In my 3rd year of an engineering degree, hate it, failing and loaded with debt. What should I do?
December 18, 2011 11:34 AM   Subscribe

I'm in my 3rd year of my mechanical engineering program and I hate it. I've dropped 30% in grades since my second year and now I'm tip-toeing failing/passing every class. I've gotten stomach ulcers and anxiety attacks as a result of the stress and I've started to just give up. I want to switch but I'm already sacked with 40k of loans. What should I do?

I went into it because my parents thought I should have a practical degree (my fault for listening to them). First two years I noticed a steady drop in my grades as a result of not caring/courses increasing in difficulty. Now I feel like I've hit rock bottom with both physical and emotional signs of stress. I don't have any money (hence the loans) and I want to switch out of any engineering, meaning not only would my credits not transfer over into a science/arts degree but I would have to start all over again (with even more debt). I feel trapped and I'm scared that I'm going to fail out if I don't drop out.
posted by CreativeUsername to Education (30 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
The loans are a sunk cost. You aren't getting that money back, and you certainly aren't making good use of them if you force yourself to continue on and make yourself miserable and fail out.

Talk to your college counselor. You will not be the first person they've helped in your position. Depending on what you want to switch into (you mention science), some of your credits might actually transfer (you've had calculus by now, right? And sophomore physics?)

Don't beat yourself up about it. You made a mistake (actually, a pretty common mistake!), but it's not irreparable--far from it. Don't make another one by sticking with something that you hate.
posted by kagredon at 11:46 AM on December 18, 2011 [6 favorites]

You should speak to a professor you trust, or the dean of your school.

If nothing else, they can point you to resources to help you find a way forward - whether or not that involves continuing in engineering.

Whatever happens, don't do anything rash. What you are going through is perfectly common and not at all unusual. Engineering is hard. Being a young 20 something is hard. Growing up and into your own person is hard.

There are resources at your school designed to help students like you. Use them. And keep your chin up.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 11:47 AM on December 18, 2011 [5 favorites]

I would double check to make sure your credits won't transfer over to get a degree other than one in mechanical engineering. I majored in English and took many classes outside of that major -- they all counted toward my bachelors degree, with the caveat that I needed a certain number of in-major credits as well.

Are you confident that you want to get a science/arts (non-engineering) degree? If you're not, jumping into that at this time could be a mistake. But if you can't handle and really don't want to get this engineering degree, you don't want to throw good money after bad by continuing with it. If it's not something you want to do, it's unlikely that you will magically just start to put in the hard work and be successful in that area.

There could be an option short of dropping out here. Does your school have a temporary leave option? You can take a semester (or whatever) off and clear your head and reassess at that time. You sound stressed enough that if this is an option, it might be a good one.
posted by J. Wilson at 11:48 AM on December 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Is the math a problem or is the topic just not interesting enough to you?

If it's math, perhaps try a tutor or switching to a different engineering discipline. Investigate which courses could transfer.

But, if you have found other curriculum to be engaging then look into transfer credits and how long it would actually take to complete a degree. It's not worth struggling through work you just aren't that into.
posted by mightshould at 11:52 AM on December 18, 2011

If you switched, what would you switch to? Unless your university categorically refusing to accept engineering courses/credits for anything else, odds are you can use a good number of the courses you've taken towards another degree. Did you have to do breadth requirements (like an English course)? Odds are, the non-engineering students hae the same sort of requirement and that course will count for that. You've almost certainly done physics. That'll count for some sort of 'physical science' requirement. Maybe you'll need another semester or two to finish and, yeah, that costs money, but hopefully a degree with good grades in something you like will be worth more in the long run than a civil engineering degree with lousy grades. And then you'd be actually happy, too.

Like the other people who have answered while I've been writing have said, go find someone in the advising office for either engineering or, better, whatever you'd switch to and see where you actually stand. It's probably not as bad as you think.
posted by hoyland at 11:54 AM on December 18, 2011

A degree (any degree!) can open doors for you for many jobs. For example I have seen programmers with fishery or arts degrees. What people seem to care about is that you have one. Having the degree will allow you to pay back the money sooner.

You know yourself best so only you can decide if you can force yourself to push through or need to just stop. I also think you are distancing yourself from things somewhat - you say you noticed a steady drop in grades instead of "my grades have dropped" and you didn't need to mention your parents at all but you did. I think you need to face this head on.
posted by meepmeow at 11:56 AM on December 18, 2011

By all means, consider other options, but I'd also ask if there's a way you can revive (or just "vive") your interest in mechanical engineering. Some new way you can approach it mentally to make it something you actively want to do.

