Comparison of first-year
student conceptions of
their future roles as
Belgium, Ireland, and
, Sofie Craps
and Greet Langie
Recent research by KU Leuven showed that 33% of the engineering graduates in
Flanders changed jobs in the first year, with 60% of those citing job content as a
reason. Also, industry often reports that recent graduate hires lack the right skills
for the job. It appears that students seem to enter the labour market less prepared
both in perception and skill level. This study investigates the perceptions of first-year
students on their future role and the competencies they need by developing an engi-
neering role model on the business model of Tracey and Wiersema. The premise of the
PREFER-model is that most vacancies for junior engineers fall into one of three roles:
Product Leadership (i.e., focus on radical innovation), Operational Excellence (i.e.,
focus on process optimization), and Customer Intimacy (i.e., focus on client-tailored
solutions). A survey was administered to first-year students from the three largest
engineering degrees in Belgium, Ireland, and the Netherlands. A total of 197 students
in Belgium (KU Leuven – Engineering Technology), 89 students in Ireland (TU Dublin –
Engineering), and 372 students in the Netherlands (TU Delft – Aerospace Engineering)
participated. In this survey, students were also asked to express their preference for
Faculty of Aerospace Engineering, Delft University of Technology, Delft, The Netherlands
Science Engineering and Technology Group, KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium
School of Multidisciplinary Technologies, Sechnological University Dublin, Dublin, Ireland
KU Leuven Science Engineering and Technology Group, Leuven, Belgium
Gillian Saunders-Smits, Delft University of Technology, Kluyverweg 1, Delft 2629HS, The Netherlands.
International Journal of Mechanical
!The Author(s) 2021
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three fictional job vacancies reflecting the three different roles. The results showed that
first-year students do not have a clear view of the future and have an idealized per-
ception of the engineering profession centred around the Product Leadership role.
Students were also found to overestimate their level of preparedness when it comes
to their mastery of competencies. It is suggested that having a discerning professional
roles model as well as instruments that allow students to assess their role alignment
and associated role competencies will help mitigate these issues.
Professional skills, student perception, first-year students, employability, survey
In every engineering curriculum, preparing students for their engineering profes-
sion is an established learning outcome. Many universities do so in the shape of
internships, company visits, and guest lectures. Over the last 20 years, it has
become clear that triggering engineering students to reflect on their professional
future is equally important and forms a new challenge for engineering institutions.
Prior research showed that explicitly articulating student social identity and career
goals has beneficial consequences for student learning,
and students practicing as engineers.
Van den Bogaard, in her PhD-thesis on first-year engineering students’ study
success, highlighted that students who drop out during their first year have more
trouble with the career perspectives of engineering than students who stay.
argues that first-year students should be stimulated to reflect on their identity
within the engineering professional world from the start of their educational
career. However, Karatas et al. observed that first-year science and engineering
students’ beliefs about science and engineering are often flawed and unsophisti-
On the one hand, this is not completely surprising given that the engineer-
ing domain is very broad and there are endless career directions. On the other
hand, to date, there is no overarching internationally validated framework to let
engineering students reflect on their professional future to aid educators in helping
students develop their engineering identity.
Next to preventing unnecessary dropout during their studies, it is also important
to avoid engineering graduates not taking up an engineering career after they have
graduated. Numbers in the Netherlands consistently show that as little as 60% of
the engineering graduates take up a career in engineering.
Recent research using
a life history approach by Van Hattum-Janssen and Endedijk shows that when
entering an engineering degree, a distinction can be made between three types of
students: (1) students who have always had an inclination for engineering and who
are looking at a career in engineering, (2) students who select engineering as their
2International Journal of Mechanical Engineering Education 0(0)
degree as they are primarily motivated by looking to do something very challeng-
ing and generally intend to look to work outside of engineering and (3) students
who choose engineering after a careful selection but are ambivalent about whether
to also carve a career for themselves in engineering.
If educators and industry
combined are to motivate more students to select a career in engineering, it is
particularly this third group that they should focus on. As reported by van
and van den Bogaard,
students have not developed a profes-
sional identity yet as an engineer and it is of vital importance to aid them in
developing a professional engineering identity during their time at university if
they are to be retained by the engineering profession.
