I'm a highschool senior with 9 days to choose a university, and I'm interested in electrical engineering... I think.
- I've been accepted at Duke, Washington University in St. Louis, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Maryland, and I'm having difficulty choosing which one to attend.
(a) I've read the US News rankings in an attempt to discern which schools have strong departments. For undergrad overall (the "Harvard, Princeton, Yale, ..." list), Duke is 5, WUSTL is 9, Penn is 5, and Maryland is 53. For undergrad electrical engineering, none of these schools is among the 25 ranked. For undergrad engineering overall, Duke is 20, WUSTL is 38, Penn is 25, and Maryland is 25. For graduate electrical engineering, Duke is 33, WUSTL is 33, Penn is 33, and Maryland is 14. (Many-way ties abound on both lists.) Are these rankings consistent with your impressions of the schools? On the basis of quality/reputation, do any of these schools seem compelling a better choice?
(b) Duke would cost $125,000, Penn about $88,000, and WUSTL somewhere between the two. Maryland is free with a scholarship. My parents are not rich, and these price tags include need-based grants; if I attended one of the non-free schools, I would likely graduate with significant debt. In light of this, do you think the prestige of Duke or Penn is worth it?
- I think I'm interested in electrical engineering, but I'm not sure. I got a no-Morse-code Technician ham radio license when I was 11, but I was too young to understand or retain the associated knowledge even if I could regurgitate it sufficiently to pass the tests. At any rate, personal computers soon seduced me away from the hobby, and (as seems a common scenario these days) I developed into a Linux hacker/geek instead of a tinkerer. Now that it's time to plan for college and I've begun poring over catalogs and course descriptions, I've come to the unpleasant (but not unforseeable) realization that computer science is comprised of programming, programming methodology, and programming theory, and that computer scientists graduate as good programmers (in principle at least) who proceed to fight for jobs churning out inelegant and often pandering software.
The occupation I want to make a career of is one that involves skillful application of knowledge to design something that, upon finishing it and stepping back to admire it, is elegant and useful. Because I'm most familiar with computers, I at first sought to identify such an occupation in computer science, but I've realized that's difficult---most computer science occupations either emphasize usefulness (typically in the form of marketability) over elegance/quality, or emphasize baroque theory over simple usefulness. I then considered going into math (which I excel in but only somewhat enjoy) and fighting for a job in academia. Although perceiving interconnections and generalizing them is enjoyable (and fits my "step back and it's elegant and useful" criteria), these enjoyable moments are few and far between, and as a result I find mathematical theorizing to be unpleasantly mentally taxing and sometimes obsession-inducing.
In light of what I've said, do you think I would be happy as an engineer? I love to devise and refine things and to explain/advocate technical solutions. I love to use math and careful reasoning, but I also love to intuit and estimate---to attempt to discern the optimal solution in situations where formal proof is unnecessary or impractical. I love to generalize and simplify; in fact I'm usually unhappy with my work unless I consider it elegant, and I find doing things that are inherently kludgy to be highly unpleasant. I know I would be happy with a job, for example, working for HP in their glory days, when calculators were lovingly designed in Corvallis to be usable, efficient, quality tools, but I fear that times like these are gone for good and the world has cheapened. If I become an electrical engineer, can I reasonably hope to find a satisfying job designing a top-quality product, or will I wind up keeping a fishmonger (with all the Shakespearean connotations) LAN plugged together?