Wednesday, July 12, 2006

This entry is good enough, right?

A friend of mine who just recently finished her Master’s degree told me that in the last class she took, her teacher gave her special instructions for an assignment. She was to do the minimum amount of work required to complete the project, and that was it. No delving into anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary.

I found this fascinating, because no teacher of mine would tell me to do that. They wouldn’t have to. That’s how I operate. Oh, I think that maybe in high school I worked harder than necessary, but once I got to college everything changed. I think it’s because I no longer had time to put that extra special something on homework assignments. Sure, I would probably have learned more if I actually read the chapter before doing the problem set instead of using the time-honored technique of randomly flipping through the chapter to find the right equation to solve it. But I would only have learned more in one of my classes because I would have flunked out of my other classes thanks to not finishing any of the problem sets.

See, engineering is hard. I say this not to put down other disciplines. In no way am I trying to compare the challenges of earning an engineering degree with those of other degree programs. I never had to read fifteen books a week for a comparative literature class for example, and neither did I have to pass an oral exam in a foreign language. So I can only draw from my own experience and say that the course load and work required for an engineering degree can be quite overwhelming, and the only way I could get through it was by doing only what was required of me, and no extra.

But, hey, you could argue that that is the whole philosophy of engineering anyway. Who but an engineer would model a horse as a sphere with four cylinders in order to estimate the volume?


Doktah said...

I have a comment for "Grad Lab Adventures" sitting on the other side as a professor now. And keep in mind, I forget what it was like to be a green, first-year graduate student...

I assigned a graduate student a project to study a certain type of polymerization. Part of that project was to determine the equations which governed the polymerization and fit a curve to the data. I knew that it was REALLY well studied, so I figured that somewhere in the literature he could find the answer. He wouldn't even need to figure it out for himself, just find a reference where someone else had figured it out and see if it worked. After a few weeks he came into my office and said, "okay, I give up, tell me."

It was only then that I realized that he thought that everything was a test and that I had one large scientific answer key in my office. For those of you starting graduate school... it's about discovering it on your own. Graduate advisors can advise, but there’s a reason that they don’t call us graduate knowers.

This has similarly come with the revelation that undergraduate students think that all professors do is teach. Let me tell you, after I give the lecture I do not simply retire back to the "lounge" with the other pampered professors for a smoke and debate about science or some such curiosities. We do other things... like work on the giant scientific answer key.

Mo said...

Yeah, undergrads have no idea what academia is all about. First of all, they think that the point of the university is to teach them, the undergrads. Couldn't be more wrong. I remember one of the profs at grad school told me that her undergrads would say, "So, what will you be doing for the summer?"

But, be honest. There really IS a lounge stocked with cigars, right?