A third issue is that there is also evidence that as many as 33% of recently
graduated engineers change jobs within their first year of working with 60% citing
job content as the reason. As was reported in Flanders,
this is not only costly for
employers but also for the graduates themselves due to possible relocation costs,
reimbursement of training costs, loss of a company car, as well as effects on pen-
sion, insurance and benefits depending on the local situation. In addition to that,
industry European wide is reporting that many engineering graduates do not pos-
sess the right non-technical competencies for the position they were hired to fill.
In an attempt to create such a professional identity role model, Hofland and
colleagues developed a first version of a professional roles framework for engineers
based on the value disciplines of Treacy and Wiersema.
The study of De Norre
and colleagues describes some attempts to raise awareness for professional roles in
the bachelor and master curriculum.
Based on the results of these two papers and
encouraged by industry, the central focus of the European ErasmusþKnowledge
Alliance PREFER project (Professional Roles and Employability of Future
EngineeRs) was defined: the validation of a framework of professional roles for
engineers and the implementation of dedicated tests and skills education in engi-
neering curricula to train students for those roles.
In this project, the professional
roles model is further optimized and validated in close collaboration with industry
and the Engineering professional bodies in the three partner countries of this
project: Belgium, Ireland, and the Netherlands.
As part of that, based on
mixed methods research at KU Leuven, detailed key competencies were identified
for the three different roles.
The study of the design and implementation of
dedicated skills into the curriculum has been performed at TU Delft, and as a
result, new curriculum elements have been implemented at several engineering
universities across Europe.
In parallel with this, TU Dublin, KU Leuven,
and the company BDO have developed two tests to measure the interests and
the alignment with the different professional roles and competency profiles.
The prime objective of the present study is to corroborate the research findings
observed by De Norre and colleagues and to compare the outcomes of three large
representative samples of first-year students in leading engineering institutions in
Belgium, Ireland, and The Netherlands.
Additionally, we will evaluate the dis-
criminatory power of some general learning outcomes to discriminate between the
three professional roles identified by Hofland et al.
Part of the results of the
Saunders-Smits et al. 3
surveys in Belgium and the Netherlands has previously been presented at a con-
ference and are now being presented in a larger context within the three countries
participating in the project.
In this study, we investigated which similarities and differences exist between the
three populations on their view of their future and their preferred professional role.
We also looked at which competencies students feel they are already most devel-
oped at as well as the competencies they feel they needed to develop most, in light
of their preferred professional role.
Prefer professional roles framework (PREFER)
The development of an overarching framework to encase student perceptions
regarding a complex engineering labour market is of paramount importance.
Although conceptual frameworks often are a reduction of a complex reality,
they offer very concrete opportunities to grasp particular aspects of this reality
that goes beyond the engineering specialisation (e.g., electrical engineer, chemical
Within engineering education research, several attempts at overarching models
have been made. In her PhD-thesis studying aerospace engineering alumni,
Saunders-Smits (2008) makes a distinction between the engineering manager and
engineering specialist, but other studies go beyond the manager-specialist dichot-
For example, Gerwel et al. also describe an entrepreneurial role,
Kinoshita et al. include consultants.
However, the typologies of engineers are
mostly set up for research purposes than developing a role model, such as the
identification of skills to evaluate the curriculum, the exploration of engineering
students’ preferences and expectations of the engineering profession, or the alumni
perceptions on skill development. Another approach was found in the typology of
Endedijk et al., describing five personality types (the nerd, the status seeker, the
hipster, the security seeker, and the loner) based on stereotypical characteristics.
Their findings suggested that more stereotypical (male) students are still more
likely to aim for a career within the technical field and highlighted the need to
enhance diversity in engineering education and industry.
Few studies focus on the start of the career and rather focus on career trajec-
tories or engineering education. In a systematic literature review, Craps and col-
leagues found similarities between the models of Hofland et al., Kamp and
Klaassen, and Spinks et al., identifying engineers focusing on innovation, optimi-
sation, and customisation.
