Dear discouraged engineering studentSeth Price | August 20, 2021
You’ve completed some of your coursework toward your engineering degree. Perhaps some of it, well, you’ll get to complete again next semester. Perhaps this semester didn’t go as planned. What happened?
I don’t know you, but I know the feeling. My first few years of engineering school were rough and not just because of extenuating circumstances. I was on academic probation, failed courses and had other hurdles. It seemed like a big snowball, too. Do poorly, miss out on opportunities and internships, fall behind the next year. However, I was able to break out of this cycle and I'm confident you can as well. Now, I teach engineering and can see the bigger picture of how it can work out in the end.
I’m not going to write you some letter about, “study harder, work harder, spend less time with friends, etc.” as there are plenty of folks to give you that empty advice. The trick is to connect with why you are here and then to work smarter.
You are probably pretty smart. You didn’t get to engineering school by accident. You may have been in the top quarter of your high school class, and probably had someone important in your life tell you that you are smart. Maybe you feel like you have let them down.
You may feel some guilt. You think about a few of those nights you hung out with your roommates, friends, or your significant other when you knew you had to study. Maybe you feel like you have to choose between a social life and academic success, and sometimes feel like you have chosen poorly.
It’s easy to play the blame game, too. Closely related to guilt, it’s easy to say, “that professor can’t teach,” or “why did the class have to be at 8 am?” None of this will help you. Think back to high school: suppose you had a good excuse for not passing Algebra I. Would the school have done you a huge favor by throwing you into Algebra II, totally unprepared? Of course not!
Here’s the truth: engineering is challenging. You get to do cool things like design bridges, supercomputers and spacecraft. If it was easy, everyone would do it! The top-tier students are all placed in competition with one another, and what once felt like an achievement, is just average. The straight-A-student you may have been in high school may be more like a straight-C-student or worse in engineering school.
It’s going to take something different than what you did in the past. That’s what it means to develop, and we all need development. Michael Jordan was the gold standard of basketball players; he would watch videos of himself playing and analyze his strengths and weaknesses, looking for ways to continue learning and developing.
Some of us never learned to study, take notes or be organized in high school. We could remember what we needed for quizzes and figure out most of the problems in the homework sets. This is why the kid down the hall that struggled through high school is doing well in engineering school and you may be struggling. That kid developed these skills, and now it’s your turn.
If you are in a traditional engineering school, you may have the summer off from school or will be taking a few classes to catch up. You may have to balance work responsibilities with summer courses. This is all a perfect training ground to become a better engineering student.
This summer, do some soul-searching about engineering. Why are you here? Don’t just fire off an answer, think about it. Did you become an engineer because your parents told you to? Did you do it because people said it was for smart people? None of that will get you through engineering school.
Instead, look at problems. When you see something that isn’t working, do you think, “Wow, they should do x instead!” That’s what makes an engineer: finding problems and proposing solutions, especially in those situations where nobody else even sees the problem. Engineering is about finding quicker, safer, more efficient and less expensive solutions to problems, even the problems nobody else realizes they had.
To work smarter, you must figure out what your strengths and weaknesses are, and how to capitalize on your strengths while making your weaknesses tolerable. Right now, you may feel like you only have weaknesses, but if you look hard, you’ll see that isn’t true. Guaranteed you did something right this semester. Look at what wins you accomplished this semester, and more importantly, what made them different. Were they in your 8:00 AM class? Were they in the hands-on laboratories?
From here, you can start to develop some strategies for working smarter. If you did your best work when your roommate was out of town, recreate that environment at the library. Also, should your roommate specify that they are going out of town next weekend, you can plan on making progress then. Maybe that’s a good weekend to skip out on a few social activities. If you start looking at what your successes have in common, you will start to see patterns. This is what engineers do; they separate out biases and analyze data for patterns.
You can also objectively assess your weaknesses. Look through your semester notes. Could you use them again, or did you merely copy what was written on the board, with no context and little understanding? There are tons of scientific studies on different note-taking techniques. A quick internet search will give you lots of free lectures to watch. Find one and test it out. Watch a 10 minute video on a note-taking technique, then watch a 50 minute lecture from some other professor at some other university and see if it works for you. If you do one of these a week, by the end of the summer, you’ll be a pro at taking notes.
Are you still struggling to find where you accomplished anything at all? Start with this: Admiral William McRaven once gave a speech and said, “if you want to change the world, start by making your bed.” His argument was that if you start your day by taking just a few minutes to make your bed, you will have started your day with an accomplishment. It’s small, but the token action puts you in the right mindset for success for the rest of the day. And, added bonus, if everything falls apart and the day is a total disaster, at least there’s a nice bed at the end of the day. The text of this speech can be found here.
Sometimes, we pretend college is the real world. We pretend it’s the real game, and that high school was the practice round. Truth be told, college is still the practice round, but it’s an intense practice. You will have to step up your game, but it’s still practice. Any mistake you make today isn’t going to cause any bridges to fall, chipsets to be recalled, or chemical plants to explode. It’s a safe place to fail a little.
Consider this one setback. Even if you are the best engineer in the world, you’re going to have designs that don’t work. You’re going to have ideas that get rejected, and you’re going to see a world of failures. The idea isn’t to avoid failure, but to fail gracefully, and learn to build something better from your failures.
Laboratory Associate, Chemical Engineering, New Mexico Tech