A Retrospection on Universityacademia
I graduated from my Mechanical Engineering and Computer Science program last December. A month later, I’m in some bizarre purgatory where I spend my days applying for jobs, flicking through streaming services, and slowly rotting away from the inside. Seeing as I might actually spontaneously combust if I don’t do something to keep my brain active, here’s some thoughts on my university experience. I’m sure this will be followed up with belligerent posts on topics outside my expertise, as per internet convention.
I split this post into 3 sections; recommendations, criticism, and number crunching, in that order. I figured I’ll start with probably the most practical content for a reader, then transition into some unabashed bashing, and finally a lazy analysis.
From one random engineering ex-student to you, dear reader.
Join an Engineering Team
I joined an engineering team in second year and it was easily the best learning experience of my degree (as well as being the most fun). I learned how to tune a PID controller for a motor driver. I simulated some trusses for our project using the equations “learned” (memorized) during our materials courses, then validated them with FEA. We learned how to design parts for manufacturing and assembly, learned how to prepare drawings for machinists, how to tolerance parts. We finally manufactured all the parts we designed, either on a lathe, CNC, drill press, 3D printer, amongst others.
Alongside actually learning how to apply engineering fundamentals to the real world, engineering teams are a great opportunity to meet other people who share common interests. Like cars? Join Baha, Supermileage, Formula, etc. Like rockets or airplanes? Join Rocketry or Aerospace. In civil engineering? Concrete canoe or concrete toboggan. In electrical or chemical? Yeah… can’t help you there. Jokes aside, there’s a team for just about anything, and more teams popped up when there was demand on my campus. So unless you’re chemical engineering (again, sorry), odds are there’s a group of like-minded students who you can cram your free time into working with.
The final perk to joining an engineering team is internships; without previous internship experience, employers don’t have much to go off to tell how well you’ll work other than GPA, a shoddy proxy. With hands-on engineering experience through an engineering team though, you’ve at the very least demonstrated enthousiasm for the field, if not also created a great portfolio to show off. I was much more successfull at receiving internship interviews once I joined the team, and employers loved to ask about my experience through it. Even with a couple internships under my belt, my time on the engineering team was still the most common topic of conversation during intereviews.
Do Research Early
This point is less applicable for those who are dead-set of going into industry; if you’re thinking of pursuing a Master’s or PhD, I highly encourage finding a professor working on something you’re interested in early and ask to work with them. Not only will it give you a taste of the ups and downs (and downs and downs) of doing research, it’ll probably look great when applying for grad schools (I’ll confirm this one for you when I hear back). I won’t pretend to be an expert in this topic, but if you do some digging online, the general consensus seems to be that grad schools like knowing you know how to perform research, and nothing gets that across faster than a solid paper.
I only joined a research lab in my 4th year. The experience was definitely fun and I managed to get a second-authorship out of it. But now that I’m trying to get into grad schools, I wish I had done research in first or second year so I could have a second publication to put in my applications. I also wish I would have done research in a second field to explore more topics which interest me. There are a few directions I’d be willing to explore for grad school, but having only experience in one of them, I run the risk of disliking the topic I end up studying.
Live Close to Campus
This one is personal preference and hinges on having some disposible incoming, which I recognize few people are priviliged enough to possess. Living near campus, at least for me, meant being able to run home to grab food between classes, easy access to the university gym (so if you’d rather shower at home, you can), and no ridiculously long commute thanks to garbage public transit. Having lived both close to campus and about as far away as I reasonably could, I far prefered the former.
Wear them every day. Or not. Your call.
