Skip to main content

Engineering and Liberal Arts

Why Choose Swarthmore Engineering?

Are you curious about Swarthmore College's Engineering Department? Do you want to know how it is different from engineering programs elsewhere? Please read on...

Unlike most other undergraduate engineering programs, Swarthmore's is not a School of Engineering, but rather an Engineering Department, like the English or Philosophy or Biology departments. We don't require students to commit to an engineering major before arrival; indeed, we don't even ask them to declare a major until Spring of their sophomore year. That said, Engineering, like all sciences, builds upon prerequisite courses, so we urge students possibly interested in Engineering to get an early start on the basic Math and Science courses that are prerequisites for later Engineering courses.

While in most other Engineering programs, a student may have half or two-thirds of total undergraduate coursework as Engineering courses, here it is about a third (12 Engineering courses out of 32 required for graduation, but many students take extra courses and have more than 32 at graduation). That leaves room for plenty of non-Engineering courses in the social sciences, humanities, and elsewhere (i.e., study abroad). Swarthmore College is a liberal arts college, and all our students, including the engineering majors, get a liberal arts education. That's quite a bit different from most other engineering programs, as you may have gathered.

How can Swarthmore offer an accredited engineering degree in just 12 courses? The answer lies in our philosophy: instead of trying to cram every possible technical factoid into our students in four years, we give them a firm grounding in the fundamentals, across various engineering fields, get them used to problem-solving, working in teams, and doing lots of writing and oral presentations. Half of the Engineering courses a student takes are core courses, and the other half are electives allowing a student to specialize somewhat. However, the degree students receive at Swarthmore is a Bachelor of Science in Engineering, not one in ME, or EE, or CivE, or CompE, etc. Instead of trying to produce finished engineers who will never need to take another course again, our program produces students who are the excellent raw material for graduate programs, or enlightened companies, to mold into specialists. Roughly 70% of our graduates go to graduate school eventually. This opens up a whole new set of career opportunities (both inside and outside of engineering) that require creativity and intellectual agility throughout your whole life.

Swarthmore graduates historically have obtained excellent jobs after graduation, and get into the best graduate schools. This is because employers and graduate schools really like the intellectual breadth our graduates demonstrate. Swarthmore's reputation is that our students really understand the material, and are creative about integrating it together. The companies that hire Swarthmore engineers after graduation are those who are willing to make the investment in training the student in the details of the company's products or procedures. These tend to be the smaller, more innovative firms, or entrepreneurial divisions within larger ones. Swarthmore's Quaker heritage encourages a sense of social mission, too, and so many of our students do other things than work for companies or go to graduate school right after college: recent examples include Peace Corps, teaching in K-12, and travelling the world as background for a book.

We would also like to mention diversity in the context of our engineering program. Swarthmore has many international students and students of virtually every background and ethnicity, and our engineering program reflects that diversity. It is extremely important to have many cultural differences among engineers, so that the solutions they produce are culturally appropriate for the end users. This is especially important in a global economy. We are living in an international world and are lucky that everyone doesn't look and think just like we do.

Some prospective students worry that engineers will have trouble holding onto their jobs, will be stuck in dismal "engineer cubes" the rest of their lives, or have to work excessively hard. While it is true that some engineering jobs are 'cookbook' or 'handbook' jobs where the tasks are not particularly stimulating or challenging, this is not the norm. Engineering, by definition, tradition, and history, is an intensely creative profession, and there are lots of opportunities for engineers who want to be intellectually stimulated throughout their career. Swarthmore engineers, in particular, tend to gravitate to the more cutting-edge, creative, and flexible jobs (or to start their own companies). Swarthmore Engineering graduates tell us that they feel they demonstrably add value to the world.

If you have further thoughts or questions, ask a professor and we'll try to answer them.