Maybe interpretive dance would have been a better choice.
March 5, 2008 11:52 AM   Subscribe

Should I continue my engineering degree?

Ok, so I’m mostly done my second year of Mechanical Engineering. I’m barely passing and have been that way since I started. I love to learn, and I enjoy the material, but I am absolutely terrible at it. My cumulative average is 56 (you get kicked out if it drops to a 55). I’ve never gotten better than a 55 in a physics related course, and I have failed half the math courses I’ve taken so far. I recently dropped my AC circuits course. I do have a bit of a reason for that one – I am hearing impaired and the prof isn’t very familiar with English, with a thick accent. I’m at the point that I can no longer finish my degree in 4 years. This doesn’t bother me too much, as I was going to do an Econ degree in my fifth year, now I’ll just have to take some economics courses in my third and fourth years. I’m paying for my own education, so no one else has any financial say in the matter.
I have a good chance of passing most of my courses this semester, except kinematics, where I have a ~30 right now.

My largest problems with math are the minor mistakes I make when writing exams (I forget a lot of –ves and drop the occasion 0). I’ve been that way forever. For physics, I will be comfortable with the concepts they teach us, but when the exam is 3 questions that are things we didn’t cover in much depth, are two concepts combined or require any real original thinking, I’m screwed.
The only area where I excel is in a teamwork or design project environment. I lead well and seem to have a natural ability to create useful and efficient designs, given a set of requirements. Those are the courses that keep me meeting my grade requirements.

The reason I haven’t just found another degree to take so far is that there are so many people that I know in my position. My housemate failed every course and is going to redo his second year next year. Most of my friends will have to take an extra year to make up failed courses. For most of them, they never did any homework, played too much WoW or where drunk/stoned the whole time. I spend most of my evenings reading textbooks to figure out how to do my homework.

So, what I want is the opinion of all of the engineers out there. What do you think about my situation? Do you think I would make a decent engineer? Should I continue or find something else to devote my time to? Was anyone here ever in a similar position?

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posted by anonymous to Education (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The question is what type of job you want. Has this experience turned you off the field of engineering altogether? Then bail out now. If there's still something you love about the idea of being an engineer, then investigate what jobs there are that have the aspects of engineering you love and where your weaknesses are less of a problem. Then determine what preparation is required for those positions.
posted by winston at 12:04 PM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you love engineering, but aren't sure you'll make it through to graduation, why not instead investigate what it takes to become a technologist (it's typically a three-year degree), and then take some project management courses on the side (maybe get certification in that), since that seems to be your strong point.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:17 PM on March 5, 2008

You should probably talk to your advisor or department head if you don't know who to go to. They will have the breadth of knowledge of your options to give you some idea of where you're at and some possibilities of what you might want to aim for. Good luck!
posted by rhizome at 12:18 PM on March 5, 2008

Have you ever been assessed for a learning disability? If not, you might want to do that soon and your school shoul have some helpful resources (although, depending on where you are and what your health insurance is like, assessment might not be inexpensive). It would be unfortunate if there was a manageable condition standing between your innate ability/interest and achievement.

The problems you mentioned with math are also likely to get in the way of being successful as an economics major. Economics math tends to be less focused on abstraction compared to 1st/2nd year engineering math courses, so silly mistakes and calculation errors tend to be even more damaging on tests.
posted by thisjax at 12:19 PM on March 5, 2008


This concerns me:

For physics, I will be comfortable with the concepts they teach us, but when the exam is 3 questions that are things we didn’t cover in much depth, are two concepts combined or require any real original thinking, I’m screwed.

Learning to be able synthesize two concepts or use original thought to solve a problem is a pretty important part of engineering. If the stuff you haven't covered much in depth is appearing on an open-book exam, you should also be comfortable finding the information you need to solve the problem.

The question is, are you screwed because you don't like these types of questions, or are you screwed because you're just not very good at them? If the former, engineering may not be for you. If the latter, you should be able to solve it with practice: are there tutors available? A friend in the class who's doing well who can help you practice? Office hours with professors? Unfortunately in the real world you will not be asked to simply draw electric fields or recite the equation for acceleration. You really need to able to apply the work, which is what these types of questions are asking you to do.

