stuff. If you don't maintain that quest, you're neither a generalist nor a specialist, instead you're a has-been.
  8. Feb 10, 2015 #7


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    For future reference, almost no one in engineering defines "specialist" vs. "generalist" that way. It is extremely rare for people to have any level of competency in two fields as different as mechanical and electrical. In mechatronics you learn a subset of mechanical and a subset of electrical so it's not really the same thing.

    Typically, you would say you specialize in FPGA programming, or firmware development or the like. No one would say he or she specializes in electrical engineering.
  9. Feb 10, 2015 #8


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    I think this is a mostly needless concern. You seem to be under the impression that a mechatronic engineering degree is just going to involve "a little bit" of both electrical engineering and mechanical engineering. This isn't really the case though. What it's going to do is go very in depth into the specific area of engineering known as -mechatronic engineering.- This is a specialized area. If anything, I think either mechanical engineering or electrical engineering would be considered more 'general' than mechatronic engineering in some respects.
  10. Feb 11, 2015 #9
    Thank you for your replies! I really appreciate your opinions.

    After looking through my mechatronic engineering curriculum, I noticed that half of the courses are related to computers and the other half contains classic mechanical engineering subjects. However, with the lack of depth in mechanical subjects, a mechatronic graduate will surely be less competent than a mechanical engineer in mechanical engineering. As gmax137 mentioned, everyone has their specific role in a company, so what is the advantage of knowing both fields but excelling at none?

    As an analogy, you have 50 000$ to buy either a car, a boat or both. If you spend 50 000$ on only a car or a boat, you will get a high end car/boat. However, if you spend 25 000$ on a car and 25 000$ on a boat, you will get both, but their quality will not be outstanding. I perceive mechatronic engineering as the option to buy both the car and the boat while mechanical engineering or electrical engineering focuses on only one of the two.

    If you see mechatronic engineering as a specialized field, please explain why. I found this diagram which defines mechatronic engineering as mix of multiple disciplines: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikiped...orkaround.svg/2000px-Mecha_workaround.svg.png.

    The reason why I am comparing mechatronic engineering with mechanical engineering is due to the current mediocre job outlook for mechanical engineers. Some people told me that growth for mechanical engineering has already stalled and electrical/software engineering is the hot shot now. At heart, I still want to be a mechanical engineer, but I also need to be able to feed myself in the future. Due to the versatility of mechatronic engineering, it might be a wiser choice for my future.

    Please feel free to voice your opinions and suggestions.
  11. Feb 11, 2015 #10


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    Mechatronic engineering is a highly specialized...that's why it exists as a distinct college major. It's true the a mechanical engineering major is going to know more mechanical engineering than a mechatronic major. However, a mechatronic engineer specializes in the area where mechanical, electrical, and computer engineering all merge. The interactions of these fields with one another is what makes it specialized. Engineering projects involve multiple people from multiple disciplines because many large projects involve elements from mechanical, electrical, and computer engineering, as well as many other engineering disciplines. When one is an expert in the intersection of these fields, one is going to be qualified to work on more areas of the project.
  12. Feb 11, 2015 #11
    I think what they're getting at is that Mechatronics uses elements mechanical and electrical engineering to accomplish a highly specialized goal: mechatronics. In other words, you're not generalized, in that you could get either a job in mechanical or electrical engineering. Rather, since you only took half the courses typically required for either degree, you're highly specialized for one specific field.

    A weak analogy that gets the point across, could be materials science. You need to know a good deal of chemistry AND physics to do materials science. However, with a materials science degree, you're not really qualified to be a general chemist or general physicist. Rather, you're highly trained and specialized to work in the specific field of materials science.

    Someone correct me if I'm way off base here.
  13. Feb 12, 2015 #12


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    I think that's pretty much spot on. I'm sure there are plenty of jobs in slightly different areas of engineering that someone with a mechatronics degree would be qualified to do as well.
  14. Feb 12, 2015 #13


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    Heres a modification to your analogy that I think is more accurate. You have $100,000. You can buy 2 cars (mechanical engienering), or 2 boats (electrical engineering). Or you can buy one car and one boat (electromechanical).

    Mechanical Engineering and Electrical Engineering are EXTREMELY broad fields. In electrical engineering alone there are MANY subfields, some of which do not overlap in any way

    I'm an electrical engineer and work on electromechanical systems some of the time. There are definitely moments where I wish I had more of a mechanical background. That being said, there are times where I am glad I have my EE backround as well.

    Here are some areas where mechatronics would be useful, robotics, control systems, hybrid engines. Basically any system that uses electricity to move a mechanical device.

    as for your decision, it is really up to you and what you want to do with yourself.
  15. Feb 16, 2015 #14
    I am reasonably familiar with the typical electrical and mechanical engineering curricula, but I'm less familiar with the mechatronics curriculum. Without knowing the details of mechatronics coursework, I would also have a similar concern as you.

    My worry is that by not covering the full curriculum for either the electrical or mechanical disciplines, you may be skipping the most difficult and important topics in both, and basically not covering your bases and providing critical foundations that will enable you to learn new subjects. To be more clear, take the examples of electromagnetic field theory in electrical engineering, and fluid dynamics in mechanical engineering. Both subjects use the same vector calculus and basically the same mathematical concepts. If you learn either subject now, you can teach yourself the other later. However, if mechatronics does not require either of these subjects, you will be missing out on a critical mind expanding experience. I really don't know if the mechatronics excludes both, but I use this as an example. Foundations and fundamentals are very important in the undergrad studies.

    Other than this concern, it is hard to go wrong with any of the three paths, and you should probably choose the one that appeals to you the most. You can always take a few extra courses to fill any holes that you see in the requirements.
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