For anyone considering the Engineering Science program at University of Toronto
This post is for anyone considering the Engineering Science program at University of Toronto. I hope that this comprehensive and honest review will be the first result that appears on Medium (or even Google search) for anybody considering or questioning whether or not Engineering Science at U of T is the right choice for them.
Engineering Science, or EngSci for short, is a unique and competitive undergraduate program at U of T designed specifically to prepare students for graduate-level studies. This means that EngSci is not a traditional major that has a natural progression to graduate-level studies. For example, there’s a Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Doctorate degree in Mechanical Engineering, but there isn’t a Master’s or Doctorate degree in Engineering Science. This program is meant to be a rigorous preparation for a wide range of graduate programs. To this day, EngSci is still one of the most highly sought-after undergraduate programs by top high school students across Canada.
There is a meme-like YouTube video that is over 10 years old that attempts to provide you with reasons why the program is bad, in a satirical manner. However, I don’t think it does nearly enough justice to explain to you WHY EngSci is not worth it (at least for the average student). As a longtime reader of the U of T subreddit, I’ve seen many bits and pieces of people questioning the program. So here is my attempt to give you a comprehensive review and a verdict on EngSci.
Where is this information coming from?
As my time in this program comes to a close after 5 years, I can say that I’m the definition of an average student (in EngSci). This means average grades, average internships, average research, average everything. So if you had the impression that I’m a bad student who didn’t work diligently and is thus blaming the school/program for his/her inability, then I hope this clears that misunderstanding. If the average student cannot benefit much from the program, is it really worth it?
EngSci has a 2-year foundation, compared to the 1-year foundation common to the Core 8 Engineering programs at U of T. This means that you will specialize (AKA choose an option/major) in 3rd year instead of 2nd year. There are currently 8 options/majors/specializations. Some (e.g. Aerospace, Energy Systems, Machine Intelligence) are exclusive to EngSci, while others can be studied in alternative programs (e.g. Electrical & Computer, Physics, Biomedical — one of the specializations of the Mechanical Engineering program at U of T).
Personally, I believe concentrating in an area of study in 3rd year is quite late and students often find themselves playing catch-up with material they should have learned in 2nd year if they were in a traditional program. This late specialization could lead to missed opportunities and gaps in knowledge that would hinder the average student’s skills, as well as job and grad school prospects.
Since the first two years must prepare all students going into all of the options/majors, as well as providing an interdisciplinary foundation for graduate studies and academic research, you will be forced to take a breadth of many courses, most of which won’t be relevant to your interests or specialization later on. You do not have much room for taking elective courses as a result. You will be forced to take courses such as structures and materials, data structures & algorithms, fluid mechanics, quantum physics, cells and biology, robotics/engineering design, and material science, along with math and programming courses.
When you have 6 heavy courses per semester that are mostly unrelated (a good portion of courses are actually two different topics normally taught in separate courses combined into one course), and up to 40 hours of classes on your timetable weekly, there’s really little opportunity for actual learning. This is the classic case of quantity over quality, where you likely won’t receive a better education. You will probably be cramming for the assignments and exams and won’t build a solid foundation for any advanced courses later on.
Furthermore, it doesn’t help that EngSci courses are often made more difficult than their non-EngSci (Core 8 Engineering) or Arts & Science equivalents because they want to adjust to the talent level of the program, in order to maintain the target course averages set by U of T. As a result, your GPA will probably suffer during these two years, which could have major implications for finding undergraduate research opportunities or internships.
However, in third and fourth years, most specialized courses in EngSci options/majors are actually shared with non-EngSci (Core 8 Engineering) students or non-Engineering students, which means you are not gaining anything new compared to them. Although there is a mandatory research thesis and a capstone design project in fourth-year EngSci, you can do these at other programs too, albeit optional. You may have been better off taking these other programs where you could have specialized earlier in first or second year and earned a higher GPA against easier competition.
The average student will simply not enjoy most of the benefits this program offers. For example, summer research opportunities are difficult if not impossible to get if you do not have a high GPA. Although U of T offers ample undergraduate research opportunities, being an average or below-average student, you will likely be denied by most professors for any chance at doing research in a lab, publishing papers, or pursuing graduate studies with them. These are critical routes for gaining entry to grad school, so as a result, most of your doors to grad school are pretty much shut.
