Becoming a T-Shape Person: The Engineer’s Problem

Originally published on Veni Vidi Vici (portfolio site) on Jan 3, 2011

In a presentation about entrepreneurship, the dean of the College of Science Gregory Crawford, PhD emphasized the need for today’s undergraduate to be a well-rounded person, to be a “t-shaped person.” What is a “t-shape person?” Glad you asked. While Webster does not have a formal definition, a t-shaped person refers to an individual who is an expert, a master, in his main areas of studies but also is “fluent” in other areas. For a science or engineer student, it means being “fluent” in the humanities. For the humanities students, it means being “fluent” in the sciences. The reason for such needs is — to paraphrase him — that the world does not need a jack of all trades and master of none. The need to be a well-rounded student was not only emphasized by Crawford, but also by professors in my Introduction to Engineering class. This suggests that the traditional idea of double majoring as a way of becoming a jack of all trade is not as relevant as people think. The former statement is probably heavily biased because I am a believer of the gospel by Cal Newport, a professor who maintains the most popular student advice blog on the web Study Hacks. His blog and this particular article “How Double Majors Can Ruin Your Life: Two Arguments for Doing Less” (1), have shaped my belief in pursuing only one major.

With the needs of the world rapidly changing, I could not agree more with the dean and my engineering professors on being a well-rounded person. Unfortunately, as an engineer the opportunities to become a t-shape person are more restricted than you’d think. I discovered during my meeting with my counselor that, as an engineer, I have no leg room to pursue some of my interest within the normal curriculum. It is with regret that I accepted that a French class or a design class won’t make it on my schedule despite my strong interest in taking one. For me to be able to take a drawing a class this semester, I would have either to drop engineering as a major, or be on the dean’s list and write a proposal explaining why I should be able to take more than the maximum credit hours allowed by the university. None of these options were acceptable to me. My interest in engineering, although not set in stone, is one that I had since I was in fifth grade when I got my first soldering iron and repaired some old speakers. The second option, making the dean’s list, was not achieved because I did not put the work required to be on the list.

The Engineer’s Dilemma

        The engineer student at Notre Dame is faced with a tough curriculum. The program is rigorous to the point where a junior in Chemical engineering told me, “it is okay for you to have bad grades; you’re an engineer.” I felt offended and scared at the same time. Did she believe that I could not perform and get good grades? How hard must the program be for someone who goes to Notre Dame to tell you that underperforming is a norm? These questions engaged me to evaluate the courses ahead of me.  As an aspiring electrical engineer, here is the schedule ahead for me:

Screen capture of tentative electrical engineer schedule

Here is a detailed and personalized version of my tentative schedule:

Sophomore Year Junior Year Senior Year
1st semester    
Calculus III
Differential Equations Senior Design I
General Physics II
Signal and system I
Electrical Engineering Elective
C/C++ programming Semiconductor I
Electrical Engineering Elective
Introduction to Electrical engineering Electromagnetic Fields and Waves I
Engineering Science Elective
Philosophy (University requirement) Theology Fine Art (University requirement)
2nd semester    
Introduction to Linear Algebra and Differential equations Random Phenomena in EE Senior Design II
General Physics III
Electrical Engineering Elective Electrical Engineering Elective
Electronics I
Electrical Engineering Elective Electrical Engineering Elective
Electric circuits Technical Elective Technical Elective
Logic Design Theology (University requirement) History (University Requirement)


Each semester is filled with the maximum five classes per semester allowed, and my elective credits are filled with university requirements. It’s visibly impossible to double major, minor, or get a supplemental major with and Engineering degree at Notre Dame within four year. With no room to become a t-shape person in the curriculum, how is an engineer supposed to become “fluent” in the humanities?

Are Extracurricular Activities a Possible Solution? Maybe

The only way to develop the characteristics of a t-shape person is via extracurricular activities as Crawford suggested. The dean of the college of science pointed that, since time is extremely limited, the aspiring engineer has to choose his extracurricular carefully. Long gone are the days when students join organizations for the sake of “pimping out” the résumé. This is not high school anymore. This is college. With more than 200 student organizations, there is something out there for everyone at Notre Dame.

Although I agree that joining clubs is a great way to become a t-shape person, the experience is not the same as the one you get in a traditional classroom. Going to a weekly meeting to talk about organizing events, or running a concession stand does not exactly quench my thirst for knowledge. Also, the groups that the professors advise you to join are related to field of study. You’re not becoming more “fluent” in the humanities, you’re just gaining another perspective of you r current field. This is not bad at all, but it does not fully accomplish the mission of becoming a t-shape person.

So, how can you get the classroom experience outside the classroom? I don’t know…yet. My plan is to experiment, try different ideas to see how I can achieve just that; and hopefully during the process, I’ll become a t-shape person.


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