Dropping zeros and -ves on math exams -- and "being that way forever" -- might be solved either with learning to very carefully proofread math problems, and/or to see if there is some learning disability (I'm pulling this out of my ass, but could this be a mild dyslexia symptom or something?)?
posted by olinerd at 12:21 PM on March 5, 2008

IANAE, but I play one on TV (just kidding). I do teach in an engineering college. If a student like you came to see me, here is what I'd say:

-You seem to like what you are doing, so don't quit just yet.

-You seem to have some basic "learning" problems (especially as it pertains to math). I'd try to work on these. Student services might be able to help you. They probably have counselors / advisors that could help you develop the skills you need to be more successful in math and physics (you might never get an A+, but so what?)

-Make sure that your hearing impairment is "reasonably accommodated". It's not being capricious. That might mean changing instructors sometimes (or some other solutions).

-Teamwork and design skills are definitely big pluses in a "real" working environment. They're basically what most employers look for. In my mind, they count way more that your skills at math and physics, and are surprisingly harder to come by. On that basis alone, I'd say stick to it.

-Any coop/internship programs? A stint in industry might give you a pretty good idea as to whether you can make it "in the wild" (and whether you really like it).

I had a students a few years back: she was a woman in her late 40s who had raised her kids and worked for decades as a secretary. Came from a family of engineers, married to an engineer. She decided she would become one too. Let me tell you that she had a really hard time, especially in math and physics. Be she stuck to it. Once, as she was saying that she wasn't very good at the "technical" stuff, I pointed out to her that engineers come in many flavors and all of them were needed. What she lacked in some aspects, she made made up by great skills in others: great organizer, teamwork, excellent writing skills, excellent knowledge of organizational dynamics... She finally graduated (wish I knew where is is now...).

Good luck and keep us posted!!!
posted by bluefrog at 12:29 PM on March 5, 2008

I had troubles with dropped negatives or terms in engineering as well in my first year. I had to force myself to learn to follow certain rules for formatting my calculations and derivations. Take a look at nicely indented code and that's essentially the same type of rules I came up for writing math. Since I had a prof who would ask questions on exams such as "Design a 7th order IIR filter with these specifications and calculate the first 10 terms of it's response to a unit step function." and give you 0 if the final numerical answer wasn't correct it was a life saver.
posted by substrate at 1:10 PM on March 5, 2008

It kinda depends what you intend to do with the degree. Assuming you want to go build stuff, please stop. I know that sounds snooty but engineers often build machines that are life-critical. If you screw up, people can be maimed or die. It's a little like medicine in that way.

There are areas of engineering where subpar is a-ok but you really need to think about what you intend to do with this degree when you get it.

I know you wanted to hear "follow your dreams!" but I think you might need do a reality check.
posted by chairface at 1:32 PM on March 5, 2008

IAAEE (not ME)
I almost failed out my junior year, but I stuck with it. I had to take my assembly language course 3 times before I passed it, my electronics course twice. Part of the problem was that in my junior year I discovered a social life, but there was also a large part of it that was not really understanding the *intent* of the material. Your example of synthesizing two concepts is one that I had trouble with as well. But I loved the concepts, and I did well enough in other programs (math especially) that I stuck with it. That was 20 years ago. I've spent my post graduate time in all kinds of Electrical Engineering related roles. Most of my contemporaries have been EEs, and I've held my own, and have often excelled. Now I understand many of those hard to grasp concepts from college, and realize that they were important, I just didn't have the experience to understand why.
In hindsight I did the right thing *for me* by sticking with it. Of course, you have to decide for yourself whether the ME life is worth the struggles in college.

I also agree with bluefrog and would emphasize a couple of his points. First, try to get an internship, understanding the practicality of the course often helps immensely. Second, he is exactly right that there are many types of engineering roles that will emphasize differing skill sets. As long as you like the work, I'm sure you will at some point find a position that fits your skill sets. The important thing is to enjoy the work.

