Column | Feb. 19

Comparing academic fields

As first semester drew to a close and final grades came out, I was reminded of a common sentiment that I had heard from many of my engineering friends — that being an engineering major is “hard.” In and of itself, such a subjective statement isn’t really anything I can argue against. But then, of course, comes the catch — a B.S.E. degree isn’t just difficult, it’s more difficult than the alternative, an A.B. degree. Being an A.B. major myself (and finding it plenty difficult enough), I, of course, couldn’t let such claims slide.

Undoubtedly, any subject at Princeton should, by virtue of the level of academic merit at our top-ranked institution, be challenging, and engineering classes are certainly no exception. But to claim that they are more arduous than other courses is simply an unfair argument.

First and foremost, the active grade deflation policy applies evenly to all departments, regardless of affiliation with an engineering or a humanities subject, and thus, the distribution of grades received by students of both degree types would be roughly similar. Of course, grade distribution isn’t by itself a good measure of relative difficulty. After all, I could have very well gotten an A in one class by doing nothing more than simply attending lectures, and have gotten a B in a class that I pulled all-nighters studying for.

To reconcile this contradiction, the claim that B.S.E. courses are harder often revolves not only on grading policy but also on the workload. In particular, engineers often (reasonably) grumble about the fact that the subject matter is often highly technical and requires a precise understanding of specific concepts, the lab sessions often exceed their supposed three-hour benchmark, and the homework assignments are notorious for consisting of lengthy problem sets replete with questions requiring ridiculous amounts of work. But these facts do not in any way justify the claim that engineering courses are more difficult than humanities subjects.

Admittedly, most humanities classes do not assign weekly problem sets for homework, nor do they involve lab sessions. But what they lack in direct homework and labs, they make up for with large amounts of reading, as well as intensive discussion sessions during precept. The readings can be quite lengthy, as noted in previous Daily Princetonian Opinion columns — upwards of hundreds of pages per week, often consisting of rather archaic primary sources or highly detailed analyses. And the precepts can host heated debates about complicated issues — just because the topics of discussion don’t involve numbers or scientific principles doesn’t make them any easier!

Now, if you really wanted a hard line-in-the-sand quantification, I suppose that a good place to start would be to gather information from a random sampling of representative engineering classes and humanities classes, then compare the distributions of the times that it took students to complete the work for each of those two categories of classes as a good measure of the time-intensiveness of each field. But these figures would be effectively meaningless with regards to measuring actual class difficulty, because to compare B.S.E. classes and A.B. classes is to compare two intrinsically different things. They teach, test for and require different skills; they enforce different methods of thinking, and ultimately, students’ propensities for one or the other will hinge on their unique individual academic dispositions.

In the end, trying to say that either a B.S.E. degree or an A.B. degree is harder than the other is akin to comparing a crossword puzzle to a Rubik’s cube — both can be seen as difficult or challenging from certain angles, both can require lots of work to solve; different types of people will naturally find one to be simpler than (or perhaps preferable to) the other.

Outside of college, there seems to be a rising perception that technical engineering-based jobs are more difficult than comparable non-scientific occupations; perhaps this can be attributed in part to the fact that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, all 10 of the top 10 highest-paying jobs in 2012 involved the medical field or related technologies involved in the medical field. (Chief executives were a close 11th, but didn’t make it to the top 10.) It seems that many assume that wage correlates with degree of job difficulty, and while such a fact may hold true if you compare the jobs of, say, a McDonald’s employee and a neurosurgeon, in the upper echelons of the income tier, the distinction becomes less clear. Who can say that an anesthesiologist’s job is any more difficult than a financial analyst’s, that a software engineer has a harder job than a lawyer?

Instead of complaining about how difficult a field may be perceived to be relative to another, students should revel in the learning process and know that, ultimately, we are never alone in having difficulties.

Jason Choe is a freshman from Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. He can be reached at jasonjc@princeton.edu.

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