Ask an Engineer - Getting through it all

Oct 29, 2010

Jonathan asks:
Q: Hi I’m a freshman engineering student wondering how many times you considered switching majors and/or tips on how to survive! Thanks in advance!

Jim - Cement Industry, Pennsylvania, USA

 I considered lots of switches but only made one – from civil engineering to a related major. 

How to survive?  It’s simple – find a program where you are interested in – better yet fascinated by – the core content.  In my case I found that I have trouble grasping chemical reactions and I don’t like electrons, but I really enjoy thinking about how fluids flow, combine, expand and contract.  Even though Chemical and Electrical engineering were the glamour programs at my school, I avoided them.  My resulting degree in Engineering Mechanics has served me well.

Here’s a related thought.  Once you are five years out of university, no one will really care what your engineering degree specialty was.  The difference is made between engineer and non-engineer.  So study something you enjoy.

Scott - Semiconductor Industry - Massachusetts, USA

 I never once thought about switching my major.  From the first computer engineering class I took, first semester freshman year, I knew it was for me.  Now there were parts of the curriculum that I hated (the other in-major class I took that semester - discrete math), but you just have to survive those classes.  Just like the general requirements classes.

The biggest tip I can give is try to get into classes in your suspected major as soon as you can.  That way if you discover that it's NOT the right major for you, you still have time to switch.  Also, it has the advantage of giving you a better mix of classes as you go on.  If you do all of your "fluff" classes during your first years, then all you'll have left for your final years are the REALLY hard ones.  But if you start in on the classes specific to your major as early as possible, when you're in your last term before graduation you'll still have a humanities or elective class left to break up all the engineering work.

The other bit of advice is not so much academic, or even engineering, but about college life.  Party and have fun.  Really, it's important.  If you don't, it is easy to burn out in Engineering.  But save it for the weekends.

Dan - Diesel Engine Manufacturing - Illinois, USA

I did switch my major once before I started college, but once I started I knew I was in the right major. Here are my tips to surviving engineering:

1) It might not seem like it now, but it really gets easier as you go. Everything builds on the basics, so once you understand those, the rest are manageable.

2) Unfortunately, prepare for the worst in the sleep schedule. Although it does get easier, it's really time consuming and there's still a lot of studying that has to be done.

3) Find time to relax. Otherwise you'll go crazy.

4) Most of the professors I had (I'm sure others could comment on this) would be more than willing to help you to understand what's going on. Office hours are great. I had a professor who couldn't tolerate stupidity in the classroom, but if you went to him and pointed out exactly why you were having trouble, he had infinite patience in making sure you knew what was going on.

5) One bad semester isn't bad, and everyone has one. Just don't make it a habit.

Thomas - Software Consulting – Singapore

 Jonathan I will tell you a secret. I never really wanted to become an engineer. Sadly, I was born with the incurable condition of being good at the sciences and mathematics. When I reached university I actually wanted to be a linguist, but when I sat down and thought about it I realized playing to my natural strengths would give me a better future. I knew if I learned a lot of technical skills I would make enough money and have the freedom to pursue my true passions later in life. This thought motivated me throughout university and I never wanted to change majors. As I progressed I actually began enjoying the subjects more and I have never looked back on this choice.

My advice to you is not figuring out how to survive. Most students will be able to “survive” by merely putting in enough hours of study. However just surviving will not usually lead to any sort of interesting career. Rather you should ask yourself two  questions: “Do I have what it takes to truly excel in this field” and “Do I really enjoy this”. If you can’t excel and your passion is elsewhere, why not follow your heart and do something you love. If you have the talent but don’t really like the work, then you need to decide if the benefits of the career path outweigh the benefits of having a job you enjoy. But if you can honestly answer in the affirmative to both then you don’t need my advice.

Dyson - Mechanical Technologist - Yukon Territories

Switching majors was never much of an option as technologist programs are generally built around their specific field. School was very hard, there was no money from my family, no loans, and no scholarships to get me through so I simply had to pass because I couldn't afford a second chance. Being highly motivated provided me the ability to say "no". I put my social life on hold, gave up drinking because it was too expensive, and became a "monk" for 2.5 years. Because I'm not a bright spark, homework was absolutely essential right from the first day and it became a real benefit in second year because I had spent so much time learning the essentials before launching into the harder stuff.

Johan: Software, Domotics Industry, Netherlands

 I've never considered switching majors. From the moment I first touched a computer, I knew I wanted to do 'something with computers' and be good at it. The more I learned about the various directions I could go in, the more the choices narrowed town to software engineer.

As for survival tips, I've found that the subjects I didn't like and the subjects I was bad at had around a 100% overlap. What this also meant was that the moment I started to understand how a subject worked, I didn't dislike it anymore, and the moment I started taking interest in a subject, I got better at it.

If I were to redo it, I'd make a greater effort to get a deeper understanding of a subject within the first few classes on that subject to get a feel for it. I think that it's easier to make the effort to understand everything they're telling you in the first few weeks than it is to play catch-up when the subject matter gets advanced, building off of the basics you've learned in the beginning of the course.

