How to Survive Your First Year of Engineering Education Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

How to Survive Your First Year of Engineering Education

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So you want to become an engineer. Have you thought about why? Because you're going to be wondering very soon, and, if you haven't got a good answer, you'll have wasted a lot of time studying that you could've spent partying as an English major. Becoming an engineer is pretty intensive, especially if you want to do well. But if you're pretty sure you want to sell the next four years of your life to your textbooks, here are a few tips to make your transition into technical college a little easier.

So... Why do I Want to Become an Engineer?

Because ERTW - Engineers Rule the World. History, despite what your sociology professor will have you believe, is merely the progression of engineering. (OK, not completely, but it's as good any of the other theories.) Engineering is design under constraint, also known as 'applied science'. Scientists sit in labs and take notes on things that happen when something else happens. Engineers take that the next step and make it something useful to civilisation, under the constraints of time, budget, nature etc. The rest of the world buys the stuff, thereby giving engineers (and scientists) a cozy income.

Income is a good reason. Engineering is one of the few professions that yield a comfortable income on only a bachelor's degree. Engineering is also a great undergraduate degree if you're considering continuing in almost any other field. Technical expertise is seriously lacking in the 'soft' field, and your scientific background will give you a competitive edge.

It helps if you like science and maths, tinkering, understanding how things work, and making new things.

Remember: This Isn't High School Anymore

Welcome to university. It's different to high school is a few key ways:

You Will Have to Study

Maybe you were smart in high school. You coasted along, collecting 'A' grades with a few minutes of revision a night, or maybe a half-hour of cramming before the test. Well, you can't do that at university. Generally, for every credit hour (USA) you take during the week, you're expected to put in twice as many hours of studying on your own. Yeah, that's crazy. Even if you don't plan to put in that much work, you'd better get used to hitting the books - hard. Classes move fast. The instructors assume you know everything from last class perfectly and prepared the material for the day's class. You might even want to put this into practice occasionally. Discipline and hard work are up to you, because...

Nobody Else Cares About You

In high school, if you missed a class, the teacher asked after you. Not in university. In high school, if your grades were abysmal, you got called over for a chat. Not in university. The professors will just smile at you in the hall and give you a 'D' at the end of term - no problem. That's because now that you're a grown-up you're expected to look after yourself. If you miss a class, you've got to make up the material somehow - borrow notes or make a friend teach you. If you aren't doing well, you've got to get up to speed, by studying with someone or getting a tutor, or whatever. The point is, you have to take care of it yourself, because nobody else gives a dam.

After handing in our first homework for a class, a number of students realised they misunderstood a question, and consequently gotten it wrong. 'Can we re-do that question?' one student asked anxiously. The professor looked at him and laughed. 'That's just one of the thousands of pieces of homework I'm going to give you that you're going to get wrong,' he said, tucking the homework away.

And You're Subhuman Too

Nobody gives a darn because you don't know anything important, and therefore aren't worthy of their acknowledgment. For the most part, your instructors think of you as some subhuman amoeboid that they're forced to educate into significance. They prevent themselves from succumbing to depression by having fun with student specimens.

In my first biology class, the professor greeted all the latecomers with 'Home Economics 101?' A few confused students actually turned and left the room. Then he'd crack up while they tried to figure out what was wrong.
In one science class, the professor kept saying things like 'As you learned in third grade, Bernoulli's principle states...' or 'What did you learn in fifth grade about the ionic properties of ammonia?' When someone finally asked what school he went to, it gave him the opening to make fun of how slow our schooling must have been, and how students just keep getting dumber and dumber.

- an engineering student

Even worse - you're studying to be an engineer. Scientists often see their own colleagues as morons, but their interdisciplinary prejudices are astounding. Mathematicians think they hold the key to the Universe and that scientists are only dabblers, while scientists think the mathematicians have their heads up their rear ends. Chemists think they're the best because they create something new, while biologists sneer that chemists can't make something as simple as a cell. All disciplines look down on engineers as jacks of all trades who know just enough about everything to be truly ignorant. You aren't even an engineer yet, so look out.

I had a Chinese professor once who announced:
'How many of you engineels? Evelyone?' He looked shocked.
'All engineels are retodded mathematicians. How I know this? I used to be engineel. Retodded! Now I mathematician.' He tapped his skull. 'Velly smot.'

- An h2g2 Researcher and mechanical engineer

It's worth noting that scientists and mathematicians are all wrong: engineers are the best, because they're the people who actually make science productive, and they do it for less than a billion of any given monetary unit.