Any degree program you might take, if you abstract it enough, is going to be exercises in problem solving. Maybe ME problems aren't interesting to you. That's fair—that would be a good reason to get out. Or maybe it's something peripheral to the subject about your department (the profs, your fellow students, whatever). In that case, switching departments could be switching from the frying pan to the fire. I would be careful about figuring out why I wanted to change majors before I did it.

For whatever it's worth, I was a liberal-arts student in college, but I was always envious of my ME friends, because they got to play with cool toys, and they developed useful skills for making shit as part of their formal education. I wasn't unhappy with my major the way you are, but for the first couple of years, my grades stank. Finding a new way to approach my studies—a new mental model, so to speak—made a big difference.
posted by adamrice at 12:17 PM on December 18, 2011

not only would my credits not transfer over into a science/arts degree but I would have to start all over again

How do you know this?

I switched from aerospace engineering to film production after my second year. The school was very open to applying my extra science and math courses towards the other degree's requirements however they could; I had to sit through a freshman comp class my junior year, but otherwise it was not a problem at all. I think you'll be surprised how portable your credits will be.

Since you're three years in already you may end up having to do a five year degree instead of four (depending what you switch to), but you will not have to "start all over again".
posted by ook at 12:18 PM on December 18, 2011

Switching majors will probably cost you a year (probably this one) as Jr and Sr courses transfer less well between majors than So and Fr courses. If you want to switch out of Engineering entirely, then how well things transfer will depend entirely on your new major. CS or math or physics? Likely to get you started ahead in your new major. English literature? You'll have lots of fere electives covered, but not much more.

However, if you stick with the choice you made as a 17-year-old to major in Mech E, then you will have your career chosen for you by a teenager. The courses are a sunk cost, and if you don't want the jobs available with the degree, then switch to one that has a better-looking trajectory. Your college employs counselors and advisors to help you with this decision - talk to them. It is their job to help you.
posted by pmb at 12:22 PM on December 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Have you thought of taking a year off and doing some kind of engineering internship? You sound like you could use some therapy and practical experience.

I have a cousin who did an electrical engineering program and he outright failed one class after a bad breakup, but he still got a really good job. He wasn't a great engineering student.

The most important thing you can learn right now is how to manage your stress. Go get some counseling, read some books and tips by Scott H. Young and Cal Newport. Consider taking a year off for an internship.

I wouldn't trash the major.
posted by anniecat at 12:37 PM on December 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Is it school you hate, or engineering? If it's school, I'd advise gritting your teeth and getting through. Any academic program will have the same problems.

Also, remember that what you learn in school isn't what you do once you become a professional. A practicing doctor doesn't study anatomy, and a practicing attorney doesn't study the law of contracts. School knowledge is only the foundation that supports your actual work.

Work always includes getting along with clients and other professionals -- the human factors that get ignored in school -- and using what you earned in school to recognize what's going on and how to engage in real-life problems.

However, if studying engineering has revealed that it's not right for you, then cut the cord and find something else. My wife devoted years to becoming a college music teacher, and then hated every minute. She switched to computers, found a perfect IE spot and ended up a vice president.
posted by KRS at 12:38 PM on December 18, 2011

And you should know, you're not alone. Learn to manage your stress and be persistent.
posted by anniecat at 12:39 PM on December 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Whatever happens, don't do anything rash. Agreed. Think carefully about why you want to change majors. Are there any classes in particular that you have issues with/don't like? Is it just the workload in general?

FWIW, I also majored in engineering and felt pretty much the same as you my last couple of years of college. It wasn't so much the classes for me as the workload - cramming for exams, pulling all-nighters in the lab, etc really started wearing me down after a while. I seriously considered switching to secondary education with a science emphasis - required a couple extra semesters but would have at least gotten me out of the lab. Ultimately, I decided to stay put - I realized that I liked working in technology, but just wasn't happy with the workload + other stresses of being in college.

What helped me avoid getting too burned out was finding an outlet for the stress and planning for life after graduation - what I really wanted to do work-wise, how I would have more time for hobbies once I got through that last year, etc. And life since graduation has been way better - my job isn't even half as stressful as college was and I finally have the time and money for outside interests.

Just some food for thought. I would think about what you do like - do you like the hands-on aspect of engineering? Do you like working with/finding uses for technology (even if you don't like the related math/science classes)? Are there any non-technical classes you've taken that you've enjoyed? Might give you a good starting point.
posted by photo guy at 12:56 PM on December 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

GET OUT. You will hate every job you ever have, if you hate engineering school.

Debt or no, save the rest of your life.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:26 PM on December 18, 2011

Please, please, please go speak to your school's counsellors. I promise you that you will not be the first person who has gone to them about this problem. They will have specific information for you regarding who to see about transferring most efficiently to another program, if that's what you decide to do, and providing you with emotional/psychological support for the difficulties you're having now.

