Electrical Engineering at McGill University
Cristian (Year 3)
Cristian Ciungu (LinkedIn)
What did you wish you knew before going to your university? What made you choose this institution over all others? What are advantages and disadvantages of your institution or campus? List any advice for incoming first-year students about your university.
I am based in Montreal (Quebec) and at the time of my decision , I knew neither my parents nor I couldn't afford postsecondary education in the US or elsewhere, so we agreed to seek a decent university in Montreal or in the province of Quebec. Then, I also wanted to pursue my studies in an anglophone environment because I knew it would be beneficial for me if I find a position in the US or in any other country. With that in mind, I considered McGill and Concordia University. However, I knew that McGill had stimulating research opportunities in Electrical Engineering, and I didn't mind the fact that they don't have a co-op program unlike other Canadian Engineering faculties/schools. On the contrary, I was actually excited to know that I can pursue any kind of internship I want, and I liked the idea of having the initiative to network and attend career orientation events. Finally, I would also point out that McGill University is a very much respected academic brand within the industry, so that played a role in my decision as well.
In terms of advice for incoming freshmen students, I would say consider the expenses first. I know it's a major concern for students since a large portion of you are starting to live on your own. So here's some numbers that you may want to know: tuition turns around 2000 CAD$ per semester, the average club/design team registration fee is 30-40 CAD$ per semester, and you can get decent meals at the engineering cafeteria for under 10 CAD$; there are also many cheap & diverse options within 10 minutes of walking from the campus. Moreover, I must emphasize on the importance of joining a club/design team: it teaches you technical and soft skills that are actually being required and essential to any industry position, no matter what branch it is (engineering, consulting, finance, energy, etc.), so it is more than worth the semestral fee. In addition to that, you get to work with like-minded students towards an end product that will surely make you feel fulfilled. To conclude, I would recommend to be aware of the services you have on campus and on a remote basis: great networking events and hackathons pop up every two weeks approximately so make sure to follow the updates that each Engineering Undergraduate Society club will put out. Additionally, the wellness center offers many free services with respect to mental health, emotion regulation, etc. ,so it's a good resource to check out.
What did you wish you knew before choosing your specific program? What are the advantages and disadvantages of your program? List any advice for incoming first-year students about your program of study.
I wish I knew what people meant when they told me McGill University is not that industry-oriented. Although research sounds compelling to me, I have always felt that I would be more fulfilled in a role where I get to internalize the impacts that a certain technological solution has on peoples' lives. However, I quickly came to the conclusion that McGill itself would not facilitate my recruitment process when it came to internships. On the other hand, they have rather strict criteria for approving any internship experience you may find. If it's not more than 4 months and paid, they will not consider your term towards the Internship Designation badge on your diploma. In a way, it can demotivate many students as they seek for internship opportunities, and it surely did that to me. However, I have come to the conclusion that it doesn't really matter whether my internship is approved or not, as long as I extract something valuable that will contribute to my professional growth.
In addition to that, I shall say that the labs in McGill's Electrical Engineering program do not truly allow you to gain mastery with respect to any programming language or software being used there. In fact, there are simply not enough hours to allow you to become proficient in any of the technologies, so it is on you to further develop these skills with either side projects or within design teams ,as I have mentioned earlier.
On the other hand, the big plus about the Electrical Engineering program at McGill is the education quality and the student environment. Given the program is made up of around 100 students per year, it allows for a more humane and close-knit connection between students in the same program as mine, which allows for very meaningful relationships to develop along the years. Furthermore, most professors in the department are proficient researchers that have published extensively over the past couple of years, and they are great humans as well. They are also easy-going, fair graders and truly passionate about their areas of expertise, so your lectures will definitely not be dull, even during this remote Fall semester!
What was your favourite university experience?
The experience that contributed the most to my growth as an undergraduate student and young professional is my contribution to the McGill Formula Electric (MFE) design team as a member of the PCB (printed circuit boards) subsystem team. For reference, MFE is a design team that is in charge of designing and improving a 100% electric race car that competes with North American universities, as well as other universities worldwide.
By spending 2-3 hours a week on the PCB system of the electric race car with my team, I was able to gain considerable experience with Altium and SPICE, which are hardware programming softwares allowing you to sketch electric circuits/components, test out their functionalities and modify them afterwards if needed. Plus, this experience allowed me to gain important soft skills like team communication, systems thinking, adaptability to unexpected changes in deadlines, as well as collaborative leadership.
What was your least favourite university experience?
My worst university experience has been the lack of peer resources for homework, assignment and exam review help. My colleagues and I have felt, very often, that we did not have access to timely help from any resources provided by the faculty: peer tutoring services offered by the EPTS (Engineering Peer Tutoring Service) take care of a limited amount of students, and the same thing applies to office hours offered by the professors and the TA's (teaching assistants). It would be nice if either the ECSE (Electrical, Computer & Software Engineering) department at McGill or a group of students could establish a peer mentoring/tutoring program that allows to provide much needed help to a larger number of people. I can't remember how many times my colleagues and I sat down looking at a problem and praying it would not come up on the exam tomorrow because we just could not figure it out, and we did not know whom to seek help from. It is an undesirable feeling and solutions needs to be implemented to improve this particular issue.
What is the hardest part about your program and what were the steps that you took to overcome any difficulties?
The academic nature of the Electrical Engineering program at McGill University makes it very hard for you to prioritize anything else in your extracurricular life. The courses themselves are composed of challenging math, physics, programming and computer science topics that can definitely be tedious and step over your "free" time. For example, I had a design course.(ECSE 211 with Prof. Ferrie) in my second year where we had to build an autonomous robot capable of performing complex space-time tasks like obstacle avoidance, closed path navigation , color and weight detection, as well as mechanical lifting and transportation. I was in the design lab almost every weekend, and the hours were very long; I can definitely guarantee that this course took around 300 hours of my time during the semester. Other than that, courses like MIME 262 and FACC 300 can be challenging because they may not appeal to competencies or skills you are working on in your core courses. For these courses, as well as other Electrical Engineering courses in general, plan out your study schedule as much as possible (down to the hour), pick the profs' and TA's brains during office hours and after the lecture ends, and be open to new learning approaches from your peers!
If you were able to take electives, what was your favourite elective? If you were not able to take electives, what was your favourite course and why?
My favourite course so far has been ECSE 362 (Power Engineering). I went into Electrical Engineering with the mindset that I want to develop a very good skill set in electrical systems design, analysis, testing and validation. This course had it all. The labs were bi-weekly and they required more than one session to be completed; they allowed me to work on real electrical systems like induction machines and transformers. Plus, by being asked to write detailed and constructive reports afterwards, my lab partner and I really developed our critical thinking as well as our ability to understand the role of each component within a system and the overall functioning of it. Finally, we also loved the idea of having the chance to think about further areas to explore and possible improvements regarding the implementation of the electrical systems we were working with.
I also want to say that the professor in charge of this course, Francois Bouffard, is a complete academic professional. He understands that the end goal of his course is to allow us to work towards becoming competent power engineers, and he showed it by regularly exposing us to real-life applications of the subjects he presented.
As a closing note, I just want to give a simple and precious advice: trust your gut and go for the opportunities you feel are right for you, be at peace with shattered expectations, learn to appreciate the "going with the flow" mentality at times, consider help seeking as a very useful tool and not a burden that you impose onto your peers, and give some time to yourself at the end of the day. Trust me, you can't have a good university experience if you're not right with yourself first.