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If I didn't do well in calculus will I be a lousy electrical engineer?

  1. Dec 20, 2011 #1
    So I'm currently a second-year college student, and I plan to transfer into an EE program at a four-year institution next spring. Overall I've done well on my math, but I struggled a lot in calculus with series and multi-variable integration. I also just finished a linear algebra class, and it didn't feel as easy as I thought it should be. I have yet to take a course in differential equations. Will these challenges reduce my effectiveness as an electrical engineer?
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  3. Dec 20, 2011 #2

    Simon Bridge

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    Welcome to PF.
    Your difficulty with math will make it more difficult to become qualified as an electrical engineer - and will affect your grades and thus the kinds of work you can get.

    Once you are qualified, you should be able to practice effectively as an electrical engineer by making intelligent use of your strengths and compensating for your weaknesses. You also have to be prepared to continue learning both the science and professionally. That depends on your character as a person - something the training you are in is trying to help you develop while you also develop your skills.

    The entry into the profession is quite hard specifically to keep anyone actually incompetent (at the time of entry) out. So if you squeak by, you are probably OK. We can't all be genius overachievers.
  4. Dec 20, 2011 #3
    You are going to have a hard time in Electromagnetics. To be honest, it is not the end of the world. I actually went the other way around. I had a good career for 30 years as an EE, senior EE and manager of EE. I never have a degree in EE and I did not even get to series, or multi-variables. In fact I have been in analog and particularly RF that suppose to need strong EM knowledge. I managed to learn and design without even knowing EM and I did it.

    Only after I retired that I decided to study all the math including MV, ODE and PDE. I studied the EM back and fore a few times also. It gave me a lot more insight about what I did before.

    But to answer your question. I think it is important for you the study back the calculus as you are going to need it. BUT if I can survive without all these, so can you!!!

    Also if you are more into embedded processors, or even design ICs, you hardly need all the math. I faked it, so can you.
  5. Dec 21, 2011 #4
    It sounds like you've managed to get through the math even if you had difficulty which is actually a good thing. As long as you can pass and can manage to be competent, you should be ok. Many EE jobs actually require little day-to-day calculus calculations if any, but it is more important for understanding the general concepts that you want to make sure you carry with you from calculus.

    But to be honest, having higher math abilities will make you a much better engineer and give you insight where others cannot see and enable you to take on more interesting positions or go on further in your education. I worked in electronics design with an EET who didn't have the same level of math requirements, and there were some instances that we were not looking at the same problem in the same way because it was over simplified for him without the math. An example is that I tried to talk about an integrator opamp in terms of a low pass filter, but he could not accept that they are two ways of describing the same thing.

    Also, if you haven't started EE courses, you will have a hard time with signals/systems, DSP, control theory, and electromagnetics because they are heavily based on differential equations. It takes time to get good at calc/diff eq and these courses may actually help you get a lot better at it, so don't let your past experience hold you back as a pure math course can sometimes be too abstract for a first time learner, and the constant reinforcement improves your understanding greatly.

    So, if you still have trouble with the required EE courses for math reasons, but manage to pass, then you should look at specializing in an EE field that is less math intensive(unless you want to challenge yourself to conquer the math) and take courses and apply for jobs that fit to your strengths. And if you actually can't get past the math, you should consider an EET degree if you still want to work with electronics.
    Last edited: Dec 21, 2011
  6. Dec 21, 2011 #5

    jim hardy

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    i too struggled with math. Vector calculus was simply beyond my ability, i learned to manipulate the equations enough to squeak by.. to this day my antenna work comes from ARRL handbook's "how to" , not from higher math.

    but differential equations was a genuine joy - it describes how natural things work and i loved every minute of that course..... rate problems YES!!

    integrals and derivatives describe how many circuit elements work and you'll become adept at tossing about the Laplace transforms that describe commonly encountered configurations.

    control theory will open your eyes to how many natural phenomena work, for Mother Nature loves a balance....

    i suggest you read Robert Pirsig's "Zen and Motorcycle Maintenance" - as a former professor, he observes : 'watch your c students. the A student alumni might donate a few books to your library, but it'll be a C student who donates a library building.'

    always be kind, for everybody is fighting a hard battle.
    you will have to work harder than the more mathematically gifted engineers.
    just stay honest and you'll do fine.

    old jim
  7. Dec 21, 2011 #6
    I forgot to mention. Calculus etc. are useful for understanding EM and other classes in school........which by itself is important. BUT.......BUT.........In my 30 years of heavy duty analog and RF designs, I never once....I repeat......never once use any calculus that I remember. I might use it to explain the people, and that only happened once or twice!!!

    If you can find a way to understand the subject without calculus, then it's all good. The problem is books advanced class explain in term of calculus, that's what make it hard to study.

