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Being an Engineer I am bad in Engineering, why?

  1. Aug 30, 2008 #1
    This is my first post :)

    I finished my bachelors in Mechanical Engineering 2 years ago,
    I took a years break and right now in my 2nd semester Masters in Computational Engineering.

    During my bachelors I was quite good in all the subjects, I found them interesting and stuff...

    last semester in my masters we had compulsory subjects like Advanced Solid Mechanics and Design of Steel Structures, I found them very very difficult to understand.(Leave alone the fact that they are part of a computational engineering course)

    I almost scraped though the tests.My grades were pathetic eventhough i spent considerable time studying them.It was a nightmare studying them. The grades of myclassmates were very good, all of them had better grades than me in these subjects.

    I feel very comfortable around equations but if i am confronted with a beam and am asked how it would bend if some force acts on it in a particular direction i have to think very hard and feel its a difficult task.

    I also had other subjects like Mathematics of partial differential equations, finite element methods for Linear partial differential equations, finite element methods for Non-Linear partial differential equations.Eventhough these subjects were quite new to me they were fascinating.

    The strange part is that I was the topper in these subjects while 80% of my classmates failed in these subjects.They found these subjects very difficult.

    I even got a PhD position at the chair for finite element methods :).

    My question is,

    What is happening to me, I have a feeling that maybe i am more of a mathematician but i have no formal education in Mathematics, so when i have to read some papers on some subject that interests me its so full of pure mathematics like convexity,rings,groups,Lipschitz continuity for which i had to refer books again and again to understand them which makes it very tiresome.

    I am right now in a very tricky situation.
    I am planning to do my PhD here but the fact is I am unsure how am i to proceed.

    someone suggested that i stick to my engineering eventhough i feel its difficult or should i privately study some mathematics ?

    I already have planned to purchase some books on Mathematics like Complex analysis(Ahlfors), Linear Algebry(Friedberg et al),Algebra(Herstein), Real Analysis (Royden). partial differential equations(Renardy rogers)

    one more thing, In high school I was into lots of theoretical physics and worked on some theories and i asked my hero Stephen Hawking to have a look at it and guess what he said it was was all wrong. Then i decided no more Physics and got into Engineering maybe a hasty decison.

    I am sooooo confused now :(

    Thanks for reading all of this patiently :)
    Suggestions ??
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 30, 2008 #2


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    You have to keep in mind that in going from undergraduate to graduate work, there has been another level of elimination. Generally, it's only the top undergrads that make it into M.Sc. and Ph.D. programs, and at that point, you switch from studying for an understanding of the fundamentals to engaging very specific topics.

    Taking time off from school can also cause you to lose some study habits, and forget whatever you're not using on a regular basis. Now, having come back, you have some refreshing to do on top of tackling the graduate concepts.

    Ultimately you're the best one to identify what's different between your undergraduate and graduate experiences. As for suggestions, I think following your passion rather than your perceived strength is always the better option.
  4. Aug 31, 2008 #3
    Thats a formula for disaster. I say go with percieved strengths that you atleast have some interest in.
  5. Sep 1, 2008 #4
    A bird in the hand...

    Why not take the finite element position you have been offered and run with it? If you were not up to it then you wouldn't have been offered it. You should then ask your research supervisor what you should be reading, and the other questions you are asking here.

    Sounds like you might have problems visualising physical situations, but are an ace at the abstract mathematics involved. Better that than the other way round. Read Hawkings "Universe in a Nutshell" where he reveals how bad we all are at visualisation, and Gowers "Mathematics: A Very Short Introduction". The latter might help you get a grasp of what mathematics is all about without reading all those heavy books you mention. (And why are you planning to read them? Are they directly concerned with your current courses or PhD studies? If not, seems like a bad idea. Reading mathematics books at random is like shopping for fish by grabbing things at random in a hypermarket that might or might not have fish.)
  6. Sep 1, 2008 #5

    Thanks a lot for your suggestions :),

    The reason I wanted to read those books were because there are 2 guys in my class who have completed their bachelors degree in Mathematics(Hons.) and often they start talking about Topology, Hilbert spaces blah blah during the finite element lectures... and suddenly i feel very stupid coz i cant understand a thing what they are saying so everytime i had to come online and refer stuff...understand what they meant.I felt that those guys could relate to the stuff better eventhough i was not bad.

