Is Engineering Hard? 3 Ways To Figure Out If It’s Right For You
So you’re thinking about engineering, eh?
Well, I have some good news for you:
If you’ve gotten yourself to the point where you’re typing “Is engineering hard?” into the Google machine, chances are it’s at least a semi-serious thought rolling around in your head…
And you’re starting to ask the right questions. But you also wouldn’t be asking that in the first place if there wasn’t already some truth in the statement.
Is engineering hard?
Uhh, ya. But that’s not actually what you’re asking.
Getting an engineering degree and pursuing a career as an engineer is difficult, does require hard work, and can be a hellish struggle sometimes involving banging your head against the wall for 3 hours on one homework problem only to realize it wasn’t actually assigned.
But that’s not all it is.
It can also be an exciting challenge filled with engaging and meaningful work, great pay, and virtually unlimited career potential. A truly worthwhile pursuit.
What you really want to know then is:
Is it worth the effort?
Am I cut out for this degree program? This career?
Can I actually get in?
Am I smart enough, hard-working enough, prepared enough?
Will it all pay off in the end? Or will I end up with just another crappy “create this spreadsheet, redo this powerpoint” entry-level job like everybody else?
Aha! Now we’re getting somewhere.
This guide is for:
- High school juniors or seniors thinking about studying engineering in college
- Current students thinking about switching into engineering, or
- Older individuals thinking about going back to school for engineering
And pretty much everyone else in-between for that matter.
So if that’s you, read on. Because below we’ll cover the “Is engineering hard?” question from all angles and give you a comprehensive look at whether engineering is right for you, as a major and as a career.
When I decided to go to school for engineering… well, let’s say there wasn’t a lot of thinking going on. Don’t be like me.
By the time you finish this guide, you’ll walk away with a systematic thought process for thinking through those questions and determining the right answer for you.
Is Engineering Hard? Well, it depends…
My answer is… well… it depends.
What are you looking for when you type “is engineering hard?” into Google for the first time? Like I said at the start, what’s the “question behind the question?”
Do you want a truly honest answer?
Or are you looking for validation, motivation, or someone to give you a reason not to do it (i.e. you’re looking for reasons why not to become an engineer)?
Okay, for real though: I’m not gonna cop out and leave you hanging like that. In fact, just to illustrate the point, I recently asked a similar question over on reddit/r/engineeringstudents, and got a scattershot of different answers.
It depends on what you’re coming in with (e.g. natural ability in math and science, upbringing, role models, etc.).
Although as you can see, that’s not nearly the entire picture. Some of it just comes down to your skill set for studying these types of courses (good news, you can develop this!).
It can also depend significantly on your circumstances as well (e.g. were you shuffled in directly from high school, did you have to work hard to get accepted, etc.).
And even self-confidence, and your grit-your-teeth, stubborn-as-hell, willingness to tough it out and push through.
Are you just naturally good at math? Did you ace the AP tests in Calc and Physics? If so, all this talk about engineering being hard may just be a matter of adjusting to studying in college and dealing with group projects.
Is it about money? If that’s the case there are a ton of other career paths that you can take that may potentially be more lucrative. So when it gets hard (which it will) are you going to start thinking about what else you could be doing with your time?
Were your parents engineers and for you, it’s a choice between engineer, lawyer, or doctor (or being disowned)? If that’s the case, on the one hand, it could be motivating, but most of the time this just leads to resentment, burnout, and you’re almost guaranteed to hate anything and everything having to do with what you’re learning both during and after college.
We’ll dig into all of this, but first some stats.
The Truth In Numbers: Engineering is one of the hardest undergraduate majors
First off, let’s take a step back and take a look at some numbers. If you do decide to study engineering, here’s what you’re up against:
In 2015, the number of students who enrolled in a full-time engineering program in the US was 610,461. Congrats, just by getting into engineering school, out of about 60 million college-age citizens you’ll already be in the famed 1 percent!
Bad news? Your work is hardly done.
Only 106,658 bachelor’s degrees were awarded across all engineering disciplines during that time frame. So you’ve got about a 17% chance of coming out the other end with a degree. Not horrible, but certainly not easy.