Good luck!
posted by forforf at 1:40 PM on March 5, 2008

I'm an EE -- been working for > 25 years in the field in product development.

There are a lot of different things a person with an engineering degree can do in addition to designing products. For instance, technical sales, product support, manufacturing engineering, marketing high technology products. All of these may require less in the way of engineering problem solving than your course work or a development job.

As others have suggested, getting tested for a learning disability and/or learning hacks (such as substrate suggested) to work around your math issues is going to help.

If you like building/tinkering/making stuff, you may want to check out a technician or machinist type of program -- you will do a lot more hands on and a lot less math there.

If you like design, you may want to look into industrial design (e.g. Stanford's "d-school").

If you like theory though, I think you have to find some workarounds for the issues you're facing now.
posted by elmay at 2:00 PM on March 5, 2008

IAAE student (end of my junior year, Aerospace). All I can really say is that you have to be able to do basic math and physics to get an engineering degree. Everything you do later builds on those skills. You really don't need to be great at them, but you need to be able to pass classes.

My largest problems with math are the minor mistakes I make when writing exams (I forget a lot of –ves and drop the occasion 0).

How honest are you being with yourself\us here? You would have to be dropping negatives and making mistakes right and left to actually fail an entire course because of it. Have you discussed these problems with your teachers? Everyone makes mistakes like this here or there, but if it's so bad that you can't pass a class because of it, we're passing out of minor mistake and into serious problem territory. In later classes, being able to keep track of all of these tiny details will be even more important, because the math gets more complicated. Later classes will have the same or higher levels of math as your introductory physics courses, but there will be several layers of the actual physical and engineering stuff on top of it. It doesn't happen right away, but at some point the math needs to start coming more naturally so that it doesn't get in the way.

For physics, I will be comfortable with the concepts they teach us, but when the exam is 3 questions that are things we didn’t cover in much depth, are two concepts combined or require any real original thinking, I’m screwed.

This, too, will become problematic later on. Professors won't be able to or simply won't spoon-feed you everything you need to know. One of my professors' favorite problem style is one in which he skips a few steps of an in-class derivation and then asks us to fill in the gaps as a homework assignment. What this generally involves is application of some related concept. The skill is seeing where you're going and looking for things you know that move you in that direction.

That all being said, it doesn't sound to me like there's any reason you couldn't become a good engineer. The things you're describing are just skills. Skills can be built through practice. You do your homework, right? If there isn't enough homework, ask your professor to assign extra problems (they're usually happy to do so). If the homework problems are much easier than the tests, ask your professor for harder ones. Do the problems at the end of the chapter (the very last ones are the hardest, so focus on those). Start your homework early so that when you run into problems, you can ask professors and classmates for help. They will be FAR FAR more informative than textbooks.
posted by !Jim at 2:05 PM on March 5, 2008

I did my undergrad in Computer Science at the University of Colorado, which places CS in the College of Engineering. I had to take many "fundamental" first- and second-year courses with the MEs, EEs, AEs, etc. I had a pretty meager average my first year (not in danger of failing, but still not great), which was a shock after getting great marks in high school with effectively no studying. I discovered that I really didn't know how to study and it took most of my first year (and some of my second) to figure out what to do correctly.

You didn't mention any of the things you did for studying, beyond "I spend most of my evenings reading textbooks to figure out how to do my homework." If you're studying alone, find a study group. More than anything else, this is what got me through undergrad. Not only will you have others available to explain material you don't understand, but explaining to others material you do comprehend will reinforce it much, much better than simply working on it alone. Studying with others also kept me disciplined and focused.

