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Life as an Engineering Major?

HappysteveHappysteve Registered User Posts: 65 Junior Member
Im currently a junior in highschool and im thinking about majoring in MechE but id like to hear from any engineers regardless of major :)
I was just hoping to learn a little more about life as an engineering major... So here are a few questions... Also pls indicate school and major :) thanks


1. Whats the hardest course youve taken and why?
2. Biggest challenge as an engineering major?
3. Why engineering?
4. Were you always a strong math/science student? How much english skill is needed?
5. Whats one piece of advice you could offer to prospective students?


Thank you in advance, sorry if this was a lot!

Replies to: Life as an Engineering Major?

  • HPuck35HPuck35 Registered User Posts: 1,857 Senior Member
    I am a civil engineering grad with a concentration in structural engineering. However, I have worked for almost 40 years as an aerospace structural engineer.

    Answers to your questions:

    1. The answer to this is really a moot point. What I found to be hard was easy to someone else, and vice versa. In general, I found that courses where I couldn't physically touch the thing I was studying/analyzing were the toughest.

    2. I assume you mean biggest challenge in college. It was being organized in my studies. I breezed thru high school and never developed good study skills. College was then a big shock. So much more was expected of you and it was happening so fast. If you weren't organized in your studies, you were in big trouble.

    3. I grew up as a fan of the space program and always wanted to be part of it. (I went into civil engineering as they were laying off droves of aerospace engineers after the Apollo program, which was just when I was starting college.) I went with my first love when I graduated.

    4. Math and science have always been my strongest subjects. As a professional engineer, you do need good written and verbal English skills but not exactly the same as what you study in school. You need to communicate with other people and have that communication be understood correctly. My lack of understanding (and dislike of) of Shakespeare has never hurt my engineering career. (I do like many other authors)

    5. When you study, learn the principles behind what you are doing and not just enough to pass the test. Engineering, as a subject and as a profession, builds on all your prior knowledge. It can be a fast downward spiral if you don't grasp a thorough understanding of the subject matter. If you do understand what it is about, it can be a very exciting and rewarding career. I have designed hardware that is now orbiting the earth as well as roving around Mars. It involved solving some tough problems and I enjoyed solving them.

    Engineering is a very broad field with many branches and sub branches. Both my son and my daughter are mechanical engineers. My son has been working a few years at it and loves it. My daughter is just starting her professional career and is excited about it. If you have the desire and the talent, then you will also do well to be an engineer.
  • Fsswim1Fsswim1 Registered User Posts: 87 Junior Member
    I'll totally second the learn the principals part HPuck35 mentioned. Granted i'm only in Calc 3 a LOT of stuff in pre calc was from basic algebra and trig. and a LOT of the stuff in Calc 1 was from precalc, and a LOT of the stuff from Calc 2 was ... well you get the point.
    I worked like a dog during Precalc because to be honest, I didnt' pay all that much attention back in HS. A lot of your classmates just want to memorize a formula, plug in the numbers and get the answer so they can get the points on the test. Do NOT do this. It'll come back to bite you in the ass like a south african white shark during seal mating season.

    The harder you work early on, the easier it'll be later on i'd say.
  • da6onetda6onet Registered User Posts: 653 Member
    edited November 2014
    Major: Aerospace w/minor in Astrophysics.
    School: A top ten in AE

    1. The hardest course I've taken so far is electronics/instrumentation. It has been the hardest because it involves no math and is strictly a technician level overview of a couple different EE intro/mid level courses/topics (electric circuits, digital logic, analog & digital electronics). By contrast, I loved my EE circuits class (elective), give me a Laplace transform or transfer function any day. In short, it is a brain dump memorization, 500 pages of type written notes from the "teacher" with gaps in nearly all the details for us to figure out. By contrast, I found it much easier to remember material in Ochem (elective) because the teacher was phenomenal at helping us connect the dots so we could piece together a synthesis problem from a set of rules. Again, to put things in perspective, I've found computational astrophysics easier than this electronics class. The MechE's get the same material split over two semesters, making for a more manageable experience, so hopefully whatever school you end up at will do that as well.

    Don't get me wrong though, at my last internship with an R&D company, this class would have been directly applicable. For example, they used an off the shelf SMPS for one of their prototype sensor units, now I know the difference between that and a linear power supply and why we had some noise issues. The side I worked on was the "finished" products/test plan and mostly all in software. Would have been nice to understand more of the hardware at the time.

