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 have 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 for civilization, 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 as well. 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 math, tinkering, understanding how things work, and making new things.
Remember: This Isn't High School Anymore
Welcome to university. It's different than 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 review a night, or maybe a half-hour of cramming before the test. Well, you can't do that in university. Generally, for every credit hour 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 that 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 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 the semester, no problem. That's because now you're a grown-up and 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're not doing well, you've got to get up to speed, by studying with someone or getting a tutor or whatever. Point is, you have to take care of it yourself, because nobody else gives a darn.
After handing in our first homework for a class, a number of students realized they misunderstood a question, and consequently gotten it wrong. 'Can we redo that question?' one student asked anxiously. The professor looked at him and laughed. 'That's just one of the thousands of homeworks I'm going to give you that you're going to get wrong,' he said, tucking the homeworks 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 are 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 3rd grade, Bernoulli's principle states...' or 'What did you learn in 5th 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 disdain 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’re not 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 do it for less than a billion of any given monetary unit.
Keep a Sense of Humor
With that kind of TLC in your future, you'll need a sense of humor 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 yourselves.
One of our lecturers asked who Laplace Transforms were 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 unstop the pipes, but it would take us about six times as long as an amateur.
- A chemE student
Get Down to Work
OK, so you've accepted your bottom-of-the-totem-pole status and you're 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 Eraser
First things first - be supplied. Lots of pencils, a graphing calculator, lots of paper (including graph paper), and the biggest, best eraser 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 eraser with you all the time. It will serve you well.
Don't Break Stuff
Breaking glass and exploding things is not going to make you popular with the lab instructor. There are two main reasons 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're not 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 is not 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 you have when 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 cleanup time.
If you're not 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 socialize 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 resume. 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 will 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 will 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 realized that your calculator has been giving you wrong answers because of a misplaced parentheses.
Know Thy Professor
Professors come in many shapes and forms, and it behooves you to recognize 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 that 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 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 will not like you. If you show that you recognize 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 professors; 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 would 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.
Teaching assistants 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. 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 do review the material the night after each class, and do read ahead the night before. Make up work immediately. You fall behind at your own peril.
The first half of the semester 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 semester, 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 is very hard to catch up. That's my plug for you to spend all your free time now to get your reviewing done. My parents say I was a zombie my freshman year and always looked like I was just hit by a truck. Do not fall behind - you'll regret it.
- a chemical engineer
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 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 either understand it. So ask. You will 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 is 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 you still don’t get something, don't be afraid to hunt down your professor in his or her office and ask for explanation. Professors are required to have hours when they do nothing but sit in their office and wait for you to come 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 minute straight while he ignored me. Other students were greeted with 'Whaddaya want?' or 'Why are you in my office?' But once you bore all the initial abuse, he would 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 be wanting 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.
If you're used to being the top of the class without studying, yes, it’s embarrassing. Tutoring is for dummies, right? Wrong. Tutoring is for people who didn’t quite get something, who lack a bit of background, or need coaching to catch up. And tutoring is for you if you’re baffled by something 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 center as soon as you can, and find out what their schedule is and how they operate. Some require booking ahead of time. Others have 'drop in' hours when tutors are twiddling their thumbs in the office waiting for your questions. Almost all freshman students make the pilgrimage to the tutoring office at some point in their career, so don’t be ashamed. Go join them.
Create a Study Group
Remember how the rest of the class has the same dumb questions you do, 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's not a matter of pride - you are not 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 help, 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 in 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 homework, I emailed a hardworking student, 'I did the homework, but would feel safer if I compared answers with another perfectionist.' She responded with an 'lol' and we helped each other out a lot after that.
- an engineering student
Create Problem Sets
Around finals time, you will bless the day you heard about problem sets.
Be it chemistry or math or physics, you are going to be required to know specific concepts and few different ways to use each concept. If you study like most people, you 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. Consider, instead, 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 is comprised 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. On the test, you'll be able to recognize 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 have everything you need to study for the final 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 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 memorizing everything by rote. That won't make you a great engineer. Engineers need to understand their math 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. Memorizing 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 Mommy Reminders
Eat well, get sleep, don't get drunk the night before a test, exercise, study hard, etc 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 are proven not.
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's not going to explode. Keep studying and you'll be fine.
Remember: You’re Not Dumb
That's not 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. They want 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.