- That it’s already one of the hardest majors to get into in the first place (outside of the Ivy League and military academies, engineering schools have the lowest acceptance rates)
- How many people don’t even attempt to enroll because they know it’s difficult
Engineering is definitely up there among the hardest undergraduate majors you could choose.
But graduating with an engineering degree is pretty dang baller
First off, there’s no doubt that having an engineering degree is a money-maker right out of school. If you’re looking to get an immediate return on your college degree, look no further.
According to Georgetown’s The Economic Value of College Majors report, undergraduate engineering degree holders make on average 51% more than general bacholor’s degree holders in entry level position.($50k vs. $33k).
And that advantage holds over time, with average salaries for employees 25-59 still 38% higher among engineering degree holders than general college graduates.
And then the problem becomes…
What do I do with all of this extra cash?
Now salary is one thing, but what about job opportunities?
How hard is it to get a job as an engineer?
According to another 2014 report out of Georgetown, engineering degree recent graduates have on average a 7.5% unemployment rate, which is comparable to most non-arts majors.
But this improves over time, dropping to 4.9% with some experience. And considering the significant earning advantage an engineering degree affords, that ain’t too shabby.
Plus, if you put in the work to graduate with an engineering degree, what are the chances you’re gonna settle for a job making lattes? But that could just be me wearing my highly theoretical, amateur, engineering-supremacist economics hat.
That being said, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the overall job growth in engineering occupations expected over the next decade is modest, with jobs expected to increase 4% vs. the 6.5% projected for all other occupations.
Again, though, the devil is in the details. Because it highly depends on:
(1) The type of engineering you decide to enter into, with jobs in aerospace and nuclear expected to slightly decline, while jobs in environmental (12.4%), petroleum (9.8%), and civil (8.9%) are expected to grow significantly.
That outlier waaayyy out there on the right? Biomedical engineering, expected to grow at 23.1 percent! If you’re “undecided” on discipline, you may want to give that one a thought… just sayin.
(2) The potential for the degree to overlap into other fields of employment not represented in that statistic.
Okay so the engineering profession may be growing at 4%, but a large portion of engineering degree graduates don’t go on to become engineers, but instead go on to jobs in finance, consulting, computer science, etc. And not to mention an engineering degree is perfect for pre med or pre law.
Take for example a few of the professions listed in this national employment projections table, again from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:
All of these professions employ individuals who, at least initially, earn bachelor’s degrees in engineering, many of which are high paying and are growing at a significant pace.
- Engineering is indeed one of the hardest majors you can choose. That being said, it’s not impossible to do, given that 17% of students enrolled make it through.
- The payoff can be well worth it on the additional earning potential alone, both in entry-level jobs, as well as over a career, as compared to your standard college graduate.
- Traditional engineering jobs may not be growing as fast as other professions, but other occupations that are growing quickly (e.g. medicine, finance, computer and mathematical occupations) are open to engineering graduates as well.
All in all it’s a tough degree by the numbers.
But as we know, numbers hardly tell the full story, so let’s dig in.
Factor #1: Motivation, Purpose, and Determination
I’m kicking it off here because of all the attributes that compose a successful engineering student, and eventually full-time engineer, motivation is the one that trips most people up.
Here’s my theory:
If you’re already thinking about engineering you’ve self-selected yourself into a group of people who are generally capable (from a learning and IQ perspective) of achieving what’s necessary to pass the classes and get the degree.
But among this group, it seems that motivation and determination are what separate the wheat from the chaff.
It’s what separates the students who get into engineering school and those who don’t…
And then the 100k who make it to graduation from the 600k who initially enroll.
Bottom line: a lack of (or misplacement of) purpose will significantly hinder your chances of success pursuing a career in engineering.
Because if you can’t find a reason for going to class, doing the studying, doing the problem sets, going to meet up with delinquent team members to do group projects… it’s going to be real hard to convince yourself to keep doing those things when you don’t see the point.
It becomes a daily debate with yourself: “Is it worth it? Do I really want this?.”
And that gets exhausting… fast.
But on the flip side, an abundance of motivation stemming from a clear purpose can propel you forward even through the most difficult of obstacles.