Kamp and Klaassen described a fourth role, the
contextual engineer, emphasising the diversity and different cultures or contexts.
However, Spinks et al. suggested incorporating future-oriented aspects due to
globalisation and rapid change within all roles. As the framework of Hofland
and colleagues was the only model that involved stakeholders from industry and
education, it was decided to further develop this model based on the work of
Treacy and Wiersema.
4International Journal of Mechanical Engineering Education 0(0)
In strategic business management, Treacy and Wiersema have put forward three
different value disciplines: Operational Excellence, Product Leadership, and
The main hypothesis of the authors is that companies
who manage to focus their strategic vision on one of these value disciplines are
more profitable than their competitors. The Treacy and Wiersema model proved to
be a valuable framework to look at the variety of engineering functions. Hofland et
al. re-engineered the model and tailored it to the engineering profession:
Operational Excellence (process optimization & increasing efficiency); Product
Leadership (radical innovation & research and development); Customer Intimacy
(tailored solutions for individual clients). Using an extensive industry question-
naire, the authors found that 91% of the respondents were able to recognize these
different roles in their company.
This then brought on the next logical step before developing the role model
further within the context of the PREFER project and our main research question:
If industry recognizes these roles, would the same apply to students across the three
universities, each different in set-up and in different European countries? This led to
the formulation of the following sub research questions:
1. Do first-year engineering students from different countries have a clear view of
their professional future?
2. Can first-year students recognize and select a future professional role based on
3. Are first-year students able to self-reflect on the competencies they need for
their favoured vacancy?
4. When asking students to self-reflect on their mastery of competencies, can any
trends be observed?
5. What are the consequences of these findings for engineering curricula in view of
professional identity and competency development?
To see if engineering students were able to recognize these roles as a start towards
developing a professional engineering identity and developing a relevant set of
competencies, we decided to survey first-year students at all three institutions
who had only just started their bachelor’s degree in engineering. Ethical permission
was thought and granted at all three institutions. The extensive paper-based ques-
tionnaire, detailed in Pinxten et al.,
was administered among 197 first-year stu-
dents at two campuses of the Faculty of Engineering Technology of KU Leuven in
mid-2015 (response rate 41% - based on total number of first-year students on all 7
KU Leuven campuses) and 342 first-year students at the Faculty of Aerospace
Engineering at TU Delft (response rate 83%) in mid-2017 and 89 first-year stu-
dents at TU Dublin in mid-2018 (response rate 82%). The students at KU Leuven
Saunders-Smits et al. 5
were in their 8th week of lectures, the students of TU Delft were in their 3rd week
of lectures, as were the students of TU Dublin. All participating students were
enrolled for the first time at university and generally did not have any industry
experience (in all three institutions, internships, company visits, etcetera are incor-
porated in later stages of the engineering curriculum). The first-year students in
Leuven and Dublin enrol in a common engineering programme who do not spe-
cialise until later. The TU Delft students are all first-year aerospace engineering
students. For all three countries, their respective accreditation bodies have uniform
competency requirements for engineering programmes irrespective of the engineer-
ing discipline allowing for generalisation of the results.
Measurement of professional roles
A questionnaire was used to gauge students’ perceptions of their professional
future. Rather than just present students with the definition of each professional
role, we used fictional job vacancies to measure first-year students’ preference for
the three different professional roles. Each job vacancy was similar in set-up and
consisted of a brief description of the job content and a profile sketch listing
required competencies for the advertised position. For the Operational
Excellence role, we opted for a team lead in production methods and industrial-
ization (core tasks: analyse production process and implement optimization ideas).
For the Product Leadership role, a stereotypical research and development vacan-
cy was defined (core tasks: develop new concepts for industrial innovation &
explore new market segments). Finally, the Customer Intimacy role was operation-
alized by a vacancy of a technical-commercial representative (core tasks: tailored
advice to new and existing clients & client portfolio). Students were asked to rank
the vacancies in order of preference.
To investigate the required competencies and student recognition of them, we
asked students whether they felt they already possessed the right competencies for
their most preferred job vacancy, based on their (subjective) perception.