Keep a Sense of Humour

With that kind of TLC in your future, you'll need a sense of humour and a thick skin. Extract the constructive criticism (if there is any) and discard the personal part. Don't be afraid to have fun with your studies too - nicknaming machinery or even yourself.

One of our lecturers asked what Laplace Transforms was named after ('Dr Transform,' obviously) and thereafter the famous 18th-century French mathematician became universally known as 'Shuggie Laplace'. It became customary to snigger whenever the term 'astable multivibrator' was used; all our products became named after the science fiction robot or computer they most resembled. Little things like that help to make the grind bearable.
- An h2g2 Researcher
After one professor commented that a bachelors in chemical engineering would just make us highly qualified plumbers, we sat down and tried applying our knowledge of fluid dynamics to toilet plunging. We figured we could calculate the exact force necessary to unblock the pipes, but it would take us about six times as long as an amateur.
- A chemical engineering student

Get Down to Work

OK, so you've accepted your bottom-of-the-totem-pole status and are ready to roll up your sleeves and get to work. How do you ace this year and impress your professors? (Or at least receive their grudging acknowledgment?)

Buy a Big Pink Rubber

First things first - be supplied; lots of pencils, a graphing calculator, lots of paper (including graph paper), and the biggest, best rubber you can find. You're not going to regret this one. You're studying engineering - you're using a pencil, and you're making a lot of mistakes. That little nubbin at the top of your pencil isn't going to last. Save yourself the trouble and keep a large, high-quality rubber with you all the time. It'll serve you well.

Don't Break Stuff

Breaking glass and exploding things isn't going to make you popular with the lab instructor. There are two main reasons why students smash things in the lab:

Not following directions: Even if you think you've understood the lab procedure, bring a copy with you to the lab and check every step before you perform it. If you aren't sure what piece of equipment the directions are referring to, ask. If a picture shows something being handled in a specific way, handle it that way. It's like that for a reason.

I broke about an item a week for the first six weeks of chemistry lab, but my best explosion came when I used a watch glass instead of an evaporation dish. I put it over my Bunsen burner and turned to check the directions when -Bang! - it was gone, all over the floor. That was embarrassing.

Moving too fast: The speed you use when rushing to class isn't appropriate in the lab. Nor is the speed you use when frying an egg. The sort of speed you need is more like the speed in which you get out of bed in the morning. Crazy, but true. Rapid movement and abrupt halts cause most of the broken glass in laboratories. Swinging elbows hit graduated cylinders before you can stop them, and screeching halts to avoid other students send test tubes flying. Move slowly. In the end, it could save you clean-up time.

Join Clubs

If you aren't staying in a dormitory, your social life on campus is going to be severely crimped. You mostly see people in classes, and you can't exactly socialise then. So where do you pick up friends?

Clubs are a great way to find people who share your interests, background or goals. Sports or entertainment clubs are a great place to hang out and enjoy yourself. Religious or spiritual clubs can keep you from feeling too alienated or alone in the student masses. Career or industry clubs are a great way to meet other students pursuing the same degree as you, while building your resumé. That last bunch of students is very important, because they're the ones you'll be studying with for the next four years. Dig them up and befriend them - it's a worthwhile investment of your time.

Get to Know Your Calculator

Your calculator is your best friend. It'll accompany you through the next four years of your life, so shouldn't you know how to exploit it fully? Skim the manual whenever you learn something new, to see if your calculator does it simpler. Do an online search; there are awesome calculator tutorials for practically everything available on the Web. Teach your calculator tricks and it'll save you precious time on the test. Also, if it has idiosyncrasies, find out about them before the test, and devise a workaround. You don't want to be halfway through the test when you suddenly realise your calculator has been giving you wrong answers because of a misplaced parenthesis.

Know Thy Professor

Professors come in many shapes and forms, and it behoves you to recognise which are friendly and which are very much not.

Tenured professors can afford to be lazy and take risks. Their position is secure. They know how to play the system. This means they can go the extra mile and pull strings for you with relative impunity - so they're great people to befriend. However, if they take a dislike to you, they can also make your life miserable in many innovative ways. Beware.

Tenure-track professors (USA) are ambitious, and that means numero uno is on their mind constantly. They're working hard to please their superiors, and if helping you gets in their way, you're toast. Also, if you waste time they could be using on research or otherwise advancing their careers, they won't like you. If you show that you recognise the value of their time and don't waste it, they will like you. If you contribute to any of their projects or make them look good, they'll really like you. Tread with care.

