What really matters ? - A guide to undergrad education
Millions of students join engineering colleges every year but only a minuscule percentage graduate with some acceptable degree of satisfaction and a sense of achievement, while the majority end up confused and disillusioned as a result of short-sighted choices they make. In this article, I will outline some tips which when followed during the course of study can give students some sense of satisfaction in the end. The suggestions given are completely based on my personal experience and my philosophy towards education, work, and life.
I will focus on the three most important aspects - Personal life, Career, and Academics and give some insights on the kind of effort that must be made in each of these areas to have the best outcomes. Requirements of Industry, Academia, and the Society evolve very fast and I would strongly recommend you not to blindly stick to the suggestions outlined here, instead understand the essence of the content and adapt it to your circumstances.
First and Second year
“ You can’t connect the dots looking forward you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something: your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever ” - Steve Jobs
Some of you would have joined the course you aspired from childhood, some based on the recommendation from your parents/ relatives and others because you didn’t have a choice and this was the only logical option you had. It doesn’t matter which of these categories you fall into, you are here and you can work only with what you have in your hands right now. So it is better if you believe that the dots will somehow connect and work in the direction aligned to the areas you like.
You would have grown up hearing people advising you to study hard in school, then you can enjoy in college. Though, it is true that college days are the finest of our life, you must never lose sight of its sole purpose which is to learn and grow. The best way to make learning fun is to try and understand the fundamentals properly.
Till school, mathematics has always been just another subject and the focus was on how to solve the problems rather than the concepts behind and their real-world applications. Try to change the way you look at mathematics from now on. Try to visualize the concepts and understand why that particular concept originated. Remember, Mathematics is the very foundation of all the subjects and do not take it lightly.
It is very important to be very focused in first and second year as all the fundamental courses of your branch will be taught during this period. Without a strong understanding of the basics, you cannot hope to master the upcoming advanced courses. Also, this will be an easy scoring period given the subjects are going to be comparatively simple. So, in order to end up with a decent CGPA, it is essential to focus on academics during this period. Always remember that there is a stark difference between studying and learning. It is okay to study for the exams, however ensure that you constantly learn. Don’t limit yourself to the syllabus. Explore your favourite subjects more. Spend more time on those concepts which you didn’t fully understand while studying for exams in the holidays.
So far, school would have been more of a comfort zone, as you and everyone you know share common interests and come from a similar background. But, college will be very different since you will meet people from all walks of life. Get to know everyone. You will have something to learn from everyone.
Create an identity for yourself based on your passion. Express what you want to do and actively search for people who share your interests. Networking is important and what is more important is to try and learn from those people. Note that learning is not limited to only technical topics here. It can be anything. I am sure that this exposure will help you to find what you want in life.
Also, don’t limit your friends circle to only your classmates or batchmates. Talk to your seniors. Seniors must have gone through the same things as you and will definitely be more of a friendly mentor to you. With their experience, you can try and learn from their mistakes or get them to guide you.
Nobody knows exactly what they want to do. You may feel like everyone has their life sorted. Honestly no one has. The best way to find out what you want is to explore as much as possible. Read about great personalities. Read biographies of such people, especially the ones in your field of interest. You will definitely be able to connect to their story and feel motivated if that field interests you. Don’t try to decide your life at this point itself. Talk to a lot of people and read a lot to find out all the possible options before fixing what you want to do. You will never know what is out there unless you try to explore the various options. Also, try and participate in contests, not necessarily technical ones, to identify your strengths as well as your interests.
Stay Curious (Personal experience)
Being very excited about computers and partly inspired from a few computer scientists, I decided to study electrical engineering with a hope that I’ll understand the foundations of computers during the course of study. Contrary to my beliefs, I was exposed to more of foundational courses of engineering and electrical engineering initially. The only good thing I had good was a foundational computer science course accompanied by a lab. I really liked what I did for the coursework and also performed pretty well. The knowledge that I gained through this course was very useful when I started playing around with Arduino and other embedded devices in my 2nd year. With great interest, I approached few seniors who were working on some projects. Noticing my curiosity, I was given the opportunity to contribute to some of their projects which helped me build a very good relationship with seniors and also gave me exposure to different fields that they were working on. This was a very good starting point for me and it eventually shaped the rest of my undergraduate life. The key lessons that I learnt from this experience were
- There is always someone who can help you when you really need it. It is very important to express your thoughts and intentions clearly to get the guidance and help that you need.
- Most of the things that you study, might seem less relevant to your interests. But they are actually useful and comes in handy while solving many problems. You must always seek to find a connection between problems and apply relevant solutions.
Third and Final year
“ Fall in love with some activity, and do it! Nobody ever figures out what life is all about, and it doesn’t matter. Explore the world. Nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough. Work as hard and as much as you want to on the things you like to do the best. ” - Richard P. Feynman
This phase of college life is filled with several hidden opportunities, confusions and mixed emotions. You will have a myriad of options and won’t be sure on what to choose. However, like Feynman has rightly said nobody knows what they want actually. So, utilise your third year to explore as much as possible and also talk to many people to get a good idea on what you will like. Remember, It’s better to explore now rather than end up with an unsatisfactory choice at a point later in life.