Additionally, we presented the students with 11 competencies, namely the 11 offi-
cial learning outcomes of the Faculty of Engineering Technology of KU Leuven,
together with a brief definition of each learning outcome (see Appendix 1 for the
learning outcome definitions). Students were then asked to indicate in which of
these competencies they considered themselves to be most, second-most, and third
most competent, as well as select the top three competencies they felt they still
needed to develop.
All questionnaires were coded and put in MS Excel and SPPS
26. As the major-
ity of the data concerns categorical data, any relationships were investigated using
Pearson’s Chi-Square as recommended by Field.
All non-descriptive statistical
6International Journal of Mechanical Engineering Education 0(0)
analysis of the data was carried out using SPSS
26 and all descriptive analysis in
Results & discussion
First-year students view of their professional future
Regarding students’ views about their professional future and with reference to
Figure 1, the results indicate that only a small proportion of the first-year students
have a clear view of what the future utility of their engineering degrees may be.
Approximately 9% of students at KU Leuven and TU Dublin and 12% at TU
Delft indicated that they have a clear view of their professional future. In contrast,
about 20–30% of students indicated that they do not have a clear vision of their
future, with the majority of students, between 58–66%, falling somewhere in the
middle with a view of their future that is not entirely clear as of yet. To check if the
distribution did not vary between the universities, especially given that the students
from TU Delft have already selected a specialisation, as opposed to TU Dublin
and KU Leuven, a Pearson’s Chi-square test was carried out. There was no sig-
nificant variation found between the three universities, (v
(4) ¼9.045, p >0.001).
Students were also given 16 possible non-exclusive domains for which they
could indicate if they would be interested in working in, ranging from
Construction to Legal and from Research and Development to Human
Resources. More than 50% of all students named between three to five areas
they would be interested to work in and a further 21% named more than five
areas. It was verified using a second Pearson’s Chi-square test, (v
p>0.001) that there were no significant differences between the number of areas
Figure 1. First-year students’ view of their professional future.
Saunders-Smits et al. 7
students indicated they would be interested in working in and their view of their
These findings, although not entirely surprising given that the survey was of
first-year students, does present a number of benefits and challenges to engineering
institutions. As shown in previous research, students who chose to study engineer-
ing are generally unsure of their career trajectories, despite choosing to study
Engineering institutions find themselves in a position of great respon-
sibility in that they can help to shape students’ professional futures. This can be
achieved by introducing targeted interventions in the engineering curriculum such
as company visits, guest lectures and projects, to name just a few.
Preferred professional role
To encourage students to reflect on their professional future, three fictional job
vacancies were developed based on the three professional roles presented in the
PREFER role model. Students were asked to prioritise their preferences for the
three vacancies. In Figure 2, the findings across the three institutions are presented.
As can be seen from the figure, a clear preference for product leadership emerged,
with this preference most dominant at TU Delft where the preference was 66%
compared to only 12% preferring the customer intimacy role. This may be for a
number of reasons, one of which possibly is that TU Delft’s aerospace engineering
curriculum is driven by design and the results may represent a conscious awareness
of this on the part of the students.
A Pearson’s Chi-Square test confirmed that there are significant differences
between the three universities (v
(4) ¼25.651, p <0.001), with an effect size
/¼0.33 which is a medium effect size.
A closer look at the corresponding con-
tingency table (Appendix 2) revealed that for TU Delft and KU Leuven significant
differences exist between Product Leadership and Operational Excellence versus
Figure 2. First-year students’ professional role preference at the three universities.
8International Journal of Mechanical Engineering Education 0(0)
Customer Intimacy, and for TU Dublin significant differences exist only between
the Customer Intimacy and the Product Leadership roles.
At TU Delft and KU Leuven, the Customer Intimacy role (i.e., technical-
commercial representative) was the least preferred vacancy, whereas at TU
Dublin the Operational Excellence role was the least preferred. There appears to
be no clear reason for this difference. These results suggest that at an early stage of
their engineering education, the majority of students have idealised conceptions of
what engineering is, i.e., that it is about product innovation, and while a propor-
tion of engineers do work in this arena, it is important to illustrate to students that
engineering is also about people and processes.