So here’s a set of questions to think about:
Are you truly interested in the idea of being an engineer? As in like you watched every minute of the livestream as Elon launched Starman in his Tesla Roadster out into orbit on Falcon Heavy?
Is it just something you fell into because you seemed to have an aptitude for math and science (this was me back in high school)?
Are you doing it because it’s practical, and you want to actually make money when you graduate?
Are you doing it because your parents want you to (or at least you think they do)?
Let’s address each of these.
“Going with the flow” leads to waterfalls and stagnant water
It was senior year of high school.
I had two teachers that I actually liked: my calculus teacher and my physics teacher.
Both of them said: “You should be an engineer.”
Me? I shrugged: “Okay, I guess.”
This was the extent of the interaction and my decision-making on the topic.
Now as silly (and potentially foolish) as this seems on the face of it, there’s something to be said for this approach. There’s ample evidence (as we’ll talk about in a minute), that virtually anything you have even a mild interest in has the potential to develop into a rewarding career for you in the future.
And as a moody, clouded-judgement-having, 18-year-old you have almost no perspective on what you’ll want in 5 years, let alone 6 months. So… just pick something and get on with it!
Picking something for the wrong reasons (there’s always a reason, even if you’re not fully aware of it), and having it be the opposite of what you actually wanted.
Going with the flow can work sometimes. And for me it did, because I ended up graduating and going on to happily work as an engineer for many years post-graduation.
But other times it can send you over a waterfall, or carry you into mucky, stagnant water, not sure how to get out.
Because if you:
- Aren’t analytical
- Aren’t particularly fascinated by abstract ideas
- Don’t like sitting alone in silence for long periods of time
- And would prefer to interact with people rather than “things”
And then you go and just “pick” engineering, one of the most difficult college degrees out there.
It’s probably not going to turn out all that well for you.
So spend at least a little time considering your options.
The Mom and Dad problem
What about the ‘ole rents?
What do they want you to do?
Well if you’re under a significant amount of pressure… either explicitly stated, or implicitly implied based on their eyebrow-raised look when you suggest anything other than engineer, lawyer, or doctor… it can pay a big factor in how determined you’ll be to pursue your degree.
Sometimes, this works out. Mom and dad set the standard and serve as role models for what you should be doing to forward your career. And that positive example, with some mild threat of shame and disownment, is enough to get you through.
More times than not I suspect… this doesn’t work out all that well. Or you do finish, get your diploma, and then never want to see a thermo equation again in your life. And that’s not good for your chances at actually sticking this thing out.
There will be moments, deep into the semester, where you’re in the thick of it, hating life and wondering why you’re doing it. That only gets amplified if you don’t feel like this is a challenge of your choosing, but instead one placed on you by the unfair expectation of your parents.
You’ll be fighting an uphill battle the whole way. So make sure it’s for you.
Mo money, mo problems (or so you might think)
Up top we talked about the advantages in earning power that come along with earning a degree in engineering. And believe me, there will come points in life where that is definitely something you want to have on your side.
But if that’s the sole reason you’re pursuing engineering (e.g. you’re just looking up “top 10 highest paid majors” on Google and then picking whatever you see at the top of the list), you’re most likely setting yourself up for disappointment.
Check out this comment from the reddit post I referred to earlier:
“Don’t chase a degree that has money at the end of it if you hate the courses you are going to be taking. It will be exponentially harder to get through those courses”
True. But I would modify that statement a bit:
“Don’t chase a degree only for the money if you hate the courses you are going to be taking”
If money is all you’re concerned with, there are more expedient ways of achieving that goal don’t involve an arduous 4-year battle with the books.
You also have to ask yourself:
How much money do I need?
In truth, to have the life you want, there are a surprisingly vast number of career paths you could pursue that would allow you to earn enough to thrive financially. So then what? How do you choose?
My point is this:
There has to be something beyond just a paycheck that is keeping you focused on your degree and driving you forward to start a career in engineering.
Money can be a part of that. But that alone won’t keep you on the path when things get rough.
FOMO, The Passion Hypothesis, and other errors of analysis
Let’s look at the reverse of what we just talked about: someone who says you need to pursue engineering only if you really have a true “passion” for it.
