An interview with Dean of Northern Illinois University's College of Engineering and Engineering Technology, Promod Vohra

As the dean of the Northern Illinois University College of Engineering and Engineering Technology, Promod Vohra is dedicated to mentoring engineering students on an international, regional and state basis as well as closer to home. Not only the dean, but also an alum of NIU's engineering program, Mr. Vohra encouraged his eldest daughter to enter the field; she graduated from NIU and is currently seeking a masters.

Mentoring college engineering students as well as high school students is important to Mr. Vohra's teaching philosophy. In addition to leading the NIU department, Mr. Vohra works directly with NIU's engineering students as faculty adviser to the American Society for Engineering Education http://www.asee.org/ . Since 1997, he has administrated and hosted NIU's Worldwide Youth in Science and Engineering activities, encompassing 500 high school students. Mr. Vohra also developed and maintained the Adopt-A-High School Initiative, in which NIU faculty and staff offer career and academic support to students at about 100 high schools in the state.

Mr. Vohra is a member of the International Society of Electronic & Electrical Engineers (IEEE) and the National Association of Industrial Technology (NAIT). He additionally serves as a member of the Board of Directors for the Center for Tribology and Coatings (CTC), a not-for-profit entity operated as a partnership between Sugar Grove-based Falex Corp. and the NIU College of Engineering and Engineering Technology. CTC has received $7.5 million in recent grants from the Department of Defense.

His efforts to improve engineering education are well-recognized in the field. Accolades include the prestigious first place/Best Paper (Diamond) award honors in 1998 from the UNESCO International Centre for Engineering Education (UICEE) for his paper, Broad-based collaborative partnerships for technical interaction between academia, industry and non-engineering sectors (a collaborative effort with fellow NIU professor R. Kasuba).

As a member of the board of directors of Chicago's Richard J. Daley College, his ongoing efforts to help improve the community college system's educational offerings was acknowledged by the school's 2002 Community Service Award.

“I love that I can shape young students' careers and make them functioning engineers,” Vohra tells EngineeringSchools.com. “I think the future of the world is going to be in the hands of engineers, and to be able to work with so many young people who are going to be those leaders gives me a lot of satisfaction.”

Mr. Vohra & His Career

Tell us about your engineering career.

I have been in engineering for the last 26 years. For my first five years, I was a technical product engineer for Phillips Electrical, and for these past 21 years I've been in academia. I started as a lecturer and moved up to my current position as dean of Northern Illinois University's College of Engineering and Engineering Technology.

What has been your personal key to success?

Honesty and hard work.

What were the biggest inspirations for your career?

My family and dreams.

What was your greatest success?

Becoming the dean of the college in which I was a student is my greatest success. I've been through the program, and am able to identify the issues within it. Now I can solve them.

What are some of your favorite teaching moments and why?

When I'm teaching a class and someone says, “Dr. Vohra, I can make sense of what you're saying, and now I can easily say I want to pursue engineering as my career.”

Knowing that I'm helping somebody define their career and life goals is always rewarding.

What are some of your personal and/or professional goals for the future?

I want to make a difference in as many people's lives as I can, and I hope to become the president or provost of Northern someday.

Education Information & Advice

Tell me about your engineering education. How did you decide to study engineering? And how did you find a school?

With Asian families, there's a lot of guidance from the parents; they guide you toward having a career as a doctor or engineer. During high school in India, I took some engineering courses and realized that I wanted to pursue that career. I truly enjoyed engineering. One hundred percent of what you do benefits other people.

I had a cousin who lived in Freeport, Ill., who received her degree in accounting from Northern Illinois University, so that's how I learned about Northern and other engineering schools in the United States. I came to the United States in 1986 and began college. For my first semester, I went to the University of Madison-Wisconsin. I then transferred to Northern and earned my degree from the same college I am now the dean of.

Would you change anything about your education if you could? If so, what?

I would have liked my education to be more interdisciplinary. People need to have knowledge in other fields than their own. Engineers need to be able to solve problems in more than one field, and if they have the knowledge of those fields combined with the knowledge of engineering, they can provide solutions provide the solutions needed.

Based on what you hear in the industry, what do you think are the most respected and prestigious schools, departments or programs for engineering?

I think MIT and Stanford have really good programs, and I also feel programs such as ours at Northern are good. We have the type of program that lets students apply what they learned from their research.

How has your education benefited your career?

Well, I would not be where I am if I did not I have the education I had.

How can prospective engineering students assess their skill and aptitude?

If you have a creative mind, like to work with mechanical things, technical projects and have an interest in creating exciting things, I'd say it's worth pursuing a career in engineering.

What factors should prospective students consider when choosing a school? Are there any different considerations for those who know that they want to specialize in certain areas of engineering?