    2. The biggest challenge for me personally has been keeping to a normal sleep schedule and regular routine overall this first semester of nothing but upper level coursework. Even when I was a stay at home parent, the lower division coursework was easy enough to divide into small chunks so it typically didn't matter if I spent 3x2 hour sessions getting an assignment done or 1x6 hour session. That made it easier to manage my time. Now, some of my assignments require a long train of thought, where if I were to break it up into chunks adds 30 minutes-1 hour each time because I have to remember what I was doing. This effect is heavily exacerbated with lack of sleep, poor nutrition, and lack of exercise. As well, I used to able to brute force my way through a homework set on little sleep, now I see huge diminishing returns by trying to push through; often passing in and out of consciousness when doing some of the problem sets. This does not lend itself well for retention come test time.

    3. I believe that with increasing advancements in science, comes increased standards of living for a wider population. While there are several intriguing frontiers of science, the one that captures my imagination the most is the exploration of space and the evolving understanding of our universe. To that end, I broke down some major roles played in that endeavor; the physicists, the engineers, the management of the prior two, and the policy makers. I don't have the right mindset to be a principal investigator, so that ruled out pure physics, and I definitely don't have what it takes to be a politician, so that ruled out running for congress. When backtracking the career of folks at NASA or other big players in the aerospace industry, the common thread outside of military service seemed to be engineering. Thus, I chose aerospace engineering, what I thought at the time to be the most relevant to meet my goals. Reflecting back I wish now that I had chosen electrical engineering with a minor in CS as it is by far the most desired major within the aerospace industry.

    4. Yes I was always an A student in Math/Physics, but I was not a genius. A lot of people mistake the lower division math courses required for engineering/physics as "engineering," but make no mistake, math is just a tool to solve a problem, not the problem itself. Further, no engineer or physics major (except those who are doubling in math!) will dare say they're "good at math" to a math major because we know how to solve a differential equation. Math majors have to prove why calculus works, they are on a whole other level when it comes to math. I know it is pedantic, but be thankful that a firm grasp of algebra and trigonometry is most of what you need to succeed in engineering.

    The only engineering students I've met with atrocious writing skills happened to be a few international students. Not all international students are terrible writers, and not all english-as-a-first language students write in iambic pentameter. Regardless of skill level, I highly recommend taking Gen-Eds that force you to write at length beyond freshman English. I wrote a ton for my Greek & Roman literature class, as well as for Post-Civil War US History, Political Science, even classes such as History of Jazz, Macroeconomics, and a 1 credit Health class. The most beneficial class I took from an engineering perspective was Technical Writing. My school requires it for all engineers, but I would have taken it regardless. It directly related to my last internship (I wrote a 96 page technical manual) and also expanded my own thoughts on why technical writing is important in any profession.

    5. Don't ever believe you get to rest on your laurels. While it is true, "the harder you work early on, the easier it'll be later," that doesn't mean that it is "easy" later, just not impossible! I had straight A's prior to junior year, including a couple junior level courses I was able to take early (aerospace structures, high speed aerodynamics), but realize that once you are taking nothing but upper level engineering (or physics) courses your going to be confronted with classes that won't have textbooks or that have textbooks with no practice problems. Further, your professors will stop hand holding you through example problems in class and in fact may spend an entire hour lecturing on something completely irrelevant to the task at hand on your assigned homework. This is just how it is for STEM majors. But fear not! The real benefit of crushing your coursework early on is that you'll identify many of the other top students in your major. Obviously you have to be resourceful yourself, but these students are the ones you want to check your work with as well as test scores to figure out if you're doing well in the class. When you need to pick a lab partner or find a group for a project, these are the ones you want on your bench.
  • HappysteveHappysteve Registered User Posts: 65 Junior Member
    @HPuck35 thank you for your valuable insight! I see that you went with a broader major in college and then zoned in on a specific field of engineering. Do you recommend that approach? If so, why?
  • HPuck35HPuck35 Registered User Posts: 1,857 Senior Member
    I didn't really go with a broader approach in college. As I stated, I was a Civil Engineering major. Within my major, all students had to pick a major sub field of interest and a minor field of interest. Mine just happened to be structures as my major and materials as my minor. It turned out to be a good combination as a structural analyst benefits greatly by a knowledge in materials.

    One usually starts to really specialize on the job. That is why I usually recommend one wait to get their MS until they see which direction their careers are really going.
  • HappysteveHappysteve Registered User Posts: 65 Junior Member
    @Fsswim1 @da6onet‌ thank you so much!