“I don’t want to spend my life doing something I hate just for money.”
“If engineering is your passion you’ll have no problem at all.”
“Take it from me, if you have a passion for something then run with it.”
This sounds all well and good, but as Cal Newport so eloquently illustrates in his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, the “Passion Hypothesis” falls flat under scrutiny.
As it turns out, the people who end up most content with their careers don’t develop a passion for their work until AFTER they’ve accumulated experience and developed their skills to the point of mastery over some part of their domain. In most cases, none of this passion is present at the start.
Instead, it starts as a small inkling of interest:
“Yea, I guess I could see myself doing that.”
Boom. That’s enough right there.
That level of interest, incubated and developed over time through the acquisition of valuable skills is what can turn into a legitimate passion for what you do.
Otherwise, you run into the FOMO problem:
“Wait… if I pick engineering and instead I was meant to be a landscape architect, my life is going to be miserable! Maybe I’ll try that instead.”
Becoming a chronic flip-flopper in your decision making not only wastes time, but also will negatively impact your ability to clearly focus on your long term goals… something essential when you’re pursuing an engineering degree.
Don’t do this.
Curiosity killed the cat… but got the engineer to stay late in the computer lab
Finally, we’ll close our discussion on motivation by continuing with this interest idea. Because it can be a powerful motivator if you foster it.
In my experience the following is true:
The student who goes into and engineering major with a passion for the subject and a genuine interest and curiosity for problem solving, tinkering, and pursuing intellectual interests will have the best time and will learn the easiest. They are more likely to graduate. They will generally end up with a higher GPA. They are more likely to be successful in acquiring internships and landing a job after graduation.
Think about what you do in your spare time. Can you identify any of these behaviors?
If so you might have a huge advantage if you can foster that interest and “stoke the flames” so to speak.
Alright, enough on motivation. It can keep you going when the going gets tough, but motivation alone isn’t what’s going to get your problem sets done on time.
For that you need…
Factor #2: What ya comin in with?
A skill set.
Believe it or not, your talents, your experience in life and school, and your attitude will play a major part in how difficult you will find pursuing a degree and career in engineering.
Now, this is NOT me saying those things cannot at least to some degree be developed through focused practice and dedication once you do start college. Because that can happen. I’ve seen it happen.
But it will make it more of a challenge if you don’t have these attributes coming in.
Let’s take a look.
Your natural (or previously developed) aptitude for math and physics
Whether it’s genetic, developed at an early age, or acquired through influence from your parents, teacher, etc. it’s beside the point:
If you’re already good at math and physics (particularly algebra, calculus, statistics, mechanics, and E&M) going into college, you’re going to have a huge advantage over others for whom those things don’t come as easily, or who have not spent as much time with those subjects.
Every, single, class you’ll take for the major build on those fundamentals in some way.
For example, if you’re going into mechanical:
- Statics relies heavily on both basic algebra and linear algebra.
- Dynamics will have you combining what you learned in mechanics with some additional calculus and trig.
- Electronics and instrumentation will extend what you learned in E&M physics and have you calculating equivalent resistances until you’re blue in the face.
If you already understand the fundamentals, you’ll be able to pick up the concepts discussed during lecture quicker, and be able to focus more on the specifics of that engineering course, rather than having to re-learn the math and physics behind it.
Now again, this shouldn’t disqualify you if you’re set on becoming an engineer, but it should certainly be taken into account. Because if you’re weak in the fundamentals, you’re going to need to bust your ass freshman and sophomore year to catch up, while simultaneously keeping up in the courses you are taking.
For example if you’re deciding between going into biology or bioengineering, and you’re wishy washy either way, it could well be the deciding factor. If you:
- Love physics and crushed mechanics in high school, you may want to consider bioengineering because you’ll probably enjoy the math and problem solving challenge, while getting a taste of bio at the same time.
- Hate physics but enjoyed biology and chemistry and found the memorization and more conceptual learning more appealing, you may want to consider biology.
Here are the questions to ask yourself:
- How well did you do in math in high school?
- Are you good with trig?
