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Is Engineering School A Total Waste of Time and Money?

I graduated with a degree in Engineering Physics from Southeast Missouri State University three weeks ago.  I turned 40 three weeks ago.  My situation is a bit unique.  I’ve been trying to put into words what school is dozens and dozens of times.  This attempt is the only one I’m happy with.  Here goes.

What Is Engineering School?

1) Engineering school speeds by at a pace that only about 10% of students can handle. The odds are you won’t keep up.  I mean that if you scored a 30 on your ACT, you have a 10% of keeping up.   Instead of absorbing knowledge like a sponge, most people cringe, roll themselves up in a ball, and just barely get by until the semester is over. For this group of  90%, learning efficiency is reduced to approximately 10%.  I want to make it clear that it was very rarely that I kept up despite my best efforts.

2) Engineering school is ideally suited for people with a practical background in any given class. If you’ve built circuits before, doing a little calculus on a diode has a bit of value. If you haven’t worked with circuits before, you will be asking, “What the hell is a diode?”. You won’t be ready to stack up pn-junction theory.

The theory stuff doesn’t mean much without the context of holding a diode in your hand and maybe burning a few up.  All the usual who? what? when? where? why? and how? questions pop up when dealing with a new widget.   Engineering school does not answer any of these questions.

The approach I received in pretty much every class goes like this.
1) Here is the math.
2) Here is the procedure for solving for alpha, beta, zeta, etc in the homework problems.

That’s it.

I can’t count the number of times I asked, “What is this?” at the end of class. Professors are sometimes startled by the question. In many cases, the material is so abstract that they have to take a second to switch back to reality to explain it in English.

Having an abstract method for solving for X is a blessing.  It means we can solve for X.  That’s good to know.  Unfortunately, the process is almost always emphasized over actually conveying what X actually is and developing the intuition to use X.

3) I have no background in teaching people, but I know from my own background that if I can’t answer the who? what? when? where? why? and how? questions, I have no clue what is going on.

4) There were a few hands-on classes. I gained rudimentary skills in Python, AutoCAD, and C programming for microcontrollers.  I touched MATLAB a bit.  I think we use Quartus II for programming FPGAs but I can’t remember.  (Not a good sign!)  I learned a bit about electronics, but I had been studying electronics hard for years on my own time.   These are basically the only hands-on skills I can remember learning.

5) The school isn’t serious about a class unless it has a lab.  That’s an idea I’ve played with for some time.   Without a lab, a class is a theory-only. Without application to reality, little appreciable learning takes place. The shelf life for theory is about 3 days in my experience. (Maybe you can remember theory for 3 weeks. You are a rare individual.)  I had very useful labs for Physics 1, Physics 2, digital design, electronic circuits, microcontrollers, Python, and Autocad.  The huge majority of classes were pure theory and I retained very little.  This was mostly the case with upper-level engineering classes.  When starting with physics, we can all imagine a tennis ball accelerating.  We can even imagine an atom.  In the upper-level courses, it’s often very difficult to imagine the topic in the first place and building upon the unimaginable is often futile.

6) A person who is passionate about Python can learn the equivalent of a college Python class in about 2-3 aggressive weekends. This assumes zero programming experience. Continuing with that logic, a passionate person taking a $10 online class can be twice as good at Python as a college engineering student in a month.  This isn’t necessarily a slam on college.  The intent of an undergrad Engineering Physics degree is not to make you a master in Python.  You’d need to major in Python for that to make sense.

7) The complete course of an engineering degree covers a wide, comprehensive base. As #6 states, a person could easily find online classes for $10-$50 per class and surpass the college degree. Because of #1, a student taking the $10 online classes can learn much more than an engineering student at school.  Because of this, there’s no reason to assume that an engineering graduate can outperform a passionate, high school drop out at any given task.

8) A person leaves engineering school knowing very little. If a person were trying to design anything of value solely from what they learned in school, they are in for a very difficult time. With that said, I think it’s fair to say that engineering school does provide a skeleton of rope bridges (like in Indiana Jones).  Having a skeleton of rope is infinitely more valuable than having nothing when encountering X new challenge.  The passionate Python programmer may run into trouble with kinematic models.  I’ve not done inverse kinematics yet – robot motion – but from the videos I’ve watched, it appears I’ve done them 10,000 times.  It appears to be trig calculated a few thousand times a second.  Yup, I’ve definitely done that 10,000 times.

9) Engineering school is mostly about handling extreme workloads, tight deadlines, and high stress.  You can’t get that from a $10 online class.   I’m not sure why you’d want to.   They aren’t trying to make you a master at anything. The rope bridges they are building in #8 could easily be achieved using Google and free stuff. This is particularly so if you factor in #1 that most students will only retain 10% if they are lucky. You won’t leave engineering school a badass.  The question is why don’t people look at the curriculum at a 4-year university’s engineering program and simply ala cart those at Udemy or equivalent?  The answers are accreditation and status.