    @HPuck35 oh okay I see, thanks for clarifying!
  • da6onetda6onet Registered User Posts: 653 Member
    I should note that the toughest courses are yet to come. Several of the top students a year ahead of me either in physics or engineering are good friends of mine and their insight has been invaluable. So another piece of advice, don't be afraid to make friends with those ahead of you.
  • HappysteveHappysteve Registered User Posts: 65 Junior Member
    @da6onet yes that makes perfect sense thank you!
  • colorado_momcolorado_mom Registered User Posts: 8,652 Senior Member
    1. Whats the hardest course you've taken and why? - Fluid Dynamics (which my friends and I called Fluid Traumatics), studying supersonic flow etc. The material seemed irrelevant to my interests, and the teacher seemed more interested in research than teaching.

    2. Biggest challenge as an engineering major? - relentless assignments (problem sets, projects, labs)

    3. Why engineering? - I liked math, science, problem solving.

    4. Were you always a strong math/science student? How much english skill is needed? - Reasonably strong. English skills are helpful. I also had a Technical Communications concentration.

    \5. Whats one piece of advice you could offer to prospective students? - Be prepared to work hard and look for opportunities to work in study groups.
  • HappysteveHappysteve Registered User Posts: 65 Junior Member
  • tangentlinetangentline Registered User Posts: 1,116 Senior Member
    Sacramento State University -- Electrical Engineering with an emphasis in power systems

    1. Honestly, I've done the worse with general education because it's hard to do well in subjects that you have no interest in and have to write essays and read/memorize a whole bunch of stuff never used again unless you're going into that field. Other than that, power systems analysis so far. The problems get really complex and require attention to many minute details.

    2. Fast paced courses. There's not much time to keep up with all the material that's poured down on you! Early on, physics, Calculus, programming courses, Chemistry, aren't too bad, but once this stuff starts getting applied it's bang bang bang with all the applications.

    3. My brain hates memorizing things and writing essays. Lucky engineers get cheat sheets AKA reference materials for every exam because in the real world those resources will be there. And I'm really good at mathematics and science and I want to apply my knowledge and solve some real world problems.

    4. Yes, I've always been a strong student in math/science. I believe engineering is one of the majors that requires the least English skill. Well, up to now, the only writing I've had to do is for lab reports, and as long as you have good grammar and can write out processes in technical terms, I think you're good.

    5. Be resourceful and strategic. Don't waste too much time studying the wrong stuff.
  • cle4lifecle4life Registered User Posts: 72 Junior Member
    I'm an electrical engineering student
    1. Whats the hardest course you've taken and why?
    It depends on what you mean by hard. hard concepts? Computationally intense? a lot of detailed work? Not a well defined problem? Lowest grade? etc

    But to answer your question:
    Digital Signal Processing - a lot of different transforms, a lot to remember, tedious applying the transforms (which take the form of a sum)

    Solid State Devices- a lot of abstract concepts which required careful reading of the text as well as additional sources to understand all the details. Math isn't bad understanding all the details can be intense.

    Thermo- just not a topic that interested me. Required a lot of disciple

    Stochastic analysis and Markov Chains- I enjoyed it but some of the analysis can be rather tedious and time consuming

    2. Biggest challenge as an engineering major?
    Getting the work done - it isn't particularly difficult if you think through it and go through it patiently, generally speaking. it takes a lot of time.

    Time management and self discipline

    3. Why engineering?
    My grandfather, uncle, and cousins hold/held undergraduate degrees in engineering. It demonstrates you are smart and hard working- can do math, It is one of a few bachelors degrees that allows you to earn a decent job with only a BS, it prepares you well (and is a sought after undergraduate degree) for many non engineering jobs and non engineering grad schools

    4. Were you always a strong math/science student? How much english skill is needed?
    Many classmates/professor don't have great English skills

    No in HS I didn't focus or work hard enough- many hs teachers were surprised by the success I've had in a well regarded program.

    5. Whats one piece of advice you could offer to prospective students?
    It's easier to start off and an engineering major, than it is to start in another major and switch to engineering.
  • HappysteveHappysteve Registered User Posts: 65 Junior Member
  • colorado_momcolorado_mom Registered User Posts: 8,652 Senior Member
    "It's easier to start off and an engineering major, than it is to start in another major and switch to engineering." - I often give that advise too.

    But... there is a caveat. Some university have GPA minimum to transfer from Engineering into a different school (such as School of Business). Do your homework on that because engineering freshman often have low GPAs, especially if they are not liking it.
  • HappysteveHappysteve Registered User Posts: 65 Junior Member
This discussion has been closed.