    Ok, is it a good idea that i skim through the topics in those books atleast not solve excercises, proofs and stuff, i mean just that i know whats out there ??
  7. Sep 2, 2008 #6
    Keep in mind that academic engineering is very different from REAL engineering. Just because your doing bad in the class room doesn't mean you won't do extremely well in the field. Some engineerings I currently work with finished with top scores from some top schools and are some of the worst engineers I have worked with. Although In their defense I have only been working in industry for under 5 years.
  8. Sep 2, 2008 #7
    well, i find it quite difficult to visualize stuff like mal4mac says,do you still think i can make a good engineer ? coz me having plans to do start my Ph.D in a few months.

    One more question, I thought probably i will finish My PhD and then get into the industry, anybody here who has done something like this ??
  9. Sep 2, 2008 #8
    I don't want play mister psychologist here but, what do you want to do? Engineering is not supposed to be easy. It sounds like you lack the confidence to do well. Do you really want to go the math route? Or do you just want look like you know what you are talking about in front of your classmates who did math undergrads?

    What do you really want?
  10. Sep 2, 2008 #9
    I agree with you, I actually want to find out what am I good in,
    Am I a Mathematician without an undergrad Math degree or an Engineer who has to work much harder and find out if i still have the aptitude ...

    Do u have any suggestions which can help me decide ??

    I however am not planning to get into the industry right now, (The world is safer for the time being) ;)
  11. Sep 2, 2008 #10


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    Are you bad at formally studying & learning Mathematics, or are you bad at using Mathematics as a tool? How is your skill in applying Algebra analytically to problems or exercises?

    You would need to learn to think analytically in certain lower level courses of Engineering and Sciences. Going through some of this course work will indicate to you what kind of mental adjustments you need and you can judge how well you can do so.
  12. Sep 2, 2008 #11


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    That question was the suggestion. Sooner or later, you're going to have to stop going to school and start a career and the primary reason for going to school is supposed to be to prepare you for that career. So the 'what do you want to do with your life?' question is the critical question here. If you haven't thought about it, you should. The world of a student may be safe, but it isn't real or permanent, and you need to put some thought into what comes after.

    [edit] Even if the "after" is a teaching position at the same school, you still need to plan/position yourself for it.
  13. Sep 3, 2008 #12
    I am good in Mathematics, the more the abstract the better, but when it comes to phsyical situations or physical problems in Engineering with simple formulae then there's a problem :(

    I have really spent a lot thinking about it, i still do like the Engineering way and also the Mathematical way... gotta decide soon :(
  14. Sep 3, 2008 #13


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    You just need more conditioning and more practice as a student. The Math will ultimately become a tool and you'll pick the formulas which you need when you need them. In the real world, problems to be solved do not usually take the form of condensed written descriptions; they take the form of objects and arrangements that you count and measure and relate to listed written specifications which are matched or not matched, and various items to be observed are in different places. You may then arrange (transform) the information which you need to use into mathematical symbolism. You will often arrange your own formulas and apply your theoretic skills from these.

    Again, you could just use more conditioning and practice. Often enough, using mathematics is easier than learning the mathematics. (Then again, my own experiences may have been somewhat simple compared to what some people need to manage).
  15. Sep 8, 2008 #14
    Why feel stupid? I bet you know a whole lot more than them about your specialisms!

    If you want to know what's "out there" then skimming specialized textbooks seems an inefficient way to go about it. Tim Gowers' book would be a good place to start. He doesn't cover Hilbert space but his preface tells you just what you need to learn to get into that stuff. He also has recommendations for further reading for more of what's "out there", like Morris Kline's massive history of the subject. Also he's just completed editing the "Princeton Companion to Mathematics", which looks like it might be the best source for 'most' everything that's "out there". Great podcast interview with him here:


    Note, he's a Fields medallist (the mathematicians' Nobel prize) so he knows what he's talking about.
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