Also: in no way am I trying to downplay how you're feeling, but it is exam time right now and your anxieties are probably at an all-time high for the semester. Go talk to the counsellors and also be easy on yourself. It's a high-stress time of the semester, and the holidays don't help.

Good luck.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:34 PM on December 18, 2011

I wouldn't do any thing rash. Think about reducing your credit load and spend another semester or year completing your degree. There is nothing wrong with doing an engineering degree in 5 years. You have completed some of the hardest classes in you degree by now, a huge part of it now is managing the work load. A reduced schedule may help. Senior year is easy in comparison to what you have and are doing now. If you do complete your degree you will have a leg up in employment. Engineers are sought after in many fields. If you do land at a engineering jobs I think you will find that it is nothing like engineering school. I know I did.
posted by ihadapony at 1:54 PM on December 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

I highly recommend taking a semester off. Put some mental space between you and school, and figure out what you want without all the pressure of having to make a decision RIGHT NOW. Feeling trapped and scared, as you said you are currently, are bad conditions for decision making. You need some breathing room.
posted by MexicanYenta at 2:19 PM on December 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

I looked at your question from July before writing this.

There does not appear to me to be a good way to answer this question without more and up close and personal information, such as you and your closest advisors would be privy to.

Among the largest and most unknown unknowns:

Some Engineering programs do a have a huge crank-up years 2 -> 3 where people flunk out in large numbers, and by design. You may be in one of these or not.

You could have medical or emotional problems which ought to be addressed in a manner completely unrelated to dropping out of your Engineering program.

You could have drawn a bad lot of teachers. Mechanical Engineering is a fascinating subject which for some reason (it seems to me) has a large proportion of unbelievably poor teachers.

If I were you I would put little weight on anything some strangers on the Internet have to say about your problem.
posted by bukvich at 2:52 PM on December 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Addendum to point 1 above: I know of two cases (at least) where people were in crank-up programs, almost flunked out at begin year 3, and were making A's by end year 4.
posted by bukvich at 2:56 PM on December 18, 2011

not only would my credits not transfer over into a science/arts degree but I would have to start all over again

This seems a little hard to believe, so I'd definitely talk to a counselor (and if your first counselor interaction seems kind of worthless, it might be worth your while to try again with a different one). Some credits might not apply to a different major and you might have to go an extra year to catch up on some of the stuff in your new major, but last I looked the differences between the math used by bio-chemists and electrical engineers was mostly one of labeling the axes.

If your university is going out of their way to be pissy about transferring credits, look into what they would do with the credits at a different university. You might be pleasantly surprised.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 3:18 PM on December 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Changed majors to something also-science-y might require that you take another year, year and a half or something than what you planned, but it should not require you to start over. Hell, even changing to accounting, you wouldn't start over. Unless your school is set up *very* weird, everything has a certain number of base required courses that overlap (i.e., you already took freshman comp) and a certain number of electives (which your mechanical engineering courses would fill at least a few of).

I started aiming at social sciences and finished undergrad in accounting, and am now in law school. Changing to do what you enjoy now is always better than changing later--whenever 'now' happens to be. I only had to add an extra summer, since I did so second year, but a relative of mine switched third year from math to CS and only added an extra year and is currently doing great. Your shortest track would be other engineering, then other things which would require the additional math/science courses that you had to take. Sometimes classes that seem specialized aren't necessarily so; my quantitative methods class got substituted for business stats with no trouble.

So I would say, before you start really worrying, walk into your advisor's office, tell them that you're not sure this is working out, and ask them how much longer it would take you to do [a list of other things you think you might like].
posted by gracedissolved at 3:38 PM on December 18, 2011

Most Universities have emergency counseling services available. Make use of this. You are in the midst of a huge amount of stress, and you need an objective perspective. Of course, talking to your adviser or the dean in your department is a good idea, too.
posted by annsunny at 3:51 PM on December 18, 2011

Isn't this the last week of the semester? Aren't you taking finals or having just completed finals? Finals week is no time to make life altering decisions.

That said, Mr. 26.2 is a partner in an engineering firm. Unlike a lot of other degrees, in engineering your work day is applying what you learned in school. If you don't like the topic now, you aren't going to like it for the next 40 years of your life. If you finished your degree would you be willing to study more for your PE? A LEED certification? Whatever the next certification is?

Don't make rash decisions in the midst of semester-end stress, but if you really dislike engineering then change majors.
posted by 26.2 at 4:18 PM on December 18, 2011

I have a good friend who was in a similar position to you - and he is now in sociology grad school and loving it. I think it took him another year or so. In his case, the engineering departments were in a different "school", so it took the help of a counselors to figure out how to transfer his credits over to the other half of the university, but it did work.