Lecturers come in two varieties: the type that don't care, and the type that do. The don't-cares are just doing this for a quick buck. They don't care about teaching; they don't care about you. All they care about is spending less time grading papers so they can hit the beach or work on their research. Don't bother with these lecturers; they're likely to be the most unhelpful people in the university. Speak to their TAs1 instead.

Caring lecturers are conversely awesome. These people are in the field because they love teaching, and they get a kick out of helping freshmen along. Show up at their office at any time and you'll be treated to a full-length rehash of the class, if necessary. It isn't always easy to tell the difference between the two types of lecturers, but an office visit or a question after class should be enough to clarify things pretty quickly.

One lab professor refused to answer any of our questions. He said he was only there because he had a lab safety certificate, and we should ask the TAs who were really running the show. If we had a question about a test, he'd act like he'd never seen it before. We gave up on him pretty quickly. My calculus professor was a real sweety, though. She'd throw markers at us and threaten to beat us up if we didn't get 'A's, but that was because she really wanted us to. She scheduled review sessions out of her own free time, and never rushed you through a question, no matter how dumb, repetitive or untimely it was.

TAs and lab technicians aren't professors, but they're extremely useful to know, full of information, and often sympathetic to your plight. Don't underestimate the value of their friendship. Nor that of the janitor, security guard or cafeteria lady either.

Academic Survival Tips

You've got your eraser, you're moving slo-mo in the lab, and you've even found some people you like to spend time with. But there are still those pesky classes to deal with. Is there any way to make them just a little bit easier? Yes, of course.

Develop Good Study Habits

Yes, it seems like overkill for a bright student like you, but review the material the night after each class, and read ahead the night before. Make up work immediately; you fall behind at your own peril.

The first half of the term I studied like a textbook student - prepared, reviewed, did extra homework, you name it. And it was easy. So easy that I eased off for the second half of the term and my grades weren't as pretty. Moral of the story: the extra work makes a difference.
- An engineering student
Don't get behind in engineering school, as it's very hard to catch up. That's my plug for you to spend all your free time getting your reviewing done. My parents say I was a zombie in my freshman year and always looked like I'd just been hit by a truck. Don't fall behind - you'll regret it.
- A chemical engineer

Ask Questions

This sounds a bit obvious, but it's harder to put into effect when you know the professor is going to look at you like your brain is oozing out of your nostrils and you belong in an institution. Here's a simple rule of thumb: if you weren't spacing out and you don't understand something, at least one third of the class doesn't understand it either. So ask. You'll almost certainly hear an audible sigh of relief when you do, and other students will perk up and ask follow-up questions once you've cooled the water.

I asked a question once after the drafting lecturer said there's no such thing as a stupid question. After I asked my question, she promptly yelled at me that my question was stupid and that I should think before asking such silly questions. It turned out about a fifth of the class had the same question. I guess we must have been the stupid ones.
- A chemical engineer

Use Office Hours

If you've done your homework and review and still don't get something, don't be afraid to hunt down your professor in his or her office and ask for an explanation. Professors are required to have hours when they do nothing but sit in their office and wait for you to come and bother them. And how much online poker can they play already?

One professor intimidated many students who came to ask him questions. My first view of him ever was the bottom of his shoes - for five minutes straight while he ignored me. Other students were greeted with 'Whaddaya want?' or 'Why are you in my office?' But, once you'd bore all the initial abuse, he'd give you all the time in the world to make sure you really understood the material.

If your questions are good ones, then you have the added bonus of impressing the professor. You'll want to build relationships with key faculty members, because these are the people who are going to be writing your recommendation letters and suggesting summer internship opportunities for you. Social conversation in their office between questions is a good way to cultivate friends in convenient places. And of course you can never underestimate the influence of personal bias in final grading.

Get Tutored

If you're used to being top of the class without studying, yes, it's embarrassing. Personal tutoring is for dummies, right? Wrong. It's for people who didn't quite get something, lack a bit of background, or need coaching to catch up. And personal tutoring is for you if you're baffled by something that's too dumb to ask the professor and too complicated to just look up.

It's actually fairly common for professors to mention things in passing as though you should be completely familiar with them. A very famous mathematician, I've forgotten which one, once said: 'When a paper I'm reading contains the phrase 'this is intuitively obvious' then I know I've got a few hours work before it becomes so to me.' Don't forget the phrases: 'obviously reduces to', 'is clear that', 'relatively easy' etc.
- An h2g2 Researcher and mechanical engineer

Most colleges provide some level of free tutoring for basic classes. Look up the tutoring centre as soon as you can, and find out what its schedule is and how it operates. Some need to be booked; others have 'drop in' hours when tutors are twiddling their thumbs in the office waiting for your questions. Almost all freshmen make the pilgrimage to the tutoring office at some point, so don't be ashamed. Go join them.

