Is Engineering Hard? Why Do So Many Engineers Dropout?

Engineering has one of the highest dropout rates among any university or college major. This is a well known fact. Some schools even claim a student drop out rate of over 50% in just the first year alone. Students considering engineering as a career hear statistics like this and get scared away. Many wonder: why is the dropout rate so high and is engineering really that hard?

Let me start by taking a closer look at the drop out rate. In 2013, The Wall Street Journal analyzed why so many students were dropping out of STEM.  In their article, students claimed to drop out of STEM majors because of their grades. They studied hard but felt that their grades didn't reflect that. As a result, they quit. I feel that this is more of a reflection of our school systems rather than the students themselves. The current school system is performance based. It doesn’t reward students for being genuinely curious or trying their best. It doesn’t care how much in-depth knowledge about a subject a student has. It cares how much a student knows about a specific question, on a specific date, and under a specific amount of time. When students don’t get the grades they want, they feel like failures. Really, it’s the school system that’s failing them.

In 2006, Carol Dweck wrote an eye-opening book titled: "Mindset". In it she outlines 2 main mindsets that foretell whether a student will be successful.

A student with the Fixed Mindset: Believes that if they fail a test then they are stupid. They feel like a failure. If they do well they feel smart and feel like they know everything. Their identity as student comes from their performance. 

A student with the Growth Mindset: If they fail a test, they believe it was because they were unprepared. They believe they can do better and learn from their mistakes to improve. They believe that with hard work anything is possible.

Can you tell which mindset predicts who will be more successful? The growth mindset. The problem is that the school system teaches students the fixed mindset from a young age. Students who perform well on tests and exams are constantly told that they are smart. Students who underperform are called (or made to feel) dumb. As a result, kids learn to associate their intelligence with the marks they receive. The fixed mindset taught in school plays a major role in the high dropout rates in engineering.  

The second major reason for the high dropout rate is a lack of inspiration. When we encounter a difficult obstacle, we need a motivating reason to overcome it. This is another area where school fails. Students are taught HOW to do math and physics but not why. Math and physics are often taught abstractly. They are taught as formulas and equations and not as the universal languages they are. Students aren’t inspired to learn more about these subjects. 

If you talk to an inspired artist, they’re not gonna tell you that a painting is just color on a page. They won’t say if you connect two dots you get a line. They’ll say a painting takes emotions, and moments in time and captures them on a canvas forever. When we look at that painting, we can experience that moment. Painters share moments and experiences with the world. 

An inspired programmer looks beyond the code. The code is merely a tool or a language she uses to solve the problems of the world. It’s not about stringing letters together to create software. It's about creating practical solutions to the worlds problems. 

School doesn’t inspire students to learn more about math. I think uninspired teachers play a big role in this. An uninspired teacher will teach you how to do math but with no context. Why are these teachers uninspired? Because their teachers were uninspired. School used to be a place to expand the mind. Now school is a place to go if you want credentials. 

An inspired teacher will teach you that math is a human language. It's a language that can be used to describe the natural laws of the world and to learn more about the world we live in. Isaac Newton was asked why the planets moved in elliptical orbits and not circular ones. To answer this question he invented calculus.  Math has always been a tool to help us find the truths of the world we live in. It’s not just about numbers and equations. It’s about solving the mysteries of the world. Through math, we can answer questions like how fast do we need to go to get into outer space. Isn’t it crazy to realize that through math we can predict how things, like a spaceship, will behave? It’s almost like a superpower.  

I believe that the dropout rate in engineering is so high for these two reasons:

1. Students are taught a fixed mindset in school.

2. School does a bad job at inspiring students to learn more about STEM-related subjects.  

So assuming you have a growth mindset and are in love with math: is engineering still hard? I think the answer to this question is best told through a story:

Imagine waking up every day for an 8AM lecture. After each lecture, you have 5 more. You will probably be in lectures from 8AM to about 5 PM. Your courses consist of subjects like calculus, statics, and fluid dynamics. After 5PM you get home, maybe make yourself some food and then start your homework. You might be doing homework until about 9PM. You relax for an hour or 2, go to them gym, sleep, and then repeat the next day. Friday rolls around and all your non-engineering friends are about to go out to party. You can’t join them because you have three assignments due on Monday. So you pass. You meet up with some engineering friends at your campus and start working on the assignments. Summertime rolls around and you land a sweet internship at some big company. Some of your friends don’t have jobs, and some have jobs like working at a restaurant or a gym or a big company like you. In comparison to most of your friends, your job pays pretty well. It's definitely enough for you to buy some material things you might want. You could even rent an apartment if you moved out for the summer. Then school starts again and your back on the grind. 

This is what the average student experience is like in engineering. How did it make you feel? If you got accepted into an engineering program, you CAN learn to deal with the math and the physics. As long as you have the growth mindset. The hardest part will probably be dealing with a huge workload and missing out on social events. You will for sure have hours of homework daily. You will be studying for a large majority of each day during your degree. I'm not saying you can't have a social life, because you can. I went out once a week, at the least, with my girlfriend during engineering. But, you won't be able to go out as much as some of your non-engineering friends will. You will make new friends, work some fun internships, and land a well-paying job at a young age. You will develop a KILLER work ethic which can be applied to any area of life. You will also learn A LOT and grow A LOT. Does immersing yourself deep into technical studies everyday sound fun to you? A student who enjoys the sound of this life will have an easier time in engineering. So what do you think, does engineering sound hard to you?