While I agree with others that you shouldn't make decisions while completely stressed - it really seems like you could use something to look forward to - not another year and a half of struggling though something you hate.

Perhaps you could take courses in the major you'd like to switch to next semester and see if it's school, or you just need a break or if it's really not something you want to come back to. Or, take next semester off and get a low stress job, see a councilor, get back into martial arts, etc.

Good luck!
posted by lab.beetle at 4:29 PM on December 18, 2011

DON'T GIVE UP NOW. Finals week is not the time to be worrying about this on top of everything else.

I've been there and it sucks, but stick with it if you can. I was in your shoes 6 years ago and came right up to the brink of quitting. But I managed to hang in there long enough to get my BSME, I am so, so glad that I did. Now I have a job that I really like, and nobody gives a shit about my low GPA or the class periods that I skipped to sit in my dorm room and cry. You can hate being in engineering school and still be a good (and happy) engineer.

Me-mail me if you'd like to talk.
posted by beandip at 4:56 PM on December 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh boy, I just went through this semester myself.

I don't know your school's calendar, but, yes, if you're still in finals then decide whether you're going to take your finals and go through with that. As you make that decision, remember that you think life is terrible right now, and that's going to make you underestimate your chances.

Regarding the point about sunk cost, remember also the sunk cost dilemma. It's possible to construct a series of choices where making the locally optimal choice at each juncture, ignoring sunk cost, will ultimately lead to negative return.

In any case, I strongly recommend getting through your finals and then reposting this question. Right now, this thread is just another distraction from your studies.
posted by d. z. wang at 7:11 PM on December 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

If you change majors it should be into something, not just out of ME. So, maybe you need to take a semester off, or take a lighter engineering course load and sample your prospective new major more heavily. Also, taking an internship could teach you a lot. It is hard, but try not to let the student loans drive your choice. They are sunk costs now. The bigger question is whether the next round of loans are taking you in the best direction you can choose.
posted by meinvt at 9:07 PM on December 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Don't make another one by sticking with something that you hate.

I'm going to second that. Also I suggest really getting a breadth of experiences, beyond just talking to counselors, before making up your mind.

In my own case I ended up sticking with my first degree (Chemistry) and continuing on to a job as a lab tech largely on the advice I got in school: "oh you just don't like the theory! but you do well in the lab courses so..." After about 4 years working in labs I decided to go back and do what I should have done in the first place: taken a different major (Chemical Engineering, because you need an engineering degree to be an engineer around here.)

If you are worried about the time and money wasted getting to this point, imagine how much more time and money will be wasted if you follow through, get your degree, and decide you want to do something else for which you need a different degree.

Sometimes, depending on the school and the department, the counselors can have a set of blinders on about what might be best for you. In my experience their first goal is to try and help you stay in the program, or failing that in the faculty. Which is probably fits most of the cases they see, but if it truly is that Mech E isn't working for you, they may gloss over that aspect, seeing instead merely that your marks have dropped. Still go and see them! Just keep that in mind.

Of course I came back to school after having the experience of actually seeing what my job would be like. This would be yet another reason to take a semester off: give you a chance to gain some perspective both by getting your head out of the institution, and by potentially giving you the opportunity to see what sorts of careers you could see yourself happily engaging in.
posted by selenized at 10:59 PM on December 18, 2011

Echoing selenized, but you may have the opposite problem with school counselors depending on the culture of the school, where they push you into a very liberal artsy major with little thought.

What kind of science/arts majors do you think you'd be interested in? I have no doubt that MechE is a bad choice for you, but it's tempting to jump ship to the first thing that catches your interest. You need to think through the alternatives carefully.
posted by redlines at 11:30 PM on December 18, 2011

Been there, done that, Co-oping every other semester saved me. Literally, saved my degree and pocketbook. I wasn't on a trust fund like alot of the people around me in my program so paying my way was a real concern. I was also not as 'into' the material like they were and my grades, while passable, were not all star, gonna be mega-mondo researcher one day.

Co-oping gave me the mental and financial break I needed in between semesters of total madness.

For what it's worth, I'm not using my degree in Mechanical Engineering like I hoped I would. Due to moving in with the fiance, until she finishes grad school, and there not being any ME jobs to speak of here, I'm doing computer SCM/DBA work. You're jumping through hoops for a piece of paper. Some pieces of paper are better than other than pieces of paper. Pieces of paper that say 'Engineering' tend to look good to potential employers.

In conclusion, I can't wait until we have kids so I can be Mr. Mom and tend our victory garden while listening to NPR all day.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:16 AM on December 21, 2011

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