Quitting engineering

Quitting engineering

Sometimes we go through an experience that makes us wonder if it’s really worth it to continue on our current path. I had one such experience when I was nearly done with my master’s. If I hadn’t been so close to finishing, I would have quit.

That experience was a class. The worst part was that it was an undergraduate class. Going into engineering from physics, there are, as in any field, a few core classes I was lacking. I was not prevented from taking any grad classes due to this deficit, but I was required to take about four undergraduate classes before I could graduate.

The third one of those was one that I felt reasonably good about. I had taken a couple upper-level math courses that were relevant. With that sort of preparation, significantly more than most undergrads in the course, I felt like the class shouldn’t be too problematic. Even better, it was area that made me very curious and interested!

I should have been scared when the prof said we needed to learn about complex arithmetic first and nothing made sense. At the end of the three week period he had taken to review the concepts, I realized that the prof was doing a proof of Euler’s formula. The only reason I realized it is because he finished the proof and said that’s what he’d been doing this entire time.

Note: For those of you who don’t know or haven’t seen it in a while, Euler’s formula gives the relationship between complex numbers and trigonometric functions:  

Yes, he took three weeks to prove Euler’s formula (something I’d seen 2 or 3 times already), and I had no clue what he was doing that entire time. And I still can’t figure out why he’d do it the way did when there were far easier and more efficient methods using complex numbers. It didn’t help that he spent the whole time mumbling into the board.

Things only got worse from there. I would bring home my assignments and ask my husband for help. At the time, he was finishing his PhD and this class was one of two specialties he was focusing on. If anyone could help me, it should have been him. Sadly, that wasn’t the case. Between the two of us, we could barely figure out 2 of 10 exercises on any given assignment.

Part of the problem is that the methods this prof used were…useless. Nobody uses them, except in very rare circumstances because they were so general. Further, they wouldn’t be much help in upper level courses where one is expected to know the more commonly used methods. Another point against me was that this professor would assign readings from the book that had nothing at all to do with the lectures. They all focused on the more common methods, and they seldom had any relevance to the lectures or assignments.

I went in for help but couldn’t understand what he was trying to say. The prof would make vague allusions to this or that concept, but wouldn’t really answer my questions. Refusing to give up, I made an effort to study more. I found an older book that used the obscure methods being taught in the class. I studied on my own, reading the text and doing all the example problems as well as the homework problems for which there were answers in the book. By the time the second exam came around, I was ready.

And I failed. Interestingly enough, I talked with other students and found out that we’d all been doing things the same way. I was also fairly certain I was correct. At this point, however, I was totally fed up with the class. I was fairly sure it was a lost cause.

When course evaluations came around, I came prepared to class with a page-long typed sheet stating all my grievances with how the course was being conducted.  (Given the length, you can probably tell there is a lot that I have not included in this recounting of the class.)

The final came around.  Two-thirds of it was on a topic he’d rushed through and not given any homeworks on during the semester (although I am still doubtful that would’ve actually helped). I ended up being one of the people to actually pass the class.  Less than 25% did…and those were the ones who didn’t drop before the end of the semester.

After that semester, I was dreading the next class and almost couldn’t bear to go on.  However, my husband talked me into sticking with it, and I was very glad I did. The next and last undergrad class I had to take was electronics, and it ended up being a lot of fun for me. Having taken solid state physics as an undergrad, I really enjoyed seeing how a lot of the stuff I’d learned was applied in circuitry.

Unfortunately, a lot of people did drop engineering because of the professor from my 3rd undergrad class. A couple years later, his behavior became so erratic that he was forced to retire early. I felt better hearing that, knowing that perhaps my experience was the beginning of his difficulties. (In retrospect, some of the signs were already present.) While I’m glad I didn’t quit, I have sometimes wondered if I should have been more vocal about the problems with the class. I already had one degree and had a decent amount of teaching experience myself. I knew there were problems, but felt like pointing this out to the professor was the most effective way of dealing with it. During and after the experience, I seriously doubted my abilities and thought I probably wouldn’t make a good engineer. Now I think my biggest failure was to have faith that I was doing the right thing and that maybe someone in charge needed to know there were issues with the class. If I’d said something earlier, I wonder if a few less people would’ve ended up quitting.


I’m not saying it makes it any better or even that it was done intentionally but I bet the ones who stuck with it became better than average at maths because of the extra work needed.

I always did better than expected in my tougher subjects & often worse with the ones I didn’t need to apply myself to.

I don’t doubt they got good at the math, but I do think that it really didn’t matter for the class. I honestly was beginning to think the prof had no idea what he was doing any more…so even if you did learn the math, it wasn’t reflected in the grade.

I had one semester where I was taking 3 math classes and 3 physics classes as an undergrad. It was a painfully busy semester, but because I knew I had to work my tail off, it really pushed me and I worked hard. I think it was harder to stay motivated if I thought I could slack, as well. 🙂

Your post brings back memories of the one of the hardest classes I took when I was a undergraduate at UC-Berkeley. This was a undergraduate elective course in Statisical Thermodynamics.

I did fairly well in my junior thermo classes, so I thought this should be a reasonable course to take. Boy, was I wrong. Out of the 20 or so students signed up for the class, about 3 of us were undergraduates, another 15 were graduates, and the remaining two were doctorate students.

As you might expect, the course was taught by a world expert at a graduate or doctorate level. All of the undergraduates were totally lost. One guy quit after 2 lectures and the professor just told us to try and hang in with the homework and lectures. It took me hours just to get through the text and trying to see how the lecture material fit in.

I think I only got one of the homework assignments done right. The rest were disasters.

I got a “B” in the class. I think the prof gave me a “B” just for trying to get through the class. Afterwards, I switched my major emphasis from thermo to machine design.

I unfortunately got a C in my class, so my grad committee had to meet and decide my fate. (Technically, I could have been thrown out of the program.) Their response: “Hey, a C is a good grade in this course! We wouldn’t have worried about accepting an undergrad into our grad program with a C in this course, so we won’t worry about you getting a C.” I was SO relieved. 🙂

But I never took another class in that area. It’s disappointing, because it was an area I was really looking forward to learning about.

I’d guess almost every engineer or scientist has had similar experiences. If you want to see chaos theory at work, consider the above scenario amongst a bunch of undergrad pre-med students with an entitlement attitude, even more so, if their parents are major donors.

The bottom line pretty much comes down to conflicts between educational philosophies / goals of the student, professor, and institution. Its especially challenging as on the surface, most of the parties involved view them to be identical, when in reality, they are often in conflict, and rarely if ever are stated in a concrete manner.

I don’t think they always have to be in conflict. The institution and professor are there to teach the students, and the students want to learn. I’ve had teachers who made me work as hard or harder as I did in this class, and I really did want to learn. However, the professor needs to step up, as well, and make sure that the environment and method of teaching is conducive to learning.

I have definitely been in a similar situation. I recall my differential equations class had a 75% failure rate. It was always extremely irritating to study for days on end only to be stumped by the exams since it had nothing to do with the homework or the lectures. I find that many professors feel that there should be a huge delta between the lectures/homework and the exams, while my belief is that you should teach what you want the students to know and test them on what you taught them. No more, no less.

I guess I’m in agreement. One of my favorite profs would give us exams with 3-4 different levels of questions. At the highest level, he required us to take several concepts and put them together. Even if you couldn’t cover that particular level of question, it was not impossible to pass his classes because the test covered content from class…although maybe using a different coordinate system or something.

Testing on material not covered in class or the book is a waste of everyone’s time.

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