- Did you take AP-level calculus?
- What about statistics?
- Did you study physics in high school?
- Did you take and pass either of the physics AP tests?
- Do you have an intuitive grasp of mechanics?
- Did you get through E&M without being completely lost?
If you answered yes to most of those questions, you’ve got nothing to worry about. You’re in great shape!
If you answered “no” to most of those questions, you’ve got some serious work ahead of you to get in the game.
How “hands-on” are you? A.k.a. Do you tinker, bro?
It’s not only about the books though, but also about your ability to solve problems.
It’s one thing to be able to take exams and score well, but what you’ll find once you start the program is that in almost every engineering course you take has a significant portion of the syllabus dedicated to a project of some sort.
You have to build a hovercraft that navigates a winding course.
You have to program a heat transfer simulation for a quick cooling mechanism for a soda can.
You have to redesign a hand-held power tool in CAD, rapid prototype it, and collect data on its performance into a report.
All of these things require ingenuity and independent problem solving in order to get right… and if you don’t have at least some of that ability before you start engineering school, you’re going to have a harder time with the projects.
Whether it was Legos, or video games, or if you actually (gasp!) went out and built things in the garage (cars, woodworking projects, etc.), if you have experience pursuing projects and solving problems on your own, you’ll be at an advantage.
If you’re not that type of hands-on person, again you’re going to have to spend time developing that while you’re studying for your degree.
Plus, engineering at its heart is a project-based discipline. Engineers design and build things. And if you’re going to be doing this for a career, it’s a skill you’re going to need.
Some questions you can ask yourself on this front:
- Did you play with Legos as a kid?
- What about video games?
- Are you a ‘“tinkerer?” Do you like to take apart things to see how they work?
- Do you take it upon yourself to try to fix things when they break? Or do you look to someone else?
If yes, you’re nicely primed for engineering project. And if this is the case you may actually be able to more quickly overcome any deficiencies you might have in math and physics because you’ll be better able to adapt to this new learning environment
If no, then pursuing an engineering degree may be more of a wild card for you. You might find the independence overwhelming and stressful. Or, you might find it invigorating and a new opportunity to develop yourself.
But again, be cognizant of this as you’re thinking through whether engineering is right for you.
Have you already learned how to study and take exams?
I know from experience that it’s very easy, if you’re smart and already technically inclined, to skate through high school on natural ability. You may even have taken calculus and physics, passed some AP exams, and scored well on the math portion of the SAT. All without really learning to study.
But when you do get to college, especially if you’re taking the workload necessary in order to graduate with a 4-year degree in engineering, you’re gonna have to seriously improve your study skills if you don’t already have those in place.
This is what I went through. And I even started senior year of high school. But still, when I got into my freshman year of mechanical engineering at Maryland, it was a major shock to the system.
Is engineering hard to study? Yes.
Aside from the difficulty of the courses themselves (which are actually some of the hardest university courses you can take), there are no “filler” courses.
And when you’re taking physics, calc, and an engineering course in the same semester (sometimes even more), the workload stacks up quick. If you don’t know how to study efficiently, you can get buried… and it’s really hard to dig yourself out once.
On the other hand, if you have had the good fortune to have developed some positive study habits before college, you’ll be better prepared to take on the course load required and still have time for a life outside of class.
All those engineering students you hear about spending all night in the library? Yea most of them just never really learned to study.
So be honest with yourself:
- Do you study passively (re-reading notes, reading the textbook, highlighting, etc.) or actively?
- Do you just memorize stuff, or do you actually develop a conceptual understanding of what’s being taught and improve your problem solving skills?
- Do you try to cram everything in all it once in a marathon study session before each test, or do you distribute your learning over time?
- Do you panic like you’re being attacked by a wild animal when the exam sheets are handed out? Or are you cool as a cucumber?
If the former of each question is more true than not, life is going to be hard for you in engineering school. You can survive, and even thrive, if you have a hell of a work ethic. But without developing those skills, again, you’re in for an uphill battle of epic proportions.
Can you manage your time?
And finally, have you ever had to keep a schedule?
Or have you just gotten away with flying by the seat of your pants up until now?