I would warn students to keep their ears and eyes open and shadow and talk to professionals. When they enter into an engineering program, they should do internships to learn the details about the profession. These internships can shape what specialized area of engineering the student may want to pursue.

What can students applying to engineering schools do to increase their chances of being accepted?

Take a lot of math and science classes, get a good score on the ACT and pay attention to your class rank. I always say students should start taking their career seriously by the time they are in ninth grade.

Does graduating from a prestigious school make a difference in landing a good job?

Only in the entry-level job. From there on, it's basically what you've done and how you've applied what you know.

When is it a good time to go after a graduate degree?

If you plan on attending full-time, I'd say immediately after you graduate. It's also possible to work full-time and get your graduate degree part-time; a lot of the time your company may pay for the degree.

Is it necessary to seek post-graduate work?

Having your graduate degree is absolutely necessary. I believe everyone in the United States needs to pursue higher education so we can be the center of innovation in the world.

What other advice can you give to prospective students thinking about an education and career in engineering?

Make an honest commitment to preparing for your future, ask as many questions as possible, identify people as role models and give it your best shot.

The Actual Work

What exactly do you do? What are your key responsibilities? On a basic level, what skills does your job demand?

As the dean of the College of Engineering, my key responsibilities are offering academic programs, fundraising, budgeting, creating new programs and responding to the needs of the region by developing programs in demand.

You are a faculty adviser to the American Society for Engineering Education, and a member of several professional organizations. What drives your involvement, and how is it important to your career?

Many engineering professionals don't understand engineering education. If we want to increase the number of students in engineering, we need to connect with the students and develop our education programs with them.

Are there other professional engineering or affiliated organizations students should consider joining?

There are many organizations for students to get involved with. Some include: Alpha Pi Mu, American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Society of Automotive and Aerospace Engineers, and Society of Women Engineers.

What are some common myths about your profession?

A lot of people believe engineering is difficult, dull and unsocial. I think it is an exciting field with a lot of social recognition. There is a lot of noble value in terms of benefiting other professions.

What are the most challenging aspects of your job?

Time is my biggest challenge; there are not enough hours available to do everything I want to do.

Best tip for a novice?

Be ethical, take your profession seriously and be innovative.

Can you share an interesting anecdote about something you've experienced throughout your career?

I convinced my oldest daughter to become an engineer. She graduated last year from Northern in three years with an Industrial and Systems Engineer degree and is now working with UPS and finishing her masters in the same program I did. My commitment to my job is at the level that I even think it's the best place for my own kids to go. I tell everyone else that this is a great place for their kids, and I live up to my word by sending my own children here.

What are the greatest stresses, what causes you the most anxiety?

I hope people would understand the noble part of our profession. They have that respect for all the doctors, but they don't understand who created those MRI or x-ray machines the doctors use.

Job Information & Advice

What will be the hottest specialties within the engineering field over the next decade?

I think all fields of engineering are going to be in demand. Mechanical and industrial engineering may be the better fields because there's the push to improve cost-effectiveness and productivity and that's what these fields do.

Do you feel it is important for someone to be passionate about engineering in order to be successful on both a personal and professional level?

Absolutely. If you're not passionate, don't pursue it. Mediocre interest in your profession only produces mediocrity.

What specialized computer programs do engineering professionals typically use? How important is it for graduating students to be well versed with these programs?

The computer programs used really depend on what engineering industry you go into. There are hundreds of design software programs that engineers use; a few I've used are MedLab, Electronic Work Bench and Mentor Graphics.

What impact has the popularity of the Internet had on engineering, if any?

It's a very important resource. Now the professor in the classroom is not the only resource you have. You can have hundreds more people give you advice; the scope of resources has increased dramatically.

How available are engineering internships? What is the best way for an internship candidate to shine in the application process?

Ninety percent of our students go for internships, so they are available. Northern has partnerships with 200 industries in the area, which helps us place our students in internships. It's important for universities to have a mutually beneficial relationship with industries in their area for this reason. We work on programs that would benefit them, and they hire our students when they need them. Students can stand out during the internship application process by tell professionals the skills they have and courses they've taken.

What kinds of jobs are available for graduating engineering students? Specialty areas?

There are a lot of jobs. To name only a few popular ones, there are product engineers, specialty design engineers and consultants.

What are the best ways to get a foot in the door?

It really helps to know somebody. Always try to establish connections with alumni and let them know whom you are and what you're good at.

What other career advice can you offer engineering school graduates?

Just get into an industry that excites you. If you love what you do, you'll do well at it. If you don't love it, you'll never excel at it.

Closing Remarks

Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the engineering profession that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to enter and succeed in the field?

I'm proud to be who I am, I thoroughly enjoy my career and I really hope to make a difference in a student's life.

Editor's Note: If you would like to follow-up with Mr. Promod Vohra about his experiences in the field of engineering, click here.

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