Rediscovering Engineering

Coming Back from Academic Disillusionment

From an academic standpoint, engineering is, quite frankly, absurd. No other discipline, in my opinion, claims free thought and creativity while forcing students into such a drudging, draining monotony. When you ask an engineer what they like about it, you’ll likely get one of a few standard responses: the problems they solve, the things they build, the people they work with, etc. If you ask an engineering STUDENT what they like about it, you will also get one of a few standard responses, but the tone and spirit of the response will be drastically different: the money they want to make, their parents made them do it, they didn’t know what else to do.

From my personal experience, I don’t think students start their education this way. When I started Duke in 2014, I wanted desperately to be an engineer. Coming from a very difficult and competitive high school, I was riding the high of getting into a top 10 school. In high school, I really followed a typical path- great grades, president of a couple clubs, liked by my teachers. A top 10 school like Duke was a logical, if not inevitable, next step. When I started my freshman year, I was ready to go. I was getting involved in student clubs, I was going to every class, I was talking to my professors. In those first few months of school, you really believe you are going to do amazing things as an engineer.

Slowly, over time, class after class, the enthusiasm to build and create slipped away. When people sell you on engineering, they tell you about getting to create new things, solve hard problems, and work with brilliant people. Yet, after arriving, I had a steady stream of incapable professors (teaching-wise), an absurd amount of exams (2/3 midterms + final for each class), and unnecessarily difficult problem sets with little guidance- all amounting to sleep depravation, emotional exhaustion, and a variety of unhealthy coping mechanisms.

After a number of major and career path changes, I stumbled upon computer science and software engineering. Luckily, I was able to convince Slack, company that makes software to help teams work better, to allow me to work there this summer. While I could write an entire separate essay about how amazing Slack has been, I want to focus more on something more intimate and personal: how I’ve recovered my enthusiasm to create and why schools need to stop beating it out of students.

Unfortunately, perceptions of engineering are primarily driven by its technical difficulty. This perception is dangerous, not because engineering is easy, but because that is not the point of engineering. Whatever discipline you are interested in- civil, mechanical, electrical, software- the goal is not to be needlessly difficult. The goal is to build and create things; hopefully, these things help people by making their lives incrementally easier.

While building and creating things is mind-bogglingly difficult and complex, it remains at the heart of engineering. Spending time this summer, actually helping to build something, as opposed to being stuck staring at an exam paper, has reminded me that building and creating is what its all about. There’s a unique satisfaction to it that is unmatched; the grit required, though taxing, becomes worth it when you see whatever you created working.

Maybe I am alone in my engineering experience, but I would guess that I’m not. In fact, most of the people I have talked to feel similarly about their engineering education. Curriculums are reduced to a set of dry learning objectives, while boring, convoluted labs are stacked on top of numbing problems sets. Metrics are driven more by average GPA, graduation rates, and the jobs students are getting, rather than the brilliance, novelty, and quality of their work.

Essentially, everything that gives you energy- the understanding, the feeling of accomplishment, and the pride that comes from creating something meaningful is stripped away under the pretense of academic rigor. “It’s hard because that’s what real engineering is like”, “You’ll have to do this in industry”, “If you think this is hard, then you should major in something else”- this is the steady stream bullshit fed to engineering students, likely the day after they stayed up until 5 AM studying for a test that the professor made so difficult it wouldn’t even matter.

The best way to help teach people how to be great engineers might just not require schools to quite literally ruin students’ lives. Maybe- now this might be a really wild thought- we should think about why students want to be engineers. Unsurprisingly, that reason aligns perfectly with what engineers do. I want to build things. Engineers build things. Why is there all this garbage in the middle? Schools have somehow convinced us that in order to build things, we have to sacrifice our mental, physical, and social health.

That has nothing to do with engineering. Engineering is about creating and solving problems and helping improve people’s lives. Everything we learn should be centered around the mission to create something meaningful- especially if we want students to be engineers. This mission is a more compelling motivator than any haughty pretense enumerated by schools. Since rediscovering what it means to be an engineer, I have also rediscovered the energy and passion that drew me to engineering in the first place, and in doing so, I am more content than I have been since I started school. I encourage my similarly disillusioned colleagues to forget about school and academics; I think they’ll find how much they still love engineering the same way I did.