Also, if you aren't, go to your professors' office hours and if you need it, find a tutor. There are frequently free tutoring services available, especially for engineering courses. There is something of a stigma around getting extra help, or at least I felt there was. When I started university, I thought "smart" people didn't need extra help. Turns out the smartest people are the ones who understand where their difficulties are and takes steps to compensate for them. Find more ways to make yourself like these people.
posted by Nelsormensch at 2:13 PM on March 5, 2008

IAACE/EE and I graduated about three years ago. The worst period for me was the end of my sophomore year and the start of my junior year. I didn't do all that well (although I didn't fail) in most of my introductory math and physics classes. Most of these classes were larger and more impersonal than the higher level classes. I would stay in engineering school if you enjoy the work, and have had some success with other engineering classes. Most engineering students have a cathartic period about their second year where they either decide that they will press on or switch majors. I think part of what saved me was working in a laboratory where I could see what all the hard work was for, and the application of various subjects. It also helps to have a place where you can develop your ability to synthesize ideas, rather than strictly apply concepts covered in a course. Working as an intern / in a lab will also help to build confidence in your problem solving skills which will help reduce your anxiety during exams.

With respect to your disability do whatever you need to do to learn. People learn at different rates and different ways and there is zero shame in asking professors and graduate students to accommodate you. My experience was that engineering students and professors are so tied up in competition (whether research or GPA) that they will ignore you until you make your voice heard.

Best of luck. Engineering school can be a rat race, but it is worth it.
posted by kscottz at 2:19 PM on March 5, 2008

First two years of any engineering discipline can be very rough. I nearly dropped after my second year of Electrical Engineering and I had a relatively good GPA. I'm glad I didn't. The work after you graduate is actually very fun and very rewarding. At the same time it can be very competitive. Try harder and stick with it!

If you don't have that in you, then I suggest you change majors. In my experience the people I know who have degrees (any degree really) have easy lives, where as the people who never got a degree of some sort have it very very hard. Getting a degree shows that you have perseverance more than anything. You are willing to stick through some shit and come out on the other side. This looks very good to employers.
posted by nickerbocker at 2:55 PM on March 5, 2008

I agree with what most of the previous replies and think that if you want to be an engineer you'll just have to work hard for it and get help when you need it but I wanted to ask if you really want to be an engineer?

It seems like a lot of your skills would do great in a business administration degree. Also there's the fact that there's nothing stopping you from getting a degree in administration and then working at an engineering firm as a manager. That way you can use your leadership, organizational, people skills to get engineers to do all the technical stuff for you. I realize the best managers should have some technical experience but I guess that's what you're getting right now in these first couple years of engineering. Also I have no clue if firms hire non-engineers as managers so this could be a totally moot point or something that's not in the direction you want to take.
posted by woolylambkin at 3:29 PM on March 5, 2008

The number of EEs that have popped in and told you how hard they had it should tell you something. Whatever you do, do not switch to EE. :-)

IAAEE, and I had a bitch of a time in school. Granted, I was a returning adult, single parent a (at graduation) 12 year old son and I worked three part time jobs in school. Plus, I suck at math. I love math, but I suck at it.

That said, I got through. I spent a lot of time with professors/tutors/TAs on things I didn't get. I struggled a lot. I failed a couple of classes. I nearly quit. But I made it through, and in less than four years. I bawled like a baby at graduation.

My advice to you is for you to figure out if you really like engineering. There is little that is worse than struggling at something you don't like, and when the going gets tough, you need to like what you are doing at some level. If your assessment is accurate, if you really like engineering, stick with it. Realize it will require more effort from you than from someone else, and plan on accomodating that ahead of time.

If you find that you don't really like the coursework, that's cool. I would drop out then. I met far too many kids who were 5th year seniors struggling to finish a degree in a field they now resented.

Good luck.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 3:46 PM on March 5, 2008

OK, so I'm an engineering professor, but I feel I should mention up front that the views expressed here are my own views and do not necessarily represent the views of my department, college, or university. Privately, I would guess many of my colleagues agree.

I hate to be negative, but if you're having a hard time cutting it with second year courses, engineering probably isn't for you. I understand some types of tests might be particularly challenging, but putting together disparate concepts is possibly the most fundamental portion of the engineering curriculum. A little trouble with math doesn't scare me, but a lot of trouble really does.