By this time, you would have developed a rough idea about which areas you might be interested. Now is the right time to start exploring the depths of your area of interest. Each semester covers a lot of subjects in a short span of time and hence it’s impossible to master all. Use these two years to learn properly those subjects that you want to be associated with in the future. Find professors who have expertise in that area and work with them on few projects. This will prepare you well for both research or related industry.
If you are not able to narrow down, that is also perfectly fine. The college offers a lot of electives to help you explore other related areas. Don’t choose electives for the sake of marks. A lot of people might choose a particular elective just because it’s easy to score. Don’t fall into that trap. Check out all the elective options and see which one you might be interested and go with that. The coursework you do plays a vital role in your postgraduate admission and also the knowledge you gain will be very useful for your day to day work in the Industry.
Now that you have become seniors, it’s time to give back. Be friendly to the juniors and try to help them as much as you can. Looking back at your initial years, you might have some regrets that if you had done this particular thing, life would have been easier now. Share these with juniors and make sure they don’t make the same mistake. Guide them on what all they can do to improve themselves in this period.
One major skill that you will need after college is to learn to manage people. At the outset you may not start off as a manager. Nevertheless you should be able to efficiently handle people which you can learn by volunteering to organise events. Engineering colleges provides us with a lot of opportunities like the symposiums, department conference and culturals. Actively participate and learn how to deal with people.
Being partly adults now, you have the option to choose whatever you do and your actions matter a lot. Your acquaintances and friends will treat you the same way you treat them, so develop strong moral foundations on how you want your relationships to be and behave accordingly. You only get back what you give and you can never easily escape from that.
Final year project is a very good opportunity to learn collaborative working and professionalism. You get to work with a small group for about three months and this would probably be the first time for you collaborating with a bunch of adults to get some work done, so use this opportunity to understand how team dynamics work, how you can achieve better efficiency and do great work in-spite of all the issues and difference in opinion existing in the team.
Third year is a very good time to decide on the next logical thing you want to do in your life. This is where it gets tricky and confusing, because decisions are usually not that easy to make. You have two major options to choose from, industry and the academia, both of which require very different skill sets to excel at. Otherwise, you may also want to delay your decision by pursuing a postgraduate degree specialising in your area of interest.
If you want to go into research, work on your writing skills early. Academics involves writing a lot of scholarly articles and excellent technical writing skills is a key requirement. Another major skill is to refine your way of approaching concepts. Go into the depths of the concept until you are very clear about it. Also, you have to tune yourself to be more of a knowledge and subject-oriented person.
If you are planning to join the workforce after graduation, it is very important to acquire a lot of other skill sets than just subject knowledge. You have to tune yourself to be more of a problems and solutions-oriented person. Even though theoretical knowledge is the basis, what is more important in the industry is to know how to apply it. So, start learning the tools that are popularly used in the industry that you are looking for. Learning these tools side by side will definitely reinforce your learning and help you take your theoretical knowledge to real-time applications.
Miracles do happen (Personal experience)
In my third year, my friends and I were playing around with an oscilloscope and we realised that we can display amazing patterns conveyed through equations on it. From there, I went on to write a python script which generated data needed to display any image in an oscilloscope with FPGA. This work gave me immense joy and satisfaction. My seniors always encouraged me to write about the stuff I do in some form of a blog so that its useful for others and myself. Despite that, I never realised the impact it can have and I always ignored. This time I thought I’ll probably write a small article about this work. So I ended up writing a Quora answer and it was received very well. To my surprise, a couple of days later, I got a message from the co-founder of a startup stating that he really liked my work and he wanted me to work for his company. So miracles do happen! You just have to do your work and wait for it. The key learnings from this experience were,
- Give your best in whatever you do. I always find thinking out of the box to be an overstatement and believe in individuality. So be curious and think in the most natural way you can.
- Document whatever you do and put it out for the world to use. Many people find it hard to write including myself. Trust me you will forget the work you did completely in few months and it is going to look void. Also nobody is going to judge you from your writing and people always find even the simplest of things useful.
So What really matters ?
“Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted. And experience is often the most valuable thing you have to offer.” - Randy Pausch
As a final piece of advice I want to tell you that the experience that you gain in the four years is going to matter in the rest of your life. Be open to experiments and strive for different experiences, the more you succeed and the more you fail, the more you learn. So never be idle, be active! do a lot of things, enable others to do the things they want at their best. Develop good relationships and make memorable moments which you can think about and reminisce. Inculcate emotional and professional maturity as it is often needed to handle a lot of situations and make sensible decisions.
Following all these suggestion, should you expect to have complete satisfaction of successfully finishing bachelors in engineering? No, Not necessarily! It is the thirst of wanting to do something better than what you did before, which is going to make you move forward. A bachelor’s in engineering is not the whole life, you have a lot of things left to explore! So with lots of curiosity, enjoy your journey of life without having much regrets. All the very best.