Furthermore, grad schools outside of U of T don’t care or know about the reputation of your undergraduate program, so whether you graduated from EngSci or another program doesn’t matter to them. So if your GPA is subpar, your odds of being admitted will be hurt. Your chances for grad school could be significantly improved if you went to a regular program in Engineering or Arts & Science and earned a higher GPA.
On the other hand, if you are part of the other half of EngSci students who want to work an industry job after graduation, be ready to get hindered in this area too. If you’re not in the Aerospace, Biomedical, or ECE specializations, your degree isn’t widely recognized by reputable employers (Intel, AMD, RBC, etc. in Toronto don’t count). As much as U of T markets this program, the truth is that not many employers outside of Canada know what EngSci is.
If a job requires a Bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering, they probably won’t accept a person with a Bachelor’s in Engineering Science specializing in Energy Systems. I’ve personally been frequently asked to elaborate about my degree and program from employers at career fairs and job interviews, which was a hassle. So if your main goal after undergrad is to get a job, do yourself a favour by getting a recognized degree in your interested field of study.
Furthermore, the current format of the co-op program at U of T, also known as Professional Experience Year (PEY), can best be described as subpar, especially compared to alternatives such as Waterloo’s Co-op program. Although this is more of a U of T vs. Waterloo debate, PEY strictly limits students to a single 12–16 month work term after second or third year, whereas Waterloo allows their students to complete 5–6 four-month terms spread out across all 5 years of undergrad.
The longer work term at U of T does not appeal to many employers (especially those based outside of Canada, as well as many top software/technology/finance firms), so there are fewer top companies and positions that demand PEY co-ops. For students, they only get to experience one work setting at PEY, which limits the diversity of their experience, as well as denying them the opportunity to get progressively better internships over time in undergrad.
Personally, the most successful graduates in terms of jobs (company and total pay) that I’ve met at U of T usually took a gap year where they complete 3 to 4 separate four-month internships consecutively instead of participating in PEY.
Also, because U of T is much more academics and research-focused than Waterloo, the general atmosphere and support system for finding employment is lacking compared to Waterloo. In summary, if your goal is to work at a top technology firm after graduating, going to Waterloo will give you a lot more potential benefits. I’ve written a more detailed post about this comparison.
U of T does a very good job of marketing this program, making it sound like it will get you into MIT, Harvard, Caltech, etc. for graduate school, or Google, Microsoft, Apple, etc. for employment. The reality is, these success stories on the brochures for the program usually come from people who are in the top 10% of the program. These people typically have 3.7+ GPA and have stellar resumes such as conducting research with top universities/professors, publishing papers in well-known conferences and journals, or completing multiple internships at elite companies.
EngSci does a great job of aggregating the most brilliant minds across Canada, so it’s natural that every year, a good amount of top students get into top graduate schools or companies around the world. To reiterate, it’s not the program, it’s the people. These people would have gotten into these top graduate schools or companies anyway without EngSci, probably with more ease.
Recently there’s been a lot of buzz about newer EngSci options/majors such as Machine Intelligence, Robotics, and Math Stats Finance. It is up to you to do the research and decide whether this is worth it, especially to go through the first two years of the program. However, hearing from the experiences of classmates from these options, you could have been better off going to an equivalent program in computer science/engineering, mathematics, finance, or economics, in most cases.
Finally, U of T is already notorious for its lack of mental health resources and poor state of mental health among its student population. And when you bring the best and most highly-competitive students around Canada into the EngSci program where only the best of the best can thrive, it is a recipe for crisis.
Throughout my undergraduate years, I’ve battled through episodes of depression and anxiety, low self-esteem, as well as severe imposter syndrome, with little to no help from U of T’s counseling services. The only meaningful help came from my best friends. I’ve also witnessed countless mental breakdowns, anxiety attacks, and panic attacks among my EngSci peers, as well as hearing stories of fellow EngSci students going to the hospital for stress-induced health issues. Although mental health is a problem at most universities, its effects seem to be amplified here by the unique combination of stress, competition, and lack of support at EngSci.
Now, in what scenarios is this program worth it?
1. You want to study Aerospace or Biomedical Engineering. These are the only specializations exclusive to EngSci, so if you have been planning and/or have a passion for one of these then it makes perfect sense. U of T also has very good graduate programs for Aerospace (UTIAS) and Biomed (IBBME) that take many EngSci graduates. (Note that if you don’t have U.S. citizenship it is very difficult to break into the aerospace industry or any highly sensitive industry in the U.S.).