    Hey Jim, I am opposite, I find vector calculus easier than ODE. ODE was really a shocker to me. ODE was the only class I actually took the class. I spent 8 hours a day 6 days a week through out the class. I did get the top of the class, but it was a big big battle!!!! I don't even think PDE is as hard.
  8. Dec 21, 2011 #7
    You can get by and even be a good engineer, provided you like EE a lot. But math will come back and bite you sometime in your future.
    Try to figure out why exactly you are having a hard time with calculus. Get couple of different books. Look for lectures online. Try harder.
  9. Dec 21, 2011 #8
    That's the reason even I retired after 30 years of EE, I decided for once, I want to fulfill this hole and studied all the math back and more. Then I studied EM. You do have a much better perspective on EE from that.
  10. Dec 21, 2011 #9

    jim hardy

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    @ yungman:
    ""Hey Jim, I am opposite, I find vector calculus easier than ODE. ..""

    your revisiting high math in later years is an inspiration to me. maybe there's some hope....

    my school used practical texts for calculus and diff-eq, chapters alternated theory and applications. so we got practice at real world problems in the math building too.....

    i'd like to try vector calc again. after years rubbing elbows with reactor physics types i began to appreciate the 3-dimensional significance of del, so maybe now i could make some sense of those awful equations. In his "Mathematician's Apology", British mathematiician G H Hardy expressed a sentiment that students who simply cannot grasp pure math can still make practical societal contributions, which was quite a relief to me.

    a plodder,,

    old jim
  11. Dec 21, 2011 #10
    To me, as much as I keep pushing for math, I don't think most engineer use it in real life. It's really only important when you are in school. Blame it on those EM books that all explain the theories using calculus, if it is not because of that, you don't use it much. I just found through the years when I tried to study something, calculus always got in the way and it's so frustrating. That's the reason I said to myself for once, get over it.

    ODE was really a shocker to me. It's has more to do with the way of thinking. Took me a long time to bend my mind to accept the way to get the solution of a differential equation and using numerical solution like series. I remember during the semester, the instructor was really like a private tutor for me. Every night I email to him and he answer me in detail. He must be spending average 45 minutes just for me through my struggle with ODE.

    Regarding to multi-variables, You should look into Vector Calculus book. I have a lot of normal calculus book that cover the first three semester calculus. They are all very weak towards the end where you get into line integrals, Divergence and Stoke's theorem. The only one that is good enough to explain the subject is book by Howard Anton.

    I don't mean to advice you as you are a respectable contributor here in my book. Maybe it's not you, it's the books. I have 4 or 5 and they are so bad. Maybe because it's the end of the book, even in class, they usually rush the last part at the end. The only book I think explain this good is this one:


    Even I studied this book, when I looked back at the other few, I still don't think they make sense!!! That's how bad the others are.

    Another free online notes are by Paul Dawkins:


    His stuffs are actually very good. Together with Antons I got most of my multi-variables. Check it out. Not for nothing, you can get the used Anton for $4.50 and the other one is free!!!
  12. Dec 21, 2011 #11
    Thanks to everyone for your encouragement. I haven't had a grade worse than a C yet, and my overall GPA is still around 3.4, so I think I'm actually doing ok. I can probably attribute my Cs to the teacher. He taught a lot of math theory but rarely showed how to work the problems, and that didn't work well for me. I start my ODE class in a couple of weeks and plan to hit the ground running on that one...
    It sounds like I will benefit a lot by going back through my books building my skills, so that's what I'll plan to do. Thanks!
  13. Dec 21, 2011 #12
    If you have time, review the multi variables. Look into the two I suggested, it's cheap. Those are very important for EM class. If you have time, look into cylindrical and spherical coordinates. I don't mean those in the cal III as they are still using x y z even though that use r, [itex]\theta, \;\phi\;[/itex] in the scalar amplitude. Get a head start for the EM class.
  14. Dec 21, 2011 #13
    Will do... thanks!
  15. Dec 22, 2011 #14
    You used it.
    You just did not know it.

    An RF engineer MUST go from time domain to frequency domain at all times.
    The Spectrum Analyzer does this for you mechanically/electronically
    But what you and it are doing is an Integration; The Fourier Transformation.
    This is nothing more than a summation of the results of a multiplication/division of complex frequency with the time domain signal.

    Math is a language.
    Anyone can get along in many jobs and situations without knowing English.
    But one is much better off being able to communicate with English.
    So too you can do Science/Physics/Electronics without knowing the underlying Math.
    But one is a much more competent professional if they do know it.
  16. Dec 22, 2011 #15
    Yes math is the language of science. That's what I was refer about books written in calculus. But I can tell you, you don't use much calculus in RF. As long as you accept the phasor, all the smith chart, impedance, admittance etc. are represented by phasors. To even go a step farther, z, y, ABCD, s-parameters can be in form of phasors. Phasors are solution of Wave equation, if you accept the idea of forward and reverse phasors, you can get along just fine without all the calculus............Well, you do need to know complex functions..........hehe!!! You can learn a little matrix, determinant etc. and get away in the 2 port parameters.

    In fact, when you get good at Smith Chart, you really don't even need all the phasors and just normalize impedance and admittance calculation only. You can do most of the design just on the Smith Chart!!! That I spent a lot of time dancing on the Smith Chart to get the feel of the response.

    Yes, I did got away with very little calculus!!!!..........Well I did studied Fourier Transform those days. It was just in bits and pieces. Bottom line, you can do it, just not very convenient.

