Wherein The Chicken

Why You Should Complete Your Engineering Degree In Five Years

I was moved by a recent reddit thread by an anonymous engineering student. The student posted that they were in the beginning of their final year of a chemical engineering program, were struggling with their job search, and felt like they had spent the better part of their school career doing homework instead of socializing. The circumstances the author mentioned sounded really familiar - a demanding course load designed to get through the program in four years. Plenty of people are capable of doing an engineering degree in four years, and every year, thousands of people do. Having said that, I don’t know that I subscribe to the notion that four years is the right way to do an engineering degree. Five years, to me, seems like a much more reasonable amount of time to attain an engineering degree, for a few reasons.

##Engineering is difficult, and hard things take time to learn well. Most engineering degrees require a ton of prerequisites before the real meat of engineering curriculum starts. Math, chemistry, physics, and computer programming are just a few of the skills you’re expected to know before starting in on the specifics of your chosen specialty. I view the reasoning behind these prerequisites as twofold. First, these are skills that you just need to know in order to grasp your field’s higher concepts. It would be ridiculous to hire an electrical engineer who didn’t know anything about how a capacitor worked, and to know that, you need to know calculus. It’s a way of framing a device’s operation in terms of symbols, which is a powerful ally in your later work. This ability to reason symbolically is really the root of the second, more important purpose of these courses: not learning how to be an engineer, per se, but learning how to learn. If my own experience is any indication, you will probably not use calculus frequently in your engineering career. What you will need to succeed in engineering is the tenacity to keep working after the first effort fails, and the creativity to take an unconventional approach when our first effort fails. Calculus isn’t really teaching you math - it’s teaching you a mental framework for solving problems.

While this foundation of skills is crucial to learn, no one will pretend it’s easy. Calculus isn’t something that most people do for fun; it is a complex topic, and it demands rigor, consistency, and discipline to master. I would argue that what you really need to apply those isn’t genius, but rather, time. However, in their rush to graduate people within a four year time line, most engineering programs encourage you to take four, five, or even six classes a semester. To quote some hand-wave-y math from a previous post, you can generally expect two or three hours of work outside of class for every hour you spend in class. Six college classes would amount to about eighteen credit hours in a semester. If you crunch the numbers out, that amounts to a 72 hour workweek - a monumental amount of time! That doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for things that are crucial to your everyday wellbeing: exercise, eating, seeing friends, reading for pleasure. Stretching your education out to five years allows you to take all of the same classes, but on a more relaxed timetable that you can really use to absorb the material. Think of it this way - if this is a skillset you’ll be using the rest of your life, don’t you want to be sure you’re learning it well?

##If you spend college only studying engineering, you’re wasting a huge opportunity. Though it’s lamentable to admit, art, theater, and dance just don’t have the place in modern life that business, science, and law do. To paraphrase Sir Ken Robinson, public education tends to reflect the spectrum of what society finds important. (He also notes, correctly, that these things are generally ranked by how likely your pursuit of them enables you to make money.) At the top are the “most important” subjects: math, and the sciences. At the bottom are the arts: theater, dance, and studio arts. A normal, day-to-day job tends to reflect this continuum as well - chances are slim that, upon your graduation, you’ll be commuting to a dance studio with hundreds of other people. In fact, you’ll be lucky to see even a passing reference to a dance studio in a professional engineering career. College, and the institution of academia, is a magical place that bucks this part of reality. Instead of being wholly dominated by a sense of “real world” pragmatism, universities are havens for subjects that just aren’t that common in daily life. Things you will be hard pressed to find exposure to in your career - feminist literature, Flemish dance, Roman history, poetic deconstruction - are common in universities. To not expose yourself to subjects like this is a waste of a golden opportunity.

When you get an engineering degree, you will almost always be able to convince your boss to shell out money for additional engineering coursework. It’s called “professional development”, and it generally focuses on specific engineering topics that are designed to help you do your job better. I won’t varnish my opinion of it: it’s awesome! It’s a great way to take a highly specialized course and get your company to foot the bill. However, once you are a professional engineer, you will never, ever convince your company to pay for a class on Flemish dance. (Prove me wrong here, and I’ll Venmo you $100. It doesn’t need to be Flemish dance necessarily, just something artsy. I need to see receipts and proof that your employer paid it.) Why? Because Flemish dance doesn’t affect your company’s bottom line. Designing radio networks within regulatory compliance standards, or profiling processor microcode does. That’s the operative point of professional development: it’s designed to help you do your job better. There will never be a better time in your life than college to dive deep on subjects that are otherwise viewed as extraneous. To do that, you have to make time for them. Extending your collegiate career by a year gives you the time to study obscure, off-track topics that you’d never get the chance to otherwise. Don’t waste the chance!

##You need to learn how to understand other people’s problems. I can’t help but feel that the present climate for engineering students is overwhelmed with pressure towards entrepreneurship. It could be my current proximity to MIT, or the fact that I work in the consumer electronics industry, or that I just read too much Hacker News. In any case, I’ve read enough of Hacker News, and, by extension, Paul Graham’s writing, to know that a big part of what makes an entrepreneur successful is the ability to solve hard problems for other people. Doing that is predicated on being able to recognize and articulate a hard problem in the first place. PG regularly evangelizes for scratching your own itch and creating businesses around solutions for your own problems. That’s all well and good, but I also think that explains much of the recent trends in startups solving problems for rich tech yuppies. More to the point - many of these companies are the ones that have turned the Bay Area into an assisted living community for twentysomethings. (Startup L. Jackson’s words, not mine.) Not so many are involved in furthering space exploration, curing tuberculosis, or providing cheap, clean energy to the developing world.

So why not? On face, a lot of these are capitalizing on recent technological trends, the widespread availability of smartphones premier among them. On a deeper level, I’m convinced that the answer is in a shortage of something largely untaught in engineering courses: empathy. If you can really understand someone else’s problem, you’re more invested in solving it. Many of the best engineers I know spent years working with Engineers Without Borders, or traveling in remote corners of the world, and just seeing how people live. An extra year of college allows for traveling, studying abroad, or working with humanities-based organizations. It’s a dose of reality that can really add purpose to your motives for becoming an engineer.

##Constraints of the Five Year Model Since we’re on the subject of doses of reality, I’ll be the first to admit that what I’m describing here is a pretty luxurious approach to education. Going slowly to absorb information at a savory pace is an appealing concept, but is decoupled from reality in one substantial area: money. As the media is fond of reminding us, college is expensive, and only getting more so. A fifth year of study is not a viable option for many people just due to financial factors. The additional year of coursework I’m suggesting will probably not do you any favors in job hunting, either. Unless you’re studying something in your fifth year that is highly specialized or leading to a research career, an engineering degree completed in five years is just as valuable to a prospective employer as a degree earned in four. The only difference is how much it costs you, the student, in terms of both money and time. I was supremely fortunate in how my education worked out; I attended a state school on in-state tuition in one of the most affordable places to get a college degree, and could afford a fifth year of school. I highly doubt the same conditions exist for students at prestigious private colleges or out-of-state public universities.

No matter how many years you go for, an engineering degree is a worthwhile and fulfilling pursuit. In any case, I strongly encourage you to attend at least one party in your college career.

*Note: Thanks to Charlotte Mostertz for reading this and helping to break the publication ice dam.**