2. You are a brilliant and talented student genuinely interested in the sciences and aiming to pursue academic research and graduate school, and you are capable of and determined to maintain a 3.7+ cumulative GPA (arguably 3.9+) that will be essential to take advantage of research opportunities and also a good chance of getting into prestigious graduate schools in the U.S. (Stanford, MIT, Princeton, etc..) and the world (Oxford, ETH Zurich, etc..).
Chances are, if you come from a rigorous high school program such as Talented Offerings for Programs in the Sciences (TOPS), International Baccalaureate (IB), or Advanced Placement (AP), achieved high grades, while balancing between multiple extra-curricular clubs and teams, as well as placing at top math / science / computing competitions, you might be more prepared than the average EngSci student.
If you are hard set on doing software engineering, computer science, electrical & computer engineering, or a similar field, and working at a top technology firm after graduating, do yourself a favour and go to Waterloo.
If you don’t fall under any of these cases, it’s difficult to recommend EngSci as it does not bring many benefits. It doesn’t matter if you had a 95 or 99 average in high school, it’s a terrible indicator of university performance, and you may be in for a rude awakening once you get your first 60 on a midterm.
Honestly, EngSci is just way too much effort for such a mediocre return. All that effort for what? A badge of honour? Bragging rights? EngSci doesn’t give you an edge in the job market or academia in most cases. Whether you’re a top student or an average student, you can benefit a lot more by going to a more relaxed undergraduate program, enjoying the “stereotypical” university experience, and spending the extra time doing things that matter or things you enjoy.
So many of us EngScis missed out on typical university experiences such as partying, dating, job preparation, extracurriculars, etc. because school simply took up most of our waking time. Most of us didn’t end up in better places compared to our peers in other universities and programs. Looking back, the difficulty and effort put into school was unnecessary. All that sacrifice for what? I believe university should not be 100% academics. You need these other experiences to be more well-rounded and grow as an individual.
If you are straight out of high school or are in your first year, I strongly recommend you to talk to your parents or friends and really figure out a plan of what you want to do. University, in general, is a very expensive way to “figure it out”, and many (including myself) have fallen into this trap of thinking and hoping things will get better without a plan. EngSci actually gives the illusion that you have more time to decide since the first two years are general, and many have fallen into that trap, myself included. EngSci (and university in general) is not for everyone and it is completely okay to pursue another path right for you.
A common and completely incorrect stigma is that dropping out would be viewed as an act of cowardice, but are you living your life for others or for yourself? Many people who transfer out of EngSci into other engineering programs (Electrical, Computer, Mechanical, Industrial are most common) end up doing very well academically and mentally. I guess the reason for this is self-explanatory, they found something they are good at and also enjoy doing, so naturally they would excel.
A common sentiment I hear is that people want to do EngSci for the “challenge” since it’s the most difficult engineering program out there. I also came in with that mindset and soon had all my ideals shattered. Looking back, is that challenge really worth it? How much sanity are you sacrificing for so little extra in return?
If you want to study one of the EngSci specializations other than Aerospace, Biomedical, or Robotics, there are direct equivalent programs in Engineering or Arts & Science that don’t force you to take courses you don’t care about, and grant you a more traditional degree. Determining the equivalent program is pretty straightforward (e.g. Engineering Physics -> Physics).
Before I conclude, I understand that this post is quite critical of EngSci, and is very outcome-oriented. However, not all hope is lost about this program. If you are not a top student in EngSci, that doesn’t mean life is over for you! Plenty of people I know still do relatively well with lower GPAs and average experiences. Networking can often overcome these shortcomings, and more importantly, these people know what they are good at and what they are not. They are often satisfied with what they have, and do not compare themselves to others. Adjusting your mindset is just as important as working hard.
Furthermore, by coming to EngSci, you will meet lots of brilliant people and become a part of a strong and tight-knit community. It’s a byproduct of suffering and growing together — almost like the military. Honestly, this was my greatest benefit from the program over the last 5 years.
Finally, even though a lot of the courses I took in EngSci seemed irrelevant and “useless” at first, having that multidisciplinary knowledge has changed the way I approach problems, both in the industry and in research. It has made me more knowledgeable and multi-dimensional as an individual.
This post summarizes some advice that I wish I had received half a decade ago when I started, but unfortunately, I cannot rewind time, so the next best thing is to inform others. I hope this helps to get a perspective that I think should be disclosed not just for EngSci, but all university programs. Maybe that way, everyone can make more informed decisions about their future.