Like I said: you’re going to get a lot of assignments. Technical ones. The require time, effort, and focus to complete.
Each course will have at least 2 exams, usually more. And much of the time they’ll fall on the same week in the semester.
You’re gonna have big projects. That require group meetings, time in the computer lab, and tedious hours in MS Word formatting reports.
If you can handle that without having some time management experience under your belt, then more power to you. But I certainly wouldn’t recommend it.
So your options are:
- Put some effort into developing some basic time management skills prior to enrolling.
- Choose a less work-intensive major.
- Sack up and develop your time management system on the fly once you start.
And no, just subtracting sleep is not a viable option (unless you want to send your GPA down the toilet).
Again, all of this stuff can be developed. In fact, some students are a complete trainwreck when they come in, but quickly get their act together once they start.
But each one of these skills that you need to develop stacks up your odds against successfully completing a degree.
And having them in place will make your experience much more bearable while increasing the chances that you’ll actually want to go into engineering when you graduate.
Factor #3: Can you deal?
We’ve talked about motivation.
We’ve talked about math and physics and study skills.
But in some ways, those factors don’t seem to matter all that much unless you’re also a bit of an “unreasonable” person.
The type of person where when the going gets tough, you bear down, grit your teeth and push through.
No amount of skill or motivation will keep you going. It’s something else. And if you don’t have it, you’ll find engineering a hell of a lot more difficult.
First, you gotta be “gritty.” And I mean that both technically and in the metaphorical True Grit, Rooster Cogburn sense.
Can you deal with adversity?
Can you take a 55/100 exam grade in stride and bounce back?
Can you keep pushing through even though it’s Friday night, and you’re tired, and you want to go out with your friends but have to stay in the computer lab to do a programming project?
This “quality of character” is hard to pin down and has been called by a lot of different names:
Whatever the terminology, you know what I’m talking about. That “search and destroy” or “come hell or high water” approach to a problem or a project.
Dr. Angela Duckworth out of University of Pennsylvania calls this “grit” and has shown it can account for a significant amount of the variance in outcomes like:
- Educational attainment among adults
- The GPA of Ivy League undergraduates
- The graduation rate of cadets in West Point Military Academy
So regardless of what we call it, we know this stuff matters. If you’re already “gritty,” even if you do find engineering hard, that’s almost beside the point. Because you’ll be more likely to stick with it and push through.
The Growth Mindset
But it’s not enough just to bear down and force your way through the inevitable obstacles you’ll encounter while pursuing engineering.
It’s also important that you have the ability to set your ego aside, and focus on your mistakes in order to improve.
Do you view your abilities (e.g. how good you are at math, for example), as fixed? As in, you’ve either “got it” or you don’t?
Or do you view them as malleable? As in, they can be improved over time with focus and hard work?
If you answered “yes” to the former, chances are you have some inclinations towards a Fixed Mindset (as characterized by Dr. Carol Dweck in her research on students and academic achievement). Unfortunately, this approach towards learning means you’ll:
- Perceive failure as a direct reflection of you and your character
- View mistakes negatively – something to be avoided at all costs
- Be resistant to taking risks that may “expose” your shortcomings
This puts you at a disadvantage when pursuing something difficult (like studying engineering), because you won’t be as willing to examine your mistakes and figure out how to improve on them.
If, however, you view your skills and abilities as malleable, you exhibit characteristics of a Growth Mindset (in Dweck’s terminology) and are primed for improvement when taking on challenging tasks and projects.
Each failure is an opportunity to grow. Each obstacle is a chance to improve.
So take stock and evaluate your mindset.
Owning It (even if it sucks)
Finally, as much as us technically-inclined folk would like to hole up in a room and go to work, independently and without interruption, the nature of not only engineering but virtually any valuable career is learning how to work in groups with other human beings.
And every engineering program is going to have this built in. Like I mentioned earlier, almost every engineering course will have include some sort of project, most of which require you to work in a group, often not of your choosing.
This means, inevitably, you’ll have to figure out how to handle people who think and work differently than you, or just simply don’t pull their weight. And this removes some of your control over what grade you end up getting in the course… if you don’t take ownership.
