Engineering Under Pressure

Common stresses and pressures engineering students face every day

By Eric Trunk Photos by Sommer Ahmad Print Design by Lukas Lindquist

Engineering students are well-acquainted with the stresses of higher education. Every student is different and feels different pressures; each has different ways of dealing with daily stresses. Maintaining a balanced lifestyle while juggling schoolwork, student organizations, a social life and in some cases employment can prove to be a difficult task for even the most seasoned and experienced college student.

One of the most obvious stressors in a student’s life is maintaining a high grade point average (GPA). Pressure from family, possible employers or oneself fuel this stress. In a survey of a group of UW-Madison engineering students, over 32 percent of students ranked maintaining a high GPA for employers as their number one stressor. To even have an opportunity to interview with some companies for internship, co-op or even entry-level positions, students must achieve a minimum GPA. When students are competing with classmates for an interview, that one number on their résumé can determine whether or not they will be given a chance to show the employer the person they are behind the GPA.

Once a student finally gets that opportunity to work out in the real world, he or she can begin to see stresses differently. Trent Thomas, a junior mechanical engineering student and American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) Student Section Chair, explains how his expectations and view of his GPA changed after his first internship. “Before, the top concern was definitely the GPA,” Thomas says. “Now, it has become more of my expectations and trying to learn all of the material, and sometimes that does not involve getting good grades.” Learning the material to the best of his ability to better himself for a career in engineering has taken priority, while achieving good grades is no longer the main stressor in Thomas’s life. This is not to imply there is no pressure to earn a high GPA anymore, only that the source of the stress has changed. Thomas explains the new source of pressure in his life as “not only expectations from myself, but expectations from my family, from the people who are paying for my college.” Thomas enjoys being able to tell his family that things are going well for him and that “their money is not going to waste.”

Financial pressures also play a large role in the life of an engineering student, especially when a job is added to the mix of an already hectic academic schedule. Balancing time spent on schoolwork versus a job can create a dilemma for which, unfortunately, there is no easy answer. Justin McFarland, a junior mechanical engineering student and air management specialist for the DNR, knows just how tough it can be to juggle school and a job at the same time. McFarland has the flexibility to work when time allows, but he also explains the added stress that comes with scheduling his own hours.


“It is stressful because I want to work as much as possible, but it is like the battle within yourself,” says McFarland, describing the conflict between earning money and giving himself enough time to complete schoolwork. “If I do not work, I cannot make money, and if I do not make money, I cannot pay rent.” As it turns out, McFarland is not alone in this battle. Over 21 percent of respondents in the previously mentioned survey stated balancing a job with schoolwork as their number one source of stress. Keeping a job during school can make for some long nights of studying and cut into a social life, making it harder to maintain relationships with friends.

Contrary to the common stereotype that engineers have no social life, pressure from friends and peers proved to be a large cause of stress for engineering students, with about 15 percent of survey respondents expressing a balanced social life as their primary source of stress. It is difficult to tell friends that a bowling night, Comedy Club night or a night on State Street will not happen. Almost everyone has experienced this pressure, but it is not always a bad thing to take a break from work to spend time with peers.


Social interaction is extremely important for relieving stress in a person’s life, but, like most good things, keeping it in balance is also important. McFarland describes how he attempts to complete all of his schoolwork in the first half of the week to allow his job to take over the second half. This gives him at least one night every weekend to socialize with friends. While McFarland has found this balance to work for him, other students may take a different approach and try to carve out an hour every night to relax and spend time with friends. Whatever balance students find is right for them, it is a judicious balance that is key to lowering stress and becoming a successful engineering student.

Pressure, at a healthy level, can serve as a motivator to some students, but there is a fine line between letting it fuel your ambition and letting it take over your life. Thomas offers up the techniques he uses when handling his schoolwork on top of his leadership role in ASME. The first of these techniques is delegation. “The first thing I learned when I became ASME Chair was do not do everything yourself. Leverage those around you and delegate responsibilities in order to avoid becoming overloaded,” says Thomas. In a role such as ASME chair, managing people is extremely important to make sure everything is done properly and on time, while ensuring that everyone in the club has an opportunity to contribute. By using delegation, not only does Thomas make sure he is not overwhelmed with work, but he also helps the club grow and improve efficiently from within.

Trent Thomas, engineering student at UW-Madison, balances school and co-op, all while leading ASME

Another way Thomas maintains a healthy stress level is by organizing his tasks. He talks about how his to-do lists are made for maximum efficiency: “I color code everything, saying this is my ASME stuff, this is my school stuff, this is my financial stuff and this is my scholarship stuff.” He continues by saying, “Instead of just a to-do list, I always have a status on where it is, and I put a priority on it.” Putting a priority on items in his to-do list helps Thomas stay on top of everything going on in his life simultaneously. He mentions that it helps him to not waste valuable time by staring at a list and wondering which task to do next.

Along with his organized and coded to-do list, Thomas makes sure to get in a workout whenever possible. Exercise, along with eating well and sleeping right, is important when dealing with the stressful lifestyle that most engineering students experience. It is a proven fact that exercise can improve sleep quality and increase the brain’s production of endorphins, which help increase mood in order to dissipate stress. There is no other known technique for relieving stress that can accomplish these two aims at once, proving that exercise is the most important and efficient way of relieving stress.

UW-Madison engineering students shoulder their heavy workload

As engineering students face many of the common pressures highlighted in this article, sometimes the hardest thing to do is find time to relieve that stress from life. Unfortunately, everyone lives their life with a common constraint that no one can alter. The fact that there are only 24 hours in a day has always been constant and will continue to be so. When midterms or finals come around, finding time in the day to work out as well as get seven to eight hours of sleep at night can be nearly impossible. Time management and planning a schedule with a list of prioritized tasks can help students remain efficient, but there is no substitute for a good hour of exercise. The next time pressure is felt, make sure to spend some time organizing, sleeping and exercising; it will pay off and help maintain the balance needed in life.