10) You’ll leave engineering school with a confidence problem. Everyone enters engineering school with a certain bit of ego and confidence. School destroys all of that for 90% of students. You’ll also learn that you can survive in a state of absolute fear, misery, and anxiety for 4 years straight (minus a few short breaks here and there) and not die.  You’ll learn that you are tough.  You can use that in the future. Most people don’t know how tough they are.  You’ll have a better idea.

11) The students that can handle the pace often have photographic memories. We’ll say they are solid-state hard drives. The rest of us are the old-time platter hard drives. They are quicker at doing the math and procedures, but in no way is this an indication of work ethic, leadership, problem-solving, or integrity.  It doesn’t mean they’ll be better engineers, either.   In short, school does not in any way test the skills that generally matter in real situations.  You can look around in any given classroom and pick your team your for tech startup.  The grades will probably not be a huge factor in choosing your team.

12)  Sometimes the class theory “closes the loop”.  I mean that sometimes the theory learned in class reaches critical mass and becomes useful in real-life engineering circumstances.  A majority of the time, however,  the theory never reaches critical mass.  The loop isn’t closed and you forget everything.  These are the worst classes as the information starts out abstract, stays that way, you fight to the death to learn it, and then end up with very little.

It’s hard to imagine how most of the theory would be used unless you working in extremely niche areas. Then again, some of the theory pops up in real life. You never really know what you’ll encounter, I guess.  The jury is still out on that one

The Hardest Part of Engineering School

The hardest part of engineering school was that I needed 28 hours per day to get the maximum benefit from it and I didn’t have 28 hours in a day.  That was compromise #1.   I had to give up practically everything I enjoyed, every hobby, and almost all free time to dedicate to learning. That’s not the end of the world, but it does put a person in a burn-out mode by week #2 or so.  Trying to learn while in burn-out mode is inefficient.   The amount I gained is tiny compared to what I put into it. As I’ve stated, I would have gained so much more by working at my own pace, but this is not the way of the formal education system.

Realistic Expectations

If you look at an undergrad in engineering as a good way to take at kid at his high-school prom to being a productive 22-year old, it does an okay job. If you look at college as the pinnacle of education for learning how to design mechanical and electrical products, the system is highly flawed.  It’s barely acceptable.  It’s not entirely clear what a university is trying to do.  They don’t even know.  In Coddling Of The American Mind, they thought the purpose of college was the pursuit of truth.  Others say social justice is the purpose.  I was hoping to be a monster at designing electronic devices that didn’t kill people.  Nothing anywhere close to that happened.

It may be beneficial to look at graduation day as the starting line and not the finish line. Then you can attack what you truly love with full force. If you run into math, it won’t scare you.  You’ll know enough physics to know a con artist from the innovator. I learned that I can build a jet engine in my garage in thermodynamics. That’s about the only thing I remember from that class. That may be the only lesson I need to remember.

Is Engineering School A Total Waste of Time and Money?

If I had to do it all over again, I’m not sure I could. 4 years of sadness is too damn long. Granted, it’s only been  3 weeks since graduation and I’m still licking some deep wounds. Because of the COVID mess, the job outlook is pretty grim. So, I’m back to being Mr. Independent. I’m designing a synth that I may sell 8 of. I could have done all of this without school although it’s highly likely that I’ll use my schooling for a project this year. If I had slipped right into a decent paying engineering job out of school that can only be gotten with the degree, then I could say at least a made a few bucks last week specifically because of my education. I can’t say that.   So is engineering school a total waste of time and money?  No.  It’s not a total waste, but there is certainly a TON of waste.  The direct benefits of my education are a little hard to see at this point, but I certainly got something out of the deal.

 

Most Jobs Want 1-2 Years of Experience

If you scan the web, you’ll see job offer after job offer of employers looking for engineerings with 1-2 years of experience.  This is for a reason.  You can graduate with an engineering degree and not know what a screwdriver or a soldering iron is.  Some engineering graduates have zero skills.  Schools are supposed to weed these people out, but I never saw school weed out anyone.  I saw multitudes of people weed themselves out.  School is so miserable that anyone with a pulse will find something else to do.   I’m not entirely sure this is a valid approach.  Some good people were made so miserable they changed majors.  Some people without a pulse weren’t aware enough to quit.

If a person is going to bother with the engineering degree, they should already be building things themselves.  95% of my resume is stuff I’ve done on my own.  Without a background of building things, most of engineering school will go in one ear and out the other.

Conclusion

If you are looking for a rite of passage, have a significant background in building things, have a high tolerance for the abstract, and don’t mind being worked to the point of sadness of 4 years, engineering school is a great way to get a basic understanding of everything from photons bouncing around in a laser to why electric motors spin.  You’ll be a master of none, but you’ll know the basics of quite a bit.  Granted, you’ll only retain a small percentage of what you put in.  If you are relying on engineering school to make you a wicked product designer, forget about it.  That’s not the intent.  The idea is to give you a broad background that you can use for the next step.

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