I've seen students who REALLY should have changed majors, but they've refused. In the end, things end up much worse. Now is the time to consider what other majors might be a good match for your abilities and strengths. For your friends who are failing because they're slacking off- either get off your ass or don't, but make up your mind. For you- it seems like you're trying your best, but it's not working out. I really don't mean to sound elitist, but engineering isn't for everyone. (To be fair, neither is any other field, but engineering tends to make it pretty clear where you stand.)

Presumably, you have an adviser of some sort. S/he is better equipped to judge your ability to get through your program, but from what you're saying, I would seriously consider other options. Sorry to sound negative.
posted by JMOZ at 4:54 PM on March 5, 2008

I am an EE professor, and I agree with JMOZ. The abilty to get every detail correct, including every negative sign, every zero, every unit, is absolutely crucial. After two years of coursework, you're still struggling with setting up problems that you haven't seen before, and then not being able to follow through with the mathematical details. If you were my student, I would advise you to bail.

That said, I advise many of my students, especially the really good ones, to think about getting out of engineering within a few years of getting their degree. For many, hardcore engineering is a lousy choice for a lifelong profession. If it's not agreeing with you now, this is a good opportunity to switch to something you can excel in. Sounds like business or organizational behavior studies might be more suitable.
posted by Wet Spot at 5:41 PM on March 5, 2008

IAAME student. Engineering is a motherfucker, and sad to say, it appears to get much much harder in the later years. I'm only second year, but talking to friends doing their honours thesis projects and a bunch of incredibly esoteric physics courses at the same time - they're basically going insane. I'd probably switch to business management or something similar, especially if your school has a really practical b-school.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 9:29 PM on March 5, 2008

It gets harder, not easier, from where you are now. Kinematics, for example, is not something a mechanical engineer would consider difficult. When I took kinematics, for instance, I never cracked a book and I scored 100% on the test plus all ten extra credit points. But the concepts you have to master and the difficulty of the problems you have to solve get much, much harder than that as you go along.

Ok, so I’m mostly done my second year of Mechanical Engineering. ..I’ve never gotten better than a 55 in a physics related course, and I have failed half the math courses I’ve taken so far.

You haven't done two years of Mechanical Engineering if you're failing physics and math. You will need to use every single concept from those classes reflexively, correctly, on a daily basis for the rest of your college career and the rest of your working life if you become a mechanical engineer. You haven't mastered them yet, so you will not be able to do so. To continue as a mechanical engineer you'd have to go back and retake those classes or somehow get tutored in such a way as to become proficient at them, before you continue. Is this likely?

Realistically, you have given it your best shot already. You are failing and you will continue to fail. You might as well get out now while you can still salvage part of your college career.

The reason I haven’t just found another degree to take so far is that there are so many people that I know in my position. My housemate failed every course and is going to redo his second year next year. Most of my friends will have to take an extra year to make up failed courses. For most of them, they never did any homework, played too much WoW or where drunk/stoned the whole time.

Do you really think these people will be mechanical engineers when they graduate? Do you think they'll find decent jobs at all? These people are idiots and they will wind up flipping burgers. Modeling your career on their antics will ensure that you will never succeed.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:14 AM on March 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

My story: I did a four year course in Engineering (EE), but took some ME courses too. I really struggled for most of my first *three* years or so. My grades were mediocre in a lot of courses, and I thought seriously about quitting. What changed my mind was a flurry of Aha! moments, where concepts clicked into place and made sense of what I hadn't really grokked before. This included large amounts of fundamental material that I'd never really understood. My grades picked up. I surprised a bunch of people.

Are you making progress (however small)? Are there islands of stuff you understand in the swampy morass of your courses? Can you check back to some of the introductory material and see if it makes more sense now than it did then? Can you find ways of staying afloat until the understanding comes (see above for some excellent suggestions, especially study groups).

If ME is not for you, fair enough (sounds like you have strengths in other areas to exploit, anyways). I just wanted to let you know that for some people improvement doesn't come slow and steadily.

Finally: This stuff is difficult. It's supposed to take time. It is incredibly satisfying when it does eventually click.
posted by Tapioca at 10:20 AM on March 6, 2008

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