The majority of the students in each university (64%, N ¼195 - KU Leuven;
65%, N ¼312 -TU Delft; and 68%, N ¼82 - TU Dublin) indicated that they would
apply for all of the vacancies. These outcomes give third-level institutions scope for
championing the other roles which students did not wish to apply for and making
students more aware of the choices available to them. A possible aid in this could
be the PREFER EXPLORE instrument that allows students to explore which role
is the best fit based on their personal preferences.
This personal preference test
was developed as part of the PREFER project to (1) create awareness of the
different professional roles an early career engineer can take on and (2) give insight
into the students’ personal preferences.
Self-perceived levels of competency mastery
When asked about their self-perceived mastery of the competencies of their most
preferred vacancy, first-year students generally display high confidence levels.
Especially at TU Delft and TU Dublin, 48% and 56% of the respective respond-
ents indicate that they already had the required competencies (Figure 3). Only a
small proportion of students (5.5%) stated that they do not yet possess the right
Figure 3. Self-perceived mastery levels of listed competencies.
Saunders-Smits et al. 9
skills. To see if there were significant differences between the responses of the three
universities and their perceived readiness, a Pearson’s Chi-square test was carried
out. Although the expected count in one cell (see Appendix 2 for contingency
table) is below 5, it is still permitted to use a Chi-square test as the table is
larger than 2x2 and amounts to less than 20% of all expected counts.
Significant differences between the three universities were found (v
p<0.001) with an effect size /¼0.20 which is a small to medium effect size.
closer look at the contingency table results reveals that for KU Leuven and TU
Delft, significant differences exist between the three groups of students in terms of
their level of preparedness. However, for TU Dublin, significant differences only
exist between those students who feel they have partially mastered and fully mas-
tered all of the competencies. This may in part be caused by the low number of
responses for the “No”-category.
Regardless of any significant differences between institutions, these results
taken as a whole present yet another challenge for engineering educators in dealing
with students’ lack of awareness of their incompetence. This phenomenon is well
studied and has been coined the Dunning-Kruger effect in which low achieving
students often overestimate their ability, while high achieving students often under-
estimate their ability.
If first-year students are already very confident in their own
competencies, they may perceive certain forms of learning as superfluous and thus
uninteresting, which may, in turn, affect student motivation. This means that the
approach to teaching competencies may need to be adjusted to take into account
the self-perception of students. It may therefore be good to have students experi-
ence whether or not they actually have mastered all of the competencies they need
for their preferred job vacancy. This will lead them to make better decisions about
their educational choices.
Most competent and least competent competencies
Each student was also asked to indicate the three competencies they considered
themselves most competent in, selected from the list of competencies defined in
Appendix 1. Based on a weighting scheme (1
competency - 3 points; 2
tency - 2 points; 3
competency - 1 point) sum scores were calculated for each of
the 11 competencies. These scores were then ranked within the professional role
that each student expressed their first preference for. The top five competencies for
each professional role are illustrated in Table 1.
At KU Leuven, the competencies students identified themselves as most com-
petent in for both the Operational Excellence and Product Leadership roles were
almost identical, except for two competencies: the design competency (Product
Leadership) and communication (Operational Excellence). Students with prefer-
ences in one of these two roles estimated their mastery of problem-solving and
teamwork at a very high level. Interestingly, students with a preference for the
Customer Intimacy role considered themselves better at communication than peers
who chose either Operational Excellence or Product Leadership.
10 International Journal of Mechanical Engineering Education 0(0)
Table 1. Top five competencies students felt they were most competent in grouped by preference for each professional role.