    I agree and I even advice op to go back and bone up on calculus. You get a lot of insight knowing calculus. I said all these because op asked where it is that important to be an EE. That is a totally different thing. In real life, I have seen RF engineer that is not even good at Smith Chart and design circuits by putting all the reference designs copied from the manufacturers together and called it their own!!! Then they just ran simulation using Microwave Office. That's real life work. Without all these help, they'll be loss.
    Last edited: Dec 22, 2011
  17. Dec 22, 2011 #16


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    With respect to others of my advanced age and long experience, I think the situation may be different, these days, in two respects, from the time when you could get a post and justify yourself later on by getting stuff to work by selectively using the Maths you managed to 'get'. This was my experience, certainly, and it was possible to teach yourself on the job, when you needed a particular Maths tool.

    Qualifications and Certificates are absolutely essential now as any recruitment selection filter will just never give you an interview without one. That means that you will only be credited with your certified skills. Otoh, the actual qualifications are certainly easier to get these days - see the recent UK news concerning Exam Boards and the level of Maths for University entrance is less demanding.
  18. Dec 22, 2011 #17

    jim hardy

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    if calculus gave you an intuitive feel for integration as a better kind of summation,

    and an appreciation for transcendental functions and ability to translate between them,

    then i'd say you used it perhaps not at the tip of consciousness but as guideposts in your thinking.

    I used entropy as simply channel markers through the steam tables for years before coming to realize just what a neat and simple math trick it is...

    for most of us "joe sixpacks" math is at best a second language. I envy those to whom it comes naturally..

    it is worth the effort. in school i spent all study time on math. found if i kept up with math , Physics EE et al were do-able in class time.
  19. Dec 22, 2011 #18
    I guess I started out designing microprocessor circuits and programming that don't need math. Then I was lucky enough that Walter LeCroy ( founder of LeCroy that make digital scopes, transient recorders etc.) took me under his wing to design high speed digitizer front end where I got my first analog experience. And with that, I bypass the education selection.

    I think times do change. I am pretty sure in the 90s, EE jobs were booming and any Joe Blow went and got a degree, so there are plenty of people that are not supposed to be in the field are in it. With that, degree and classes might be more important. But as for me as a manager, all the degree in the resume were secondary. I deviced my own test for candidates. Just a simple inverted op-amp with DC offset, a NPN bias and gain and two D-flip flop divide by two and pipeline that I want them to draw the timing diagram. These you learn in an AA technical degree stuff!!! But you'll be surprised how many failed!!! I didn't go further if they cannot do it. All the degree, math etc. don't mean anything to me if they cannot even do those.

    Yes, I have been talking over and over the importance of math if anyone saw my posts in the past. But when come to the job, I am looking for how well the person able to take a problem and analyze it. I want to see the way they think. I had seen too many people that took certain class and have no idea how to use it beyond the class. I kept talking about a very basic book by Malvino that was used by Heald College for AA degree. If anyone truly understand this book, you can go very far designing transistors and op-amps. I passed a big test and got hired into analog IC design in 84 armed with knowledge of this book!!!! It is not just the class, it's how much you get out of the class. There is always a way to give the right answers in a test even if you don't really understand the class. I am sure people here that gone through classes in college should know that.

    Yes, math is very important for EE degree. BUT the ultimate question is whether you can do the job when hired. Then math has very little to do with that until you hit the point of getting into research and development.
  20. Dec 27, 2011 #19


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    In my opionion....living and working in USA....

    You will need the math to pass your courses Freshman, Sophomore and Junior year. Senior year I used little to no math.

    Keep this in mind as well....in math, no matter how tough the problem....differential equations for example....all you can really do is add, subtract, multiply and divide.

    I was at decent in math.....pretty much got all B's in the undergrad classes. If you go to class, work all the homework problems....and then some.....B's should be very possible....and certainly acceptable. Some people can get the steady A's in college engineering math...but they are quite rare.

    As far as math on the job.....for me......I have done nothing more than what I said above with the add, subtract, multiply and divide. No calculus, no intregrals, no differential equations, no matrices....none of that. 9th grade high school math (algebra) is the toughest I've seen on the job as an EE.

    It's good if you do master the upper level maths.....but mastering algebra is going to get you thru engineering 99% of the time on the job.

    Even for the FE and PE....you can get by with just mastering algebra.

    If you do find the math tough in school....simple....you study non stop until you get it. Let me repeat that....you study non stop until you get it. That means you study all day Saturday and all day Sunday. In other words.....whenver you have free time....your nose is in the books. Where there's a will....there's a way.

    BTW....how's your problem solving skills? In the end....that's all that will count.
    Last edited: Dec 27, 2011
  21. Dec 27, 2011 #20

    jim hardy

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    i did use a little calculus on the job. Usually just to prove a point to some egghead far away who had no practical skill.

    interviewing, i found the best question was "do you change your own sparkplugs?
    if they got through school they learned some math. but i needed hands-on engineers.

    same with my doctor -- i look for one who fixes his own boat motor.

    nowadays spsrkplugs last ten years - what is a fellow to do???

    old jim
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