As you can probably deduce from the above, I wasn’t very much fun in University. I got up at 6am, went to school, studied, and went to bed at > 11pm. I went to a party maybe once per semester; that was my only socialization outside my house-mates and studying with other engineering students. I ended up having some minor panic attacks, my body started malfunctioning, some other fun stuff. Was it worth it? I’m not sure. I do wish in hindsight that I had spent more time with friends, actually living my life. To quote a cliched phrase, life starts now. Or before. Whatever. Life isn’t paused when you’re in university. It’s happening, and if you spend all your time studying, you’re passing it by. If you really care about academics or getting into grad school, and absolutely need to work your ass off to get in, then unfortunately it seems like you don’t have much of a choice but to sacrifice 4+ years of your life. If you do have that choice though, I hope you make the most of university.
I have more than a couple reservations about my university and program.
Why not Projects instead of Exams?
With a few internships under my belt and more than a few friends now working full time, I can quasi-confidently say that, when working in engineering, the vast majority of your time is spent applying engineering principles to a problem/project. There are no pop-quizzes, there are no exams, there are no homework assignments. I find it quite ironic, then, that our professors didn’t let us switch groups because “you have to work with people you don’t like/who don’t pull their weight in the workplace” and don’t let us move deadlines because “you can’t ask for extensions in real life” (which I’ve observed to be patently false in many situations), but eschew projects in favor of tests and exams. Nothing seems to be further from a “real-life” experience than this.
I think I understand the motives. Projects which require physical materials can be expensive. They can be less clear-cut when it comes to their evaluation. Some team members can slack (but hey, it’s like real life, right?). And finally, they’re probably just more work overall for the professors and teaching assistants to prepare and grade.
These shortcomings mentioned, I really do wish more of our courses were project-based instead of exam-based. I wish that our electrical courses actually let us build a motor driver instead of just reciting H-bridge et al. equations. That we programmed the controller for a robotic arm instead of memorizing root locus thingies (seriously, nothing controls-related stuck at all). That we designed and manufactured our own heat-sinks instead of doing whatever the hell it is we did in our thermo courses.
I joined an engineering team about half-way through my degree, and I think I learned much more about actual applied engineering than in my entire degree, minus the two design courses we had (which were also excellent learning opportunities thanks to their design projects).
I’d love to find more information on projects which have been applied to different types of engineering classes. I have friends who work with graduates from Olin, a project-based engineering college, and they’re incredibly impressed with how well Olin graduates perform in the workplace. I’d love to know if there is empirical evidence to support their purported superiority. Maybe students who get into a highly prestigious university are predestined to excel in the work place. Maybe Olin really does prepare them better for the real world.
We had a professor who was incompetent enough for the entire class to petition the faculty and have them fired (or at least, never seen again in classes or on campus). They couldn’t explain the course content at all, and their exams didn’t test what we had “learned” at all. When we got to the follow-up course, the new professor had to re-teach us all the content we didn’t learn properly or understand from the first course. We had a professor who was absolutely brilliant as a researcher and raked in tons of money for the university. They were absolutely garbage as a teacher; they couldn’t grasp that we were students who didn’t have an intrinsic understanding of electromagnetism and friends, and so when it came time for the final exam, the average was belled curved up from around 30% to 70%. If your entire class averages 30% on your exam, then the problem isn’t the 200 students in the crowd, it’s your teaching or evaluation style. We had a prof who just regurgitated the textbook content, and the teacher’s assistant actually allowed us to understand it during discussion groups. Finally, we had a professor who made their 100 dollar copy-pasting of the professional engineers By-laws mandatory (which are available for free online, I might add).
I don’t blame my university for this; it seems like a fairly universal experience to have a professor or two who should really be constrained to research. I understand the logic for having these shit professors teach. You want someone who truly understands the subject matter to be teaching it. Who has more understanding than people who perform research in it? The problem with this line of thinking, it seems, is that many of these subject matter experts are so awful at teaching that they’re effectively no better, if not worse, than having someone just take the class and then teach it, as was the case with our TA-standing-in-as-professor.
I don’t understand the economics of universities, however I would not be surprised if teaching a course or two is mandatory for most professors to help fund their research. So now you have researchers with no teaching experience who are forced to explain elementary concepts to a bunch of snotty 18-year-olds. Not exactly a recipe for enthousiasm.