Operational excellence Product leadership Customer intimacy
KU Leuven (N ¼194) 1. Problem-solving – 54 1. Problem-solving – 113 1. Communication – 55
2. Teamwork – 41 2. Teamwork – 111 2. Teamwork – 46
3. Professionalism – 29 3. Design – 89 3. Critical reflection – 45
4. Critical reflection – 27 4. Critical reflection – 88 4. Professionalism – 26
5. Communication – 21 5. Professionalism – 57 5. Ethical behaviour – 26
TU Delft (N ¼301) 1. Problem-solving – 90 1. Problem-solving – 298 1. Teamwork – 30
2. Teamwork – 54 2. Design – 214 2. Problem solving – 29
3. Design – 39 3. Teamwork – 125 3. Entrepreneurship – 27
4. Critical reflection – 38 4. Critical reflection – 120 4. Communication – 24
5. Professionalism – 36 5. Professionalism – 119 5. Critical reflection – 21
TU Dublin (N ¼87) 1. Problem-solving – 29 1. Problem-solving – 85 1. Problem-solving – 23
2. Design – 20 2. Design – 53 2. Design – 19
3. Communication – 14 3. Communication – 19 3. Communication – 16
4. Entrepreneurship – 12 4. To make operational – 13 4. Ethical behaviour – 14
5. Professionalism – 9 5. Information processing – 10 5. Teamwork – 13
Note: Ranking of competencies based on the sum scores for each competency (most competent – 3; second most competent – 2; third most competent – 1).
Saunders-Smits et al. 11
For TU Delft, no difference was found between the Operational Excellence and
the Product Leadership roles based on the answers given. For both roles, the
competencies problem-solving, teamwork, design, critical reflection, and profes-
sionalism were observed as the most listed. The teamwork competency was more
pronounced in the Operational Excellence role. Students with a preference for the
Customer Intimacy role considered themselves more competent in entrepreneur-
ship and communication when compared to the other two roles.
If we look at the results for TU Dublin, we again see great similarities in the
competencies listed for the Operational Excellence and the Product Leadership
role in the top three competencies. The same three competencies are also listed
for the Customer Intimacy role, which was not the case at KU Leuven and TU
Delft. Also, in Product Leadership and Operational Excellence teamwork is not
listed as a competency that they feel they have already developed sufficiently com-
pared to KU Leuven and TU Delft. They list communication as a competency that
they feel most competent in.
Comparing the results of all three universities, we noticed that the design com-
petency appeared higher in the list in the Product Leadership role for both TU
Dublin and TU Delft than in KU Leuven. In the Operational Excellence list, KU
Leuven students do not list design as a competency that they feel they are already
competent in, whereas students of TU Delft and TU Dublin do. It is unclear what
the cause of this difference in perception of competence in design may be. Most of
the competencies listed by the entire sample of first-year students as being com-
petent in, such as problem-solving, teamwork, professionalism, critical reflection,
communication, and design show a high degree of consistency. Several competen-
cies were rated significantly fewer times by the students (e.g., application-oriented
research, to make operational, and information processing). Perhaps this is due to
a lack of awareness of the operational definition of these competencies, even
though they were provided with a description of these competencies (see also
Finally, students were asked which three competencies they felt they needed to
develop the most. Once again, a sum score was calculated per role using the same
weighting scheme as before (1
competency - 3 points; 2
competency - 2 points;
competency - 1 point) and ranked within the professional role the student
expressed their first preference for, with results given in Table 2.
Similar to the results presented in Table 1 regarding the competencies students
viewed as having mastery in, a distinction between choices in every profile was
difficult to discern in most cases. Problem-solving remains the most identified
competency still to be developed for the majority of the categories. If we also
take into account the outcomes reported in Table 1, students, on the one hand,
feel most competent in problem-solving but on the other hand also prioritize this
competency when asked which competency they feel they need to develop further.
This finding suggests that students view problem-solving as a competence that
requires constant attention, but also as a competence that they have mastered,
which may be construed as contradictory. This is also the case for at least two
12 International Journal of Mechanical Engineering Education 0(0)
Table 2. The top five competencies students feel they still need to develop further grouped per preference for each professional role.