By that I mean:
- Can you “deal with” difficult individuals or other people who won’t carry their weight?
- Do you know how to give constructive criticism?
- Can you plan ahead and work together to improve something that maybe you weren’t supposed to be responsible for?
Bottom line: Can you “own it” and take the brunt of the load to push your team forward if your grade is at risk?
It may suck. It may not technically be “your fault.” But you have to have the mental fortitude to take the hit, take the lead, and keep moving.
If you have experience with this going in, all the better. If not, you’ll have some work to do.
Solving the “Is Engineering Hard?” Equation
Okay folks. Let’s bring it all together.
Is engineering hard? Yes. But.
If you have the proper motivations in place.
If you have the prerequisite skills and experience in math, physics, projects, and time management in place.
And if you have the appropriate attitude and the ability to push through even though it is hard.
Then it’s a worthwhile and achievable challenge.
How hard will it be exactly? Well lucky you, I came up with a thoroughly researched, highly accurate, ad hoc equation right now in the last 15 minutes you can use to determine how hard you’ll find engineering.
(Already Difficult Baseline)/(Motivation + Skills + Attitude) = Engineering Difficulty
Here’s how it works:
Engineering is already difficult, no matter how prepared you are. So I’ve given it a 90 out of 100. Makes sense to me… so we’re goin with it.
Then, rate yourself on a 0 to 10 scale in terms of your Motivation, Skills, and Attitude along the lines we discussed above. And plug it all in.
So the perfect, impeccably prepared, highly motivated engineering degree candidate would end up with an Engineering Difficulty of 3.0. Never a 100% guarantee, but pretty much a complete slam dunk.
On the other hand, someone who has no motivation, no previous exposure to calculus and physics and study skills, and a horrible “woe is me” attitude…
Yea. They’re by definition, screwed. Engineering Difficulty = Infinity.
With those extremes covered, here’s where I would place myself on this scale when I started engineering school:
I was a “meh” level of motivated (like I said, going with the flow), but was highly prepared (I had kicked it into high gear senior year, and got 5’s on the Calc BC, Physics C Mechanics, and Physics C E&M AP tests).
And my attitude was pretty good. I was determined, okay with making correctable mistakes, but still took things personally and had developed a bit of a perfectionist streak. Engineering Difficulty = 4.29. I didn’t find it “easy” per se. But I didn’t have to destroy myself and ended up graduating with pretty close to a 4.0.
Now what if someone doesn’t have that level of preparedness. Let’s say they just had basic calc and physics in high school and never really learned to study:
With the same level of motivation and attitude I had, Engineering Difficulty increases to a 6.43. It can be done, but they have more ground to cover, and will have to put in more effort to get the same outcome. Not a great scenario.
Finally, let’s say you LOOOVE the idea of being an engineer. You think about it all the time. You’ll be willing to do almost anything to make it happen. Even if you aren’t all that prepared going in, if your motivation is high and your attitude is on point, you may have an even easier time of it than I did:
If I had to come up with a rating system (again, highly accurate and statistically valid), here’s what the different levels of Engineering Difficulty would look like:
3.0 = A competitive marathon runner doing a charity 5k.
5.0 = An optimal challenge. Difficult but reasonable.
7.0 = Getting into “slog” territory. You’re going to take some bumps and bruises, and possibly stumble over the finish line. But it’s doable.
9.0 = There’s a good chance you’re going to drop out.
15.0 = Please don’t waste your time. Get your act together first.
So, run this little super-scientific calculation for yourself. You’ll have an idea of where you stand on the Engineering Difficulty scale, and how hard you’ll find the degree if you do decide to enroll.
Is Engineering Really That Hard? And Other FAQs
How hard is an engineering degree really?
No really, as light-hearted as I’m being about the Engineering Difficulty scale equation, it really is a challenging degree and career to pursue. If you have the desire and personality for it though, it’s extremely rewarding regardless of where your career eventually takes you.
Is engineering the hardest major?
Is it harder than communications? Yes.
Is it harder than philosophy? Yup, took them both.
Is it harder than kinesiology? Uhh, yea.
Is it the hardest undergraduate degree in the world? Dunno.
