A listener wrote in to the show
Hello from Sweden!
Thanks for a great podcast! I just found your show a couple of days ago and I love it, you guys are great! To the point, I'm doing my first year as an electrical engineering student, at the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology. And I'm wondering; if you could give me just one advice to carry with me during my coming years in school, what would that be?
Thanks! / DK
We decided to give two different answers to this question.
|Elecia's Answer||Christopher's Answer|
I wanted to reply that you should follow your passion and do what you love. But, you are just starting out. How would you know what those are? It is a big world with lots of opportunities. If you had already been hit by lightning and found a path to follow you’d never have asked me for advice.
I think you should try things. Try as many things as you can. Take classes that seem only slightly related but others say are great. Accept jobs that seem interesting but aren’t quite your field. Sign up to TA courses you did poorly in. Be greedy for new experiences.
How will you know if a class is good until you’ve taken enough to rank it against others? You probably already know that “fun and easy” is not the same as “good” but you didn’t learn that in kindergarten. It takes time and attention to see beyond the surface. Take the time. Don’t be in a hurry to settle into a life-long vocation.
Do your best with the different opportunities. Learn what you can. Be nice. You may find that fluid mechanics is not for you, working at a big company is too stifling, or pottery is a great hobby but an unsatisfying career. It is ok because you were just trying it out. On the other hand, the people you meet may lead to other things, ones that fit better. If you aren’t nice and you aren’t learning, those people won’t be willing to help you.
You’ve already chosen electrical engineering. You might still have some leeway with specialties: mechanical, software, analog, power, etc. Try them all. Education is expensive (in terms of time and money); take advantage of all the opportunities you have.
Technical courses are not the only ones I mean. In my college, one-third of the courses were humanities. That is good: it made me more articulate and better able to see how my engineering fits into a larger world. I am still impressed by how much cognitive psychology helped me. My courses in education are fond memories I often draw on when I think someone is acting like a four-year-old.
Learning is never wasted. The information may not be readily useful but it will come up sometime. And the practice of learning is always useful; you’ll be doing that no matter what so might as well get really good at it. (Bonus: knowing unexpected things tends to impress people.)
Since you’ll be pushing your own boundaries, expect to fail a bit. That’s ok. I mean, it will still suck, failing isn’t fun. But like learning, you will be doing it again so you might as well figure out how to fail gracefully and well. As you practice, the definition of failure will change. As long as you pick yourself up and try again (this path or any of the others), it is a small failure and those are the best kind.
And after all that, settle on a path, slowly, over years. Get lots of breadth, and then go deeper into a few areas. There is only so much time in the day (and sleep is important), you have to prune back the somewhat more extraneous areas to have time to learn more about the things you found most fascinating. This may sound difficult but it will come naturally, some areas will draw you more than others until you are an expert in those things. Even better, cutting back is not necessarily a permanent choice, you can go back. Relearning is much easier than learning.
So, my advice to a first year EE student in Sweden is to try everything, learn, and be nice.
This is always a difficult (and open-ended!) question, because everyone’s experiences, passions, and viewpoints differ. The best we can do is offer advice based on our own experiences, which may not always be applicable. However, maybe some portion will ring true for you. So here are some things that I learned about myself during college that might save you some pain.
First, don’t get easily discouraged. By this I don’t mean, “buck up young person and persevere, you’ll get through it soon enough!”, although sometime we all need reminding of that. I mean this: you can’t possibly learn everything coming at you from your instructors, textbooks, and (sometimes) fellow students. Even the smartest among us struggle with concepts and problems from time to time. When faced with time pressure and deadlines, this can seem even more daunting.
The truth is that there really is too much to take in at the rate it is being delivered to your brain. At least, it is too much to absorb at a deep level. Acceptance of this can go a long way. It can allow you to be judicious about which concepts are really important, and which things you can gloss over or treat at a superficial level. This can make managing your time more effective as you don’t waste effort on things that aren’t truly important. Think of your undergraduate time as a buffet where you get a broad sampling of some very deep concepts, but have no time (or stomach?) to explore them to mastery. Undergraduate education is, in large part, about learning how to learn: where to find information, what to discard, what is important.
Second: Don’t take things too personally. There will be classes, professors, and other students (some of whom might be project team members) that you don’t like. Try to separate that from your work if possible. If you dislike a professor, for example, don’t let that color your feelings about the subject or class. Certainly don’t use it as an excuse to disconnect or back away from a class (as I once did, leading to my first “F” ever, in E&M). What can you do instead of checking out?
Recognize that you can respect a person without liking them. Is the professor a jerk but the material interesting and good? Then focus on the material. Treat the professor like that one author or director whose work you like, but whose politics or demeanor you can’t stand. Is the professor terrible and not conveying the concepts well? This is harder and is the one I had the most trouble with. Now it’s a little easier to find other sources however. Look for lectures on youtube, coursera, iTunes, etc. Find alternative explanations where you can. Talk to other students. Engage with the material, not with the ones failing to convey it.
Try to do some research about the classes and professors ahead of time. Ask other students who have had them what they thought, where the pitfalls lay, whether they thought one professor taught it better than another. It’s better to swerve around problems than drive right through them.
Bad teammates are a fact of life. In a way, it’s good prep for the real world. How you react to and work with people not pulling their weight (or sometimes actively sabotaging your efforts) will define a lot about your future career. The best path is not to get angry, accusatory, or passive-aggressive. If the person simply isn’t producing, see if you can figure out why. Are they working in an area that’s not their strength? Could they be shuffled with another team member so they can be more effective?
Unfortunately, sometimes there isn’t a way to turn a bad situation into a good one and you’ll be left covering for the person who either can’t or won’t contribute. Happily, most undergraduate project teams are short term (everyone has to graduate eventually!). So sometimes the best answer goes to the default (“buck up young person!”).
The last piece of advice I have for you is one I wish someone had given to me. It’s this: don’t get hung up on first principles. This may not be as big a deal for engineering curriculum, where emphasis is more on practicality than theory, but it still can come up in those introductory physics and chemistry courses. It is easy to hold the mistaken belief that you need to understand everything that is going on in a class at a very deep level. Someone gives you an equation and you want to know where it comes from: the experiments that discovered it, why the math behind it works, how to derive it from scratch, etc. Early on, you just can’t.
Engineering is a lot of applied physics. What physics professors (and engineering professors) often don’t tell you is that they are lying most of the time. I don’t mean maliciously and not with intent to deceive. Physics education progresses as a series of approximations, each more accurate than the last. In the beginning of your education, you are given a story and a set of governing principles and equations (say Newtonian mechanics). As time goes on, the advanced classes add the math and machinery to understand both where these came from as well as the more advanced theories that supplant and replace them (quantum mechanics, relativity).
Trying to jump the gun and getting frustrated that the things you are learning don’t seem right or complete is a waste of time and a distraction. Trust the pedagogy; learn in the order laid out in the curriculum. If you want that depth later, take the advanced classes or go to graduate school. Certainly note the things you want to know more about or don’t trust as given as they come up and follow up on the ones that spark your interest. That kind of thinking will guide your future work and studies.
Ok, I lied, I have one last thing to say: don’t be afraid to alter course. I started as an engineering major, hated the introductory classes and moved to math. A few people I know did the opposite. The great thing about university is that you are exposed to a lot of new ideas all at once. We all enter undergraduate studies with some notion of what we want to study and be when we finish. Be open to the possibility of that notion being wrong.