Operational excellence Product leadership Customer intimacy
KU Leuven (N ¼194) 1. Design – 49 1. Problem-solving – 108 1. Problem-solving – 59
2. Problem-solving – 41 2. Design – 107 2. Design – 50
3. Communication – 30 3. Application-oriented research – 87 3. Professionalism – 38
4. Entrepreneurship – 26 4. Professionalism – 76 4.Application-oriented research – 30
5. Teamwork – 18 5. Entrepreneurship – 63 5. Entrepreneurship – 20
TU Delft (N ¼301) 1. Problem-solving – 65 1. Problem-solving – 202 1. Problem-solving – 35
2. Communication – 47 2. Design – 158 2. Design – 35
3. Entrepreneurship – 44 3. Teamwork – 153 3. Entrepreneurship – 31
4. Critical reflection – 42 4. Communication – 151 4. Communication – 19
5. Professionalism – 41 5. Entrepreneurship – 135 5. Professionalism – 15
TU Dublin (N ¼87) 1. Problem-solving – 28 1. Communication – 36 1. Application-oriented research – 17
2. Design – 23 2. Entrepreneurship – 34 2. Design – 17
3. Professionalism – 17 3. Design – 29 3. Entrepreneurship – 17
4. Communication – 13 4. Problem-solving – 26 4. Critical reflection – 16
5. To make operational – 9 5. Critical reflection – 24 5. Communication – 15
Note: Ranking of competencies based on the sum scores for each competency (to be developed most – 3; to be developed second most – 2; to be developed third
most – 1).
Saunders-Smits et al. 13
more competencies in each role and these contrasting results may require further
The results also represent a desire by students to learn about entrepreneurship
and application-oriented research. Although included in the KU Leuven curricu-
lum, entrepreneurship is not a mandatory part of the TU Delft or TU Dublin
curriculum. If one values negotiated learning as part of their organisational strat-
egy, this may be something for both institutions to consider integrating into exist-
ing curricula. Another interesting finding is that the competency the students felt
they need to develop the least was ethical behaviour, which is in stark contrast with
current universities’, governments’, and public opinion. Perhaps this is also indic-
ative of their (in)ability to critically reflect as shown by their contradictory answers
to the question of whether they have mastered the competencies required for their
preferred future role.
To aid students in developing self-reflection skills and overcome the risk of incor-
rectly estimating their own abilities, the PREFER MATCH test may be able to
contribute towards a solution. The PREFER MATCH test was developed as part
of the PREFER project to help address the issue of incorrectly assessing one’s
competency levels. In this Situational Judgment Test, a comparison is made between
the students’ perception and the perception of engineers in the field.
ever, that ethical behaviour and entrepreneurship are not included in this test.
Another worthwhile observation is that a clear need has been established for
students to learn transversal skills (including entrepreneurship). These types of skills
are generally not taught in lecture rooms but in more hands-on settings. Hence within
the PREFER project hands-on opportunities were developed for students
are also available as OpenCourseWare through the TUDelft OpenCourseWare web-
site (ocw.tudelft.nl). In addition, as a result of the PREFER project, KU Leuven has
transformed their curriculum based on the Professional Roles Framework and has
embedded these transversal competencies throughout their degree.
Conclusions and recommendations
This study examined the perceptions of first-year engineering students of their
professional future at three leading engineering institutions in three different
European countries. The findings indicate that first-year students across these
universities feel they do not have a clear view of their professional future. As
this lack of a clear view is one of the contributing factors in student dropout
during the first year, as well as a potential cause for the loss of engineering grad-
uates to the engineering industry, it may be very worthwhile for engineering edu-
cation institutions to increase the attention spent on the future disciplinary self and
professional identity, starting from the moment the students begin their degree and
maintaining this during their entire degree.
Using fictional job vacancies, based on a professional role model, it was dis-
covered that although students were able to express their preference for a vacancy
associated with the role, they also have idealised conceptions of what engineering
14 International Journal of Mechanical Engineering Education 0(0)
is. Only minor differences were found between the three institutions regarding the
preference for the Product Leadership role, seemingly the most attractive profes-
sional role, which indicates an idealized but incomplete view of the engineering
profession. Care therefore must be taken that students are provided with oppor-
tunities to develop a more realistic view of the engineering profession.
The self-assessed level of preparedness for student future roles is high, especially
at TU Delft and TU Dublin. This may lead to a dangerous form of students who
overestimate themselves and therefore deny themselves the acquisition of required
competencies. It may be worthwhile to have students reassess their actual compe-
tency level against a set standard so that they may verify their perception and
adjust their learning strategies accordingly.