Create a Study Group

Remember how the rest of the class has the same dumb questions as you but are afraid to ask? They're also equally terrified that they don't know the material and got the homework questions wrong, but are afraid to mention it. Armed with that piece of information, you're all set to create a study group.

It's well documented that study groups are highly beneficial. It isn't a matter of pride - you aren't expected to do everything all on your own. I had a professor in one of the first do-or-die, weed-out-the-weaklings engineering classes (dynamics) who said: 'I expect that you will form study groups - if you do not, you will almost certainly fail this course.' He was one of those 'look to the person to your left and to your right. Two of you will soon be gone' professors. But he was right about the study groups. Just remember that engineers work in teams.
- An h2g2 Researcher and mechanical engineer

A study group is a pretty amorphous creature. It can mean comparing answers, after individually finishing the homework, to check results, or it can mean doing the homework together over cans of beer and popcorn. If you're just a nervous perfectionist, the first type will work fine for you. If you're going to need the motivation of a group, go for the second. The important part is, get yourself a group of people you can count on to help you when you need it, study with you when you need to study, and review homework with you when you're sure it makes no sense. Study groups benefit every member and are practically essential to success on advanced courses, so get into the habit early. Try to study with people who are pursuing your major, so you won't have to find new partners in later years.

I entered a semester late and was shy about approaching groups of students who seemed to all know each other already. But, finally, after trying to do one especially difficult piece of homework, I emailed a hardworking student - 'I did the homework, but would feel safer if I compared answers with another perfectionist.' She responded with a 'lol' and we helped each other out a lot after that.
- An engineering student

Create Problem Sets

Around finals time, you'll bless the day you heard about problem sets.

Be it chemistry, maths or physics, you're going to be required to know specific concepts and a few different ways to use each concept. If you study like most people, you'll review the concepts and then do as many examples as possible to make sure you can apply the concepts in every way possible. This works, but it's messy and time consuming. Instead, consider creating problem sets.

Every concept needs its own problem set. So, for example, the ideal gas law would have a problem set of its own, distinct from the modified gas equation or the partial pressure gas equation. Each set consists of one or two questions for every possible way the concept can be tested. Create sets of prototypical problems for each new topic, and work them every other day. Concentrate more on the method you use to get the right answer than on getting the right answer. They'll take less time as you go along, and the methodology will enter your long-term memory. In the test, you'll be able to recognise the type of question and solve it just like the one in your problem set. This is a guaranteed way to raise your grades, plus you get to brag that you do 50 integrals before breakfast.

Another nice thing about problem sets is that, if you keep them stored neatly in a folder, you'll have everything you need to study for your finals right there ready and waiting. While your friends are scrambling for notes and re-reading chapters, you'll be calmly working your way through problem sets.

Don't Take the Easy Route

You don't have to go looking for extra work, but don't try to take the easy way out of everything. Professors who are described as 'hard' are often just more demanding, bringing out the best in their students. Don't shy from them - you'll come out the better for it.

Another cop-out tactic is memorising everything by rote. That won't make you a great engineer. Engineers need to understand their maths and science, so they can apply the concepts in various situations. If you don't 'get' something, request an explanation. That's what the professor is there for. Memorising what you've been taught might get you a great grade, but it won't help you much down the line. Problem sets can help you with this by drilling into you the correct method as applied to various situations.

Random Mummy Reminders

Eat well, get sleep, don't get drunk the night before a test, exercise, study hard etc.

You're going to be using your brain a lot, so keep it in good shape. Protein, exercise and sleep are proven brain-performance enhancers, while alcohol, sleep deprivation and the thrice-reheated-pizza diet aren't.

As you've always been told, the brain is a muscle2. Which is why, for the first month or two, you may feel a funny, almost charley horse, feeling in your brain. Don't worry – it isn't going to explode. Keep studying and you'll be fine.

Remember: You're Not Dumb

That isn't strictly true - you might be dumb. But if you've never felt dumb before and you do now, know that you haven't suddenly become dumb. The entire institution is ganging up on you to make your feel dumb, that's all. It wants to weed out the weaklings because, well, bad engineers can be really dangerous. In engineering school, the amount of work you put in is just as important as your actual mental capacity. So log off, grab some popcorn and hit those books. Good luck.

1Teaching assistant, or whoever grades the papers.2You've always been lied to, of course, but the analogy is helpful.

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