I don’t want to give the impression that this type of professor holds some kind of majority. Most of my profs genuinely seem to enjoy teaching and were quite good at it. That said, having professors who want to teach but haven’t been given to tools or education to do it well, or who outright would rather be doing research, really is detrimental to the whole experience.
My university has too many students in too little space. As a result, courses end up beginning at 8am on some days and finishing at 10pm on others. It really isn’t fun to finish a course at 10:30pm one day, take an hour and a half bus ride home, then wake up for an 8am lecture the next morning. Or having a course from 8am-10am and another from 7pm-10pm. So you can either lose 3 hours to busing in order to go home, or spend the entire day on an overcrowded campus with insufficient study space. Friends who attended other universities find their schedules constrained to more reasonable hours, such as 9-5, or at the worst finishing at 7pm.
I’ve been mildly curious about the breakdown of courses in my program, my GPA based on the type of course, my GPA over time, etc., so I finally filled out a spreadsheet and made some charts. Our GPAs are calculated on a 10 scale, with a 5 being a failing grade (around 55%).
GPA Over Time
I’ve read that engineering student GPAs tend to be lowest during the first couple years due to courses weeding out weaker students. My anecdotal experience confirms this; my GPA was lowest during my first and second year, and rose incrementally over the rest of my program. In the end, my final average GPA was about 0.4 higher than my gpa from first and second year.
I don’t believe that the course content necessarily became easier over time; I actually found that the course load got even heavier, while the difficulty stayed the same. More assignments, more labs, more projects, etc. I took the same number of courses per year, except in my last couple semesters (during which my GPA was not higher than the previous two years). I hypothesize two main causes:
- Professors became more compliant over time
- I gradually adjusted to university courses
I can’t recall having any courses bell-curved during first or second year, but during my last three, most exams on which the whole class performed poorly were bell-curved. The observations which support the latter also support the former, raising questions as to which is the true cause, or whether it is a combination of professor lassitude and personal adaptation. I noticed that the class average, shown in yellow below, gradually rose throughout my degree, rising from around 6 to 7 (or a B to a B+).
I found that I could try incrementally less hard in latter years and still maintain my GPA, suggesting that either the bell curving was picking up the slack, or myself and my fellow students were gradually learning how to study properly, or optimizing our time for grades instead of comprehension (which I plead guilty to for a course or two).
Back in highschool, I fantasized studying precisely my topics of interest in University. Unfortunately, our country’s engineering board disagreed; we are required to fulfill so many courses from different topics in mechanical engineering. Fluids, materials, controls, to name a few (who would have guessed that a general university degree would require a variety of courses?). Having finished my degree, I can confidently say I’m more of a mechanics/controls and software person than a fluids/thermals/materials one. I never really enjoyed taking the latter set of courses; anything to do with motion and robotics was much more interesting to me than stresss equations for beams or Navier-Stokes. Precisely how much of my degree was spent on things which I really didn’t want to take?
Turns out, a good chunk of it.
A quick note, I created the categories and placed courses. Misc contains electrical engineering courses, business management (mandatory), engineering law (mandatory), technical writing (you guessed it, mandatory), amongst others.
Of the 45 courses, there were 8 in either materials, fluids or thermals, and 5 of the misc courses which I found were either supurfluous (why do I need a business management course?) or begrudgingly necessary. So overall, 29% of my degree. For an around average (?) cost per year of 10,000 dollars, this comes out to 14,500 bucks subjectively wasted. Yay.
I plotted my GPA in each of categories; unsurprisingly, I performed better in courses which I was legitimately interested in, although Fluids/Thermal being the third highest category is slightly disappointing. Unsurprisingly, pure mathematics courses were my lowest scoring category; the majority of these courses were crammed into the first couple years, during the culling.
Hopefully this post will nudge some students to join a team, do research, or buy sweatpants. Maybe it’ll just be really relatable for all the BS. Either way, it was kind of cathartic putting it all down.