Within the PREFER project, two instruments were developed: PREFER
MATCH and PREFER EXPLORE. These instruments allow engineering stu-
dents to explore their preferred role and to self-assess their competency mastery
level. This may be the first step to assist students to develop their professional self
during their degree from the moment they walk through the (virtual) doors of the
Additionally, it may be very wise to also employ a similar instrument that
allows students to assess their ethical behaviour skills, as students overwhelmingly
do not list ethical behaviour skills in their top three competencies for development.
Overall, the findings against the framework of professional roles again stress the
importance of teaching transversal competencies alongside technical knowledge to
students, ideally in hands-on practical situations.
Finally, students also indicated their need to develop their entrepreneurial com-
petencies as well as application-oriented research. Application-oriented research
skills are part of all three curricula; however, entrepreneurship is, for instance, not
mandatory at TU Delft or TU Dublin. The outcomes of the survey may give
reason to reconsider this.
The authors would like to thank their colleagues in the project, as well as those colleagues who
assisted with the rolling out of the questionnaire. The authors in particular want to thank their
former colleague Maarten Pinxten for all his hard work and support during the time he was
involved with the project, without whom this tri-national study would not have taken place.
Declaration of conflicting interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, author-
ship, and/or publication of this article.
The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, author-
ship, and/or publication of this article: This work was supported by the Erasmusþpro-
gramme of the European Union (grant agreement 575778-EPP-1–2016-1-BE-EPPKA2-KA)
and is part of the PREFER project.
Saunders-Smits et al. 15
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Appendix 1. Official learning outcome definitions KU Leuven
1 Problem-solving and
Analytical thinking – A systematic approach for solving
complex problems – Master complexity
2 Designing and
Plan and execute a creative design/development project
Formulate problem statement – plan a research project
– selecting research methods
4 Ethical behaviour Responsible behaviour for society and environment
5 Entrepreneurship Taking initiative and have an eye for economical and
organizational boundary conditions
6 To make operational Executing basic, practical, discipline-specific acts and
managing processes, systems and installations.
7 Information processing Looking up, evaluating and processing scientific and
technical information, and correctly referring to the
8 Communication The correct usage of scientific and discipline-specific
terminology and communicating in a second language
that is relevant to the programme; Adequately doc-
umenting the results of one’s own research, for both
engineers and non-engineers.
9 Teamwork Working as a team member in one or several roles and
taking (shared) responsibility for establishing and
achieving the team’s goals.
10 Professionalism Working meticulously and demonstrating scientific and
technical curiosity. Attention to planning and
11 Critical reflection Critically reflecting on one’s own functioning and
shortcomings independently; Dealing with contradic-
tory sources critically and independently
18 International Journal of Mechanical Engineering Education 0(0)
Appendix 2. Contingency tables
Table 3. Do you have a clear image of your professional future?
Do you have a clear image of your professional future?
No, I have not
figured it out yet
Not completely, butI more or
less know where I want to go
Yes, I have a
KU Leuven 64
TU Delft 74
TU Dublin 28
Each superscript letter denotes a subset of “Concerning the vacancy you put on number 1, do you think you
possess the right competencies and skills that are required in the vacancy test?” categories whose column
proportions do not differ significantly from each other at the .05 level.
Table 4. Which vacancy do you prefer the most?
Which vacancy do you prefer the most?
KU Leuven 39
TU Delft 70
TU Dublin 22
Each superscript letter denotes a subset of “Concerning the vacancy you put on number 1,
do you think you possess the right competencies and skills that are required in the vacancy
test?” categories whose column proportions do not differ significantly from each other at
the .05 level.
Table 5. Concerning the vacancy that you put on number 1, do you think you possess the right
competencies and skills that are required in the vacancy test?
Concerning the vacancy that you put on number 1, do you think you possess
the right competencies and skills that are required in the vacancy test?
No Partially Yes
KU Leuven 26
TU Delft 6
TU Dublin 1
Each superscript letter denotes a subset of “Concerning the vacancy you put on number 1, do you think you
possess the right competencies and skills that are required in the vacancy test?” categories whose column
proportions do not differ significantly from each other at the .05 level.
Saunders-Smits et al. 19