Engineering curriculums are hard because they need to be. But that’s not the only explanation for the degree’s high risk of non-completion.
The Grattan Institute recently released a study that found engineering and IT students have the highest risk of not completing their degrees. Some of this has to do with students who discover they aren’t interested in the subject dropping out early. But my concern is for those who could be talented engineering students who don’t realise their potential because they face huge barriers – personal, economic, social – that leave them at risk of dropping out.
The importance of the profession means studying engineering should be tough and challenging, but I don’t think it’s the difficulty of the content alone that leaves engineering and IT students at the highest risk of dropping out.
It would be easy for me to blame unit coordinators or professors for over-burdening students, but the truth is it’s their job to prepare us for a workplace that won’t exactly be kinder in terms of workload and expectations.
Instead, I think the reasons behind the high risk of engineering and IT students dropping out is due to factors not related to the difficulty of course content, but rather the struggle to find the student equivalent of work-life balance.
Many have to commute lengthy distances while others work long hours to make ends meet, and the struggle to commit to more than 20 hours of in-class appearances a week plus considerable study time outside of contact hours can be a lot to juggle.
This inability to find balance means other important facets of university life, like getting involved with university societies, volunteering in the local community and playing sports, become luxuries or drop off all together.
In my search for answers on how people find work-life balance when studying, I asked some of the most high achieving and most well-rounded engineering students who are part of the Sydney University Engineering Undergraduate Association (SUEUA) about their experiences at my alma mater.
Staying honest and making it work
A keen photographer, Dimitri Bantli (bachelor of biomedical engineering/medical science) clearly believes in seeing life through a different lens. He balances his role as president of SUEUA with interning at Stryker (a medical technology company), serving in the Army Reserves and working as co-owner of a photography business.
Bantli recalled how during his childhood, his mechanical engineer father would spend time teaching him how to break apart and reassemble items. This, combined with his passion for the field of medicine, made the growing field of biomedical engineering an attractive proposition.
When I asked him about coping with the challenges of long commutes (it takes more than an hour for him to get to uni) and cooking his own meals regularly, Bantli said it has been tough, and there were times where demand for his photography services was so high he had to turn down jobs. But he said he mostly copes with strict and precise time-management skills.
He uses technology to bear some of the burden, such as using an app that synchronises his phone with his laptop and tells him his daily-to-do list. But it’s not all work and no play – Bantli stressed the importance of actually scheduling in free time to relax.
He also stressed the importance of relying on friends and people who are in it with you. One way to do that is to join a local engineering society or two, where people can help each other out.
On that subject, I questioned him about the makeup of SUEUA (hinting that at a sandstone school like University of Sydney, it might harder for students from different socio-economic or cultural backgrounds to gain a support structure for their studies). But he is quick to point to the mixture backgrounds within the executive team as a symbol of inclusivity.
Arriving at the issue of how to reduce the risk for students dropping out due to trying to make ends meet, Bantli suggested that improving the scheduling flexibility of laboratory times would help and make it easier for students who have to work while studying.
Although he thinks passing an engineering course might take more effort than other courses, he’s not entirely convinced by my proposition that STEM students have a unique challenge when it comes to managing stress. He said instead that any university student who wants to participate in extracurriculars while excelling academically must find ways to manage it. In a generation defined by participation trophies, it’s refreshing to see a no-nonsense attitude like this.
Leveraging networks and resources
It’s rare to see the heightened sense of optimism and motivation that Jessica Wu (bachelor of biomedical engineering/computer science) has relative to the average university student .
A tendency to get bored easily and a self-confessed ‘hatred for remembering things’ led her to switch her second major from medical science to computer science, which in her words is “much more versatile and dynamic”.
Balancing her studies while acting as the president for the Sydney University Association of Biomedical Engineers (until recently), working for Accenture and dealing with a daily 70-minute commute gives her unique insight into answering the work-life balance question.
“So, how has Accenture been for her so far?” I ask.
She details she is working specifically in the technology department and gaining exposure to new technology in the areas of artificial intelligence and machine learning. She is enthusiastic about her time there so far, and thanks her professors for preparing her well.
I myself am an electrical engineering student who has to do a few computer science courses, and so I share with her my struggles to plan for things like life admin because a classical computer science course can require around 16 hours a week of study. Understanding my plight, she recalled how she was able to overcome issues such as not maintaining regular exercise and getting enough sleep, which can severely affect performance.
The most important thing for her was finding classmates early on who were willing to help and work together to understand some of the tougher concepts. Computer science assignments can be unpredictable in terms of time commitment, so when judging how much time an assignment needs she keeps the ‘worst case scenario’ in mind and accepts that burning the midnight oil might be unavoidable in some cases.
She also stressed the importance in planning meals. For many time-poor students, the easy way out is to binge on fast-food and takeaway, which isn’t good for physical health or mental performance.
When working out solutions for other students to cope with their stress, I discuss with her about enlisting the services of psychologists on campus. We both agreed that psychologists need to know the strains that many STEM students can face. She recalled an experience where her friend’s psychologist was unable to gain a true sense of the demands of a STEM degree, and thus the therapy session was not as effective as it should have been.
Whatever the answer is, one thing is for certain. If Australia wants charismatic, hard-working leaders to transform our economy into the so called ‘AI era’, then it will need more well-rounded people like Wu leading the way.
Staying practical and setting expectations
While engineering students think their specialisation is the hardest, many will still concede that chemical engineering is one of the most challenging. What’s the key to getting through that?
Pragmatism, said Chris Skellern (bachelor of chemical engineering/science). While his advice of “make the most of every minute you have” might sound cliche, his advice even extends to ensuring he rises early enough to get a seat on the train so he can use his 40-minute commute to do assigned readings.
His packed schedule of serving as president of the Sydney University Chemical Engineering Society, working at environmental consulting firm MRA Consulting Group, and tutoring university and high-school students means he has crucial insights into the scenario the Grattan Institute report highlighted.
The key to his success so far – in keeping with his pragmatism viewpoint – is to have a look at the weighting of marks for assignments and calculating the time necessary to spend on it. For example, he mentioned how his classmate spent a disproportionate amount of time on a calculus assignment that only represented 2 per cent of the grade in their first year, and as a result other, more important things, fell to the wayside. He also said it’s crucial to come up with a realistic routine at the start of each semester and quickly change it if it isn’t working.
He said the biggest loss has come from losing some close friends due to his commitments. But with his new roles and activities, he said he has formed new friendships with more like-minded people who better understand the life of engineering students.
We also touched on the subject of summer school. I mention to him that I think universities should offer more engineering subjects over the summer to allow students to spread their workload a little thinner (and thus engage more with what campus life has to offer). While it might not be financially viable for the uni to run these courses if not many people do them, Skellern suggested recording lectures from the main semesters for students to view online and only running the labs in person.
Skellern’s attitude and ambition suggest to me that he will follow the Michael Bloomberg path from engineering to business, and he laughs when I claim I will more likely find him on Wall Street than in Silicon Valley. If Skellern’s current trajectory is anything to go by, then one day he might find himself in a position to make these wide-ranging reforms.
What are your thoughts on work-life balance in engineering? Let us know in the comments.