Manfred Hampe began his undergraduate studies in chemistry in the 1970s, but after observing the job landscape, he decided to change his focus. “I saw that the industry needed more engineers than chemists,” he said and turned instead to process engineering—a kind of engineering that deals with the production of goods like chemicals, pharmaceuticals, petroleum, and food products. Once Hampe had decided on a specific path, he said everything else fell into place.
Hampe graduated with a doctorate from the Technische Universitaet Munich and spent a few years leading a collaborative research project at the university. But he knew that for those who want to become an academic in engineering in Germany, it is important to spend time in the industry. So he left the university world and accepted a job at the chemical and pharmaceutical giant Bayer AG in Leverkusen, Germany. Hampe worked for five years in the company's central research area and was responsible for its process engineering worldwide.
Soon academic work beckoned again and Hampe left Bayer. “One of the driving forces to go back to the university was mainly to be independent and to not have a boss,” Hampe said.
Hampe currently works at the Technische Universitaet Darmstadt, concentrating on tubular fuel cell research and teaching in the mechanical engineering department. Hampe's work as a teacher has earned him recognition from the Stifterverband fuer die Deutsche Wissenschaft and the German Rectors’ Conference (HRK), who awarded him with the Ars Legendi teaching prize in 2013.
Hampe has made great efforts to improve the experience of engineering students at the TU Darmstadt both with an interdisciplinary project course and through his work on changing the admissions process. Most engineering programs have around a 50 percent dropout rate. At the TU Darmstadt, the dropout rate has fallen to 10 percent, largely because the admissions board began conducting candidate interviews, Hampe said. The engineering department is paying more attention to applicants' personalities in addition to typical criteria like mathematics and chemistry ability. During the interviews, committee members ask questions about applicants' time in secondary school. How intensely did applicants work on their exams? What interests did they have outside of school? Do they have an interest in bettering society?
To succeed in an engineering program, students "must be very communicative, be critical thinkers, and they should have good judgment," Hampe said. He also advised undergraduate students to not specialize too much early on. It's better to decide on what kind of engineering students want to focus on, mechanical or civil engineering for instance, but not to get too pigeonholed into something very specific. "Get a broad and general education in undergrad and then specialize in the master’s program," he said. "Then you are much more flexible."
Hampe noted that the work of engineers has changed a lot over the past few decades. "In former times you would work on your own, and you had much smaller projects," Hampe said. "Now you have to collaborate and the projects are bigger." This focus on collaboration has begun to inform the way universities teach engineering, he said. "Working in teams was quite unknown when I studied, but it is more common nowadays." Students at the TU Darmstadt work on team projects in the first, fourth, and sixth semesters, and in the master’s program. They usually spend time working in the industry during their studies--from 12 weeks up to a year. This helps the students know what is waiting for them in the field and what kind of work interests them.
Looking back on his time in the field, Hampe has few regrets. "Maybe I would have stepped into the industry earlier, directly after finishing my doctorate," he said. But he is satisfied with where he is now. And, as for those wanting to head down the engineering career path, Hampe offered only strong encouragement.
"Engineers don't have to fear unemployment; there are always enough jobs for engineers," he said.