Trian - Groundwater Monitoring Industry – BC

 I think I may have considered switching when feeling overwhelmed by the crushing load but the feeling was fleeting.  As to surviving; don’t give up and prioritise appropriately.  I had one class in second year where homework was worth 5% and another where homework was worth 10%.  Guess for which class I spent more time on homework.  That also goes for a subject in which you feel strong versus another subject in which you feel weak.  Also, as I got into my final years in university I found it was much easier to be task oriented, to schedule my time, and to concentrate i.e. spend several hours working through problem sets.  Maybe this coincides with the brain reaching maturity or with learning, through hard work and coop experience, how to self manage.  Decide what you’ve got to do to and get ‘er done no matter how long it takes.

Angela – Sustainability Industry – Vancouver

 I’m stubborn.  It took me a long time to narrow the career options down to “Mechanical Engineer” but once I had made up my mind I was determined to stick with it.  There were a lot of setbacks that I had to power through, and things did look bleak for awhile, but my attitude has always been one of “mechanical engineering or BUST.” 

That being said, stubbornness is not always the best course of action.  Even though it was tough, I knew at least that I was going in the right direction because I really felt I was among my people. I get along so well with mechanical engineers, and most of the courses were fascinating.  You’re never going to like all of the courses, but I always had this… *spark* of interest for Mech courses that I never got for electrical or chemical courses, for example.

My tip: your prof chooses the course’s textbook because it’s the one that he/she likes. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right textbook for you! With the exception of computer engineering, these concepts have been around a looooong time. Ask your prof for alternative textbook suggestions… one chemistry prof just GAVE me another textbook to use because the publishers ship tons of samples to them! has a good stock of cheap old used texts.

Bruno - Polytechnique - Junior Software Engineer - Quebec (OIQ)

 Jonathan, I went to École Polytechnique de Montréal and it is the hardest engineering school in Montreal. During the first few weeks there, most sophomore students, teachers and staff would repeat to us the following: do not, at any price, do it alone. Having a cool people to hang around and help each other is the key to getting there. I did it not so long ago, and I can say that without my two very close friends, I would have had a really rough time. Just look at Wasted Talent, you rarely see Angela alone in her school days comics, and those friends, for her or for anyone else, are a very important part of getting through university/college with some sanity left.
I had rough times in Polytechnique, some classes were harder than others and I wondered what I was doing there. I considered switching major once, during a rough personal patch. I effectively "switched major" once, though I only switched from "Computer engineering" to "Software engineering" (the classes in freshman year were not even different between the two majors...).
Hope it helps ;)

Robert - Oil and Gas Industry - Texas, USA

I've considered switching majors a few times, but this wasn't until Junior year (you see most of our actual engineering classes didn't really start until then, it was a lot of the bacc core stuff, as well as the math and other basics early on). By then it was too late, we were so invested that it wouldn't be worth switching. Don't get me wrong, just because I considered switching doesn't mean that I didn't enjoy it. In the end, I really must say that I'm happy with my degree and where it will be able to take me someday (just avoid the oilfield, good money, but terrible lifestyle).

As for tips on how to survive. Understand and learn how to manipulate the formulas, that'll be a large part of some of your more basic classes. Another helpful tip is to get along well with your classmates, you'll be doing more than a few group projects, and studying is more fun with friends than on your own. The last tip I can give you works for pretty much every class, and that is to not stress out about it. Worrying about the test or the project will just slow you down and give you something else that you're concentrating on rather than the material on hand. You won't end up retaining as much and will feel the worse for wear the next day. Chances are that if you paid attention in class, took good notes, and understand the material, then the test shouldn't be too much to worry about.

Kimberly - Computer Science Undergraduate - United States

 This question definitely rings true with me: I often considered switching majors away from Computer Science, particularly after a horrible quarter in which I made the unfortunate choice of taking a Calculus, Physics, and Computer Science class all in the same quarter.  In fact, I think I even fantasized about dropping out of school altogether!  

As for tips on how to survive, the real turning point for me - the point at which my grades started to improve and I stopped wanting to switch away from my major - was probably sometime late in my sophomore year.  Up until this point, I had been mentally and emotionally fighting and resisting the knowledge that I need to surrender myself to my work.  As soon as I accepted this, I stopped resenting the fact that sometimes I'd have to stay in the labs until midnight, go to class a little earlier, turn down invitations to social functions, or seek out the TAs/professors during their office hours.  When I actively began making my major my main priority, I started to do a better job of being good at it. 

Don't be afraid to go to office hours and ask questions.  Early on, I was paralyzed by my fear of looking "dumb" in front of my other engineering cohorts.  I thought that they were all much, much smarter than me (after all, none of them were asking any questions!)  But then I realized that when I had the courage to raise my hand and speak up, a lot of people would nod along with me as I was asking my question - a lot of them were wondering the same thing, but were too afraid to ask!

Good luck!

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