Look, while I can’t objectively say it’s the hardest because there are so many variables involved, it’s up there. Other difficult degrees include mathematics, physics, chemistry… basically any STEM discipline.
Some people also “claim” accounting or finance are tough. But let’s be real.
And the amount of people who have told me “well, I started out in engineering but it was way too hard so I switched to ____” is pretty large. So there’s that.
Is engineering harder than medicine?
Apples and oranges my friend.
Are you talking about premed? Because then there may be a discussion to be had. But then again, engineering could end up being premed. Anyways, let’s just assume then that we’re talking about careers rather than just education.
A career in medicine is pretty darn arduous just to get to the point where you start practicing on your own. And then once you do get to that point, it’s still long hours and hard work.
There are aspects of an engineering career that could theoretically match that level of difficulty, but becoming a doctor probably takes the cake here in terms of difficulty.
Is engineering harder than law?
Same. See above. But since there are significantly less barriers and hoops to jump through to become a lawyer once you have the degree under your belt, medicine still takes the cake, in my opinion.
And when you do go to actually practice law, if you’re any good at it, you’re going to be busting your butt to maximize billable hours (a.k.a. you’re going to work long, hard hours, week in and week out). So on average, probably tougher.
How hard is engineering math vs. actually majoring in math?
As an engineer you’ll generally be required to study up through Calc 3, Differential Equations, Linear Algebra, and Statistics. But any additional math beyond that isn’t usually required, and if it is, it’s specific to the track you’ve chosen within your major (e.g. I took Partial Differential Equations because… oh crap why did I take that class?).
If you’re diligent about getting those courses out of the way, you won’t have to touch math after Sophomore year.
Contrast that to math majors, and they take the same types of core math courses (the curriculum isn’t all that different), but then go on to Advanced Calculus, Number Theory, etc. Basically all of the proofs that you can’t stand as an engineering student, that’s the entirety of their Junior and Senior year.
Plus in terms of application, most of your higher level engineering courses won’t require too much in the way of advanced math to solve the problems posed (except for Fluids… curse you Fluids!!).
Is it worth getting an engineering degree later in life?
That’s another entirely separate big hairy question you’ve got there. But ultimately the same logic should apply.
Do you have the motivation to do it? And this time you’re gonna need a lot of it because you’ll either have to fit it around a job and family, or be under significant financial pressure if you’re taking out loans. Getting an engineering degree at 30 is a lot different than pursuing one at 20.
Have you refreshed yourself on whatever math and physics you’ve taken up until now? May have to blow the dust off of that old notebook and do some Khan Academy to get yourself back up to speed.
And finally, can you push through? If this is going to be your new career, or your pathway to earning more and making more of yourself, do you have the mindset to stick with it, especially when you already have a career (as unfulfilling as it may be)?
If yes, yes, and yes, it’s probably worth it. If you do it right, it’ll pay itself off in a few years and will get you on track for doing meaningful work you enjoy.
How hard is it to become an engineer after getting your degree?
You’re probably going to be annoyed by my answer again: it depends.
So for example, if you’re looking to become a professional licensed engineer (P.E.), it can be a long road.
You’ve gotta graduate. Then you’ve gotta take and pass the FE (Fundamentals of Engineering) just to start the process. Then you’ve gotta find a P.E. to work under, and do so for four years. Then you’ve gotta take and pass the P.E. exam.
Not impossible considering what you would have just gone through to get your degree in the first place. But not totally straightforward either.
On the other hand though, most engineers don’t need or want to go the P.E. route. You can literally walk into the office or onto the job site on Day 1 and… TADAA… an engineer is born.
So again, depends.
Next Steps: Figuring Out If Engineering Is For You
So I see you’ve made it to the end.
I haven’t scared you away yet?
That’s a good sign 🙂
Okay if you think you’re up for doing this thing, make sure you’ve considered the questions I’ve outlined in the post.
Answer them for yourself. Take some time to write them out, ponder them even. Talk them over with family and friends.
See where you stack up on the Engineering Difficulty scale.
And then search your feelings… you know it to be true… whatever that decision ends up being. Then move swiftly and decisively towards your goal.