How to Study Engineering and Still Have A Life

Most of the time when we think about studying engineering we imagine ourselves slaving away at the library or in the computer lab.

Walking out of our latest Heat Transfer lecture I parted ways with a good buddy of mine, and headed to my car. It was my Junior year at Maryland. I had landed an internship earlier in the year with a local aerospace company doing CAD work part-time, and was off to work. He and a group of other students were headed to the engineering lounge – THE rendezvous point for going through the latest and greatest problem set from class.
By the time I’d get home later on that night, I’d have to eat, clean up, and jump into that new problem set in addition to all of the work for my other classes. Meanwhile, my friend and classmates had a 6-hour head start and were probably well on their way to other things by then.
Was I jealous they’d finished already, there to support each other when they got stuck or hit on an impossible problem?
Yes, maybe a little…
Was I worried that I couldn’t get it done, that I’d have to stay up all night, or that my grade would suffer?
Not in the slightest.

Choose 2: Sleep, grades, or a social life?

Most of the time when we think about studying engineering we imagine ourselves slaving away at the library or in the computer lab. Engineering students almost REVERE the image of being up late on a Friday night, working on your simulation project while your business major friends are out partying. I know I did. There was even one we had to do for Fluids which involved staying up all night running 3 different computers in parallel in order to get it done on time. NERD ALERT! But I digress…

Photo:(Photo: Aaron Smith)

 Ask anybody “in the know” and they’ll tell you:
If you want to get good grades, you’ve gotta forego the parties and put in the long hours.
If you want a social life, you’re gonna have to make due with the ole “C’s get degrees” slogan.
And if you want to get good sleep… well, engineering school isn’t for you my friend. 

 This is life. This is the sacrifice we make. We want to make an impact on the world, and in order to do that we need to put in the hours, grind it out, and get our degree.
But does it really have to be that way? Can we really only make trad-eoffs between our friends, our exam grades, and our well being?
As I found out, no… Surprisingly, the opposite.

The Balancing Act: What I learned double-majoring and working part-time

Let’s go back to my Heat Transfer problem set for a second. By the time it was all said and done, both me and my comrade turned in the homework on time, and got it back with almost exactly the same grade. In the time between, I had gone to work, worked out, finished work for my other engineering courses, gotten a full night of sleep, and worked on my philosophy paper (I had recently picked up a second major).
My buddy? He’d knocked out our Heat Transfer problems and… well, who knows what else that dude was up to.
So what was the difference between me and the guys and gals in the lounge?
How was I able to seemingly make no sacrifices and still get it done?
Two things:

  1. An understanding of “the game” and a SYSTEM to work through it, and

Let me explain.

Thing #1: Engineering school is a game, and just like any other game you need to learn how to play it.

Everybody likes to talk about how college shouldn’t be all about homework and exam grades – that it should be about learning, getting an education, and expanding your horizons. But as I like to talk about, as good as learning for the sake of learning is, exams are there for reason: so you have some metric to evaluate progress against, keep track of what knowledge you’ve accumulated, and determine who can be accredited as a B.S. or B.Eng.
So in this sense having tests and being graded is a great thing, because it provides a goal for you to focus on. It makes it like a game, providing something to work towards and develop a strategy for. And much like other types of “games,” there are rules (due dates, academic honesty), challenges (quizzes, exams, projects), and a final score (your GPA). 

(Photo: JD Hancock)

 Viewing engineering school with this type of framework helps make your efforts much more effective than they would be otherwise. There are a million things that you could learn about the topics that come up during the course of an engineering degree. So how do you decide what to spend your time on what not to spend your time on?
Do you try to learn everything from the textbook and lecture to a “T”?
Do you put all of your effort into going above and beyond on projects?
Well if we view our courses through the lens of our “game” it all becomes very straightforward:

  1. Figure out which assignments, concepts, and problems will have the biggest impact on your grade in that course
  2. Put the large majority of your effort into completing and learning those things to the best of your ability

This is how I became so effective. I reverse engineered the things that I needed to know from class that would allow me to get through my problem sets, and take away the key understanding I would need to perform well on the exams.
Politically correct? Maybe not.
Effective? You betcha.

Thing #2: I had LESS time available.

Logically, we have this concept in our heads about success in any field. It’s an equation almost:Time Spent + Effort = Results
But as we all quickly find out, weird things start to happen as you allot more time to something…
You give yourself a whole weekend to study. You tell yourself, “this time I’m going to REALLY understand everything.” So you start with reviewing your notes, going back through all of the example problems that were covered in class, making sure no detail slips through. Things are going well, but all of the sudden Saturday is gone, and you haven’t even started the exam review problems. Sunday you painstakingly work through the review problems, but somehow THAT ALSO takes all day. Where did the time go!? 

(Photo: Leon Fishman)

All too often we counterintuitively have TOO MUCH TIME on our hands and an insidious little thing called Parkinson’s Law sets in…

Parkinson’s Law: work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion

However, if you’re on a time limit, and know you can’t put it off until later, somehow it magically gets done.
Well we missed a variable in our equation. It’s actually:
(Time Spent + Effort) * Effectiveness = Results
Just like applying a strategy, less time also forces you to become much more effective. You have to quickly identify what matters most, spend your time on that, and eliminate everything else that’s less so.
In school, this makes your study sessions much more “goal-oriented,” which in turn helps you to “suss out” the stuff you don’t need to learn and dedicate your time to the few key problems, concepts, equations, etc. that really matter. In our example above, this would mean STARTING with the exam review problems, and using them to determine what you need to know in order to be able to solve similar problems on your own come test day.
Now, in practice this can be hard to do when you have time on your hands. It’s much easier to end up deep down a useless rabbit hole trying to re-derive Bernoulli’s equation when you “have the time.”
So by committing to:

  • A part-time job where I could get a taste of the real engineering world
  • A second major in something I was interested in
  • Sleep, exercise, and hanging out with friends Friday night

I effectively “forced” myself into a very effective work style by limiting the time I had available for schoolwork.
So ask yourself this: “What can I commit to outside of school, that I care about?” and COMMIT to that thing.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking, “I just don’t have the time, I need to focus on my coursework.”
But little do you know, that might be exactly your problem.

Have your cake and eat it too…

In the end, this two-pronged approach allowed me to spend my time as effectively as possible during my study sessions and learn what I needed to, so I could invest my extra time into work, projects, and fun – a.k.a still have a life outside of school.
I kept my job through the end of that semester, got an A in Heat Transfer (and the rest of my courses), and felt like it all was time well spent.
And not only did I get to have a life outside of school, I also became more effective and focused in school by not giving myself the opportunity to procrastinate or spend my time away on frivolous learning.
Yes engineering school is still very difficult… However, when you understand the game, invest your time wisely, and solve the most important issues that you come across it becomes that much more manageable.
So commit your time to something important, stay focused in the time you do spend studying, and you can have keep all 3: your grades, your sleep, and your social life.
It turns out you can have your cake and eat it too.
Feature Image Credit: Seattle Municipal Archives

Tom Miller is an engineer and physics tutor obsessed with independent learning. He writes about unconventional study methods at WTF Professor, aimed at simplifying the learning process for engineers and technical students.