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Engineering major?

  1. Nov 25, 2013 #1
    I have a dilemma:

    I am 26 and returning to school after many years. My major back then was manufacturing tech. I am now looking to study engineering (either computer or electrical). Numerous friends, and my father, have said "Oh god, why would you major in engineering? That is so hard!"

    I am usually not one to get scared away from something even if it scares others, but this time it has scared me a bit. I did have a chat with those individuals about how being supportive would really be awesome.

    So, my questions are:

    I understand engineering is challenging, but why do people say it's so darn hard? Math? The amount of studying?

    Those of you who are studying any sort of engineering, what are some tips you have for future students of engineering?

    Thanks so much!
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 25, 2013 #2


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    Different engineering degrees have different requirements. The basic engineering undergrad curriculum is heavily focused on math and science courses, which can't be casually studied if you expect to get good grades. With the number of credit hours required to complete the degree, your class schedule probably won't allow you to take too many 'basket-weaving' class electives. Also, your vacation from higher-ed will require that you review course material previously taken to ensure that you can take more advanced courses and do well in them.
  4. Nov 25, 2013 #3
    If you are reasonably comfortable working with mathematics, it won't be a major issue. Yes, it is difficult, but the thing I found most difficult was not conceptual, but the confusing use of different notation schemes every time I took the math concepts in to a new class. Every field has their own arcane notation and it is subtly different as you go from place to place --so pay attention and you won't get in to trouble.

    As for the classes, yes, there are some mind-bending discoveries waiting for you. You need to maintain a sense of perspective. A lot of the time, professors like to blow your mind with all kinds of complicated notions, but then the classroom assignments, labs, and recitations are surprisingly straightforward. This flusters a lot of people. They're expecting a very complex problem and they don't consider that the actual question is much simpler.

    This is where your age and experience actually help. I suggest that you go for it. I went to school at part time at night. I was about 27 years old when I graduated. I found that the extra years didn't hurt me a bit. If anything, it helped to keep me grounded on what I was trying to do.

    Finally, let me state something about this education: What you learn in school is interesting, but it bears little resemblance to what you'll see as a real engineer. Academia is truly an ivory tower. The theoretical is usually all they ever talk about. However, in the real world you have got to build things that work. They don't want to hear fancy theories and see you doing extensive calculations. As my mentor told me: if you can't get a back of the envelope estimate with a pencil, paper, and a plain scientific calculator, stop. You're probably doing something very wrong.

    Good Luck!
  5. Nov 25, 2013 #4


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    Don't be scared. If you want to do it you can do it. You need to have good math skills, but at the end of the day I found that doing well in engineering school has at least as much to do with work ethic and endurance as being "smart."

    At least when I was in school, perhaps the main reason why engineering was "harder" than most fields was that we simply had to take more credits to graduate. I don't recall the exact number ( I want to say 22 more semester credits but am not positive) but it did mean that I had one more course most semesters than my friends who were economics or political science majors. The labs and projects could also take up a lot of time that would otherwise be used to do homework and study.

    Last edited: Nov 25, 2013
  6. Nov 25, 2013 #5
    I'm currently in my 4th year of Electrical Engineering, I also went back at an older age to take the degree and let me share my experience with you.

    Engineering was significantly harder than my first degree (computer science) in some respects but easier in others. First off at my school as engineers we take 6 courses a semester as opposed to the regular 5. 1 extra course may not seem like a lot but it adds up especially with most of our courses being technical in nature, requiring a fair amount of problem work.
    In first year it was the norm to spend all weekend (Friday night, all day Sat & Sun) working on homework.

    But as a mature student I didn't find this that much of a challenge, I got in a study group with like minded folks and we were always ahead of the work that needed to be done. It was a common occurance for younger students to ask me the day an assignment was due whether I had started it or not.

    I think a lot of people believe engineering is difficult as they aren't ready to put the amount of work in that is required.

    Also there are a fair number of "hard" courses that appear to be there to weed out people. Again I have yet to find a course that hasn't been dueable with an reasonable amount of work.

    TLDR version:
    Engineering is hard, but not really if you put the effort in :)
  7. Nov 25, 2013 #6
    But you are talking about yourself, not him and not engineering students at large. At my big state school almost a half of prospective engineering students fail to qualify for the engineering school and have to choose a different major. Of those that do qualify, only ~2/3 manage to get internships and the vital work experience associated with them.

    I am still taking pre-reqs and am looking at applying for engineering school this summer. From what I see so far, the engineering program is much more difficult and rigorous than my undergrad physics program was.
  8. Nov 25, 2013 #7
    Thank you for all the helpful responses.

    When I was in high school, and even middle school, I wasn't a very good student. I have done a lot of growing up in those 10+ years.

    The math doesn't really worry me. I wouldn't say I am "gifted" at mathematics, and I really have to work at it at times, but I really enjoy mathematics and applying mathematics. I haven't encountered anything I haven't been able to understand after a fair amount of practice and studying. I have been studying mathematics to prepare myself for school. I intend on taking the necessary lower division classes at a community college to later transfer to a 4 year.

    From the sounds of it I will be swamped with responsibilities, considering I also am a mother of a 3 year old, however I feel it is worth it.

    Thank you again!
  9. Nov 25, 2013 #8
    You sound as if you're worried that the math will intimidate you. Many who choose engineering are frightened by it. But it's not that bad. Mathematics is one of those things that once you learn it, it seems so obvious that you wonder why you thought it was so hard. Remember that is where your instructors and professors are coming from. They've been living and breathing this stuff and most have no recollection of what it feels like to encounter these concepts for the first time. As such, many students are intimidated by the way that these people dance around with the math on a whiteboard.

    Another point: pay attention to notation. If you don't understand something, ASK about it. Don't be so intimidated that you think "I'll figure this out later." You might. But you might also end up burning yourself out trying to keep up.

    Insofar as taking care of a three year old, it will be hard. Just keep your mind on the goal. This is for (her or him) too. Showing them that mommy can work hard and get somewhere is a great life lesson that, although they may not remember the details, they will certainly look back upon later in life.

    Again, I wish you all the best, and good luck!
  10. Nov 28, 2013 #9
    ^^This is true. I, obviously, have never studied higher math and it is a bit intimidating. It's nice to know I am not the only one who has (or is) intimidated by it.
  11. Nov 29, 2013 #10


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    With a degree/background in manufacturing technology, one may have some insight into engineering problems.

    Engineering can be challenging, but with a good understanding of the math and concepts, it should not be overwhelming.

    What engineering discipline is one interested?

    Ostensibly one has matured and obtained some valuable work experience.
  12. Nov 29, 2013 #11
    I, unfortunately, wasn't able to complete my degree. I made it *almost* to an AA and then made some very stupid decisions. Whoops. While I did make poor choices then, I am really glad I didn't take out any loans I would need to still pay back with no degree. So that leaves me with a clean slate today, which in my eyes is great.

    I have worked in manufacturing, however, and have had some experience with general repairs. (Like the time two temps were screwing around and spit their gum into the machine :/ ) Nothing too specialized or significant.
    I left about 4 years ago (due to pregnancy) I have been a stay at home mom ever since. This is where the math anxiety comes in. I haven't really used my brain in 4 years and, even with studying, it still feels like mush. I'm glad spring term doesn't start until February. I take my placement test next week.

    I love the machinery and the flow of a factory. So, one of disciplines being considered is manufacturing engineer. The other is computer engineering (hardware). I have always had an intense interest and appreciation for computers and how they work (and how to make them better). I am not quite sure yet. I have an equal interest in both. I will be doing my lower division requirements for the next 2 years so I have a bit of time to really narrow it down.
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