David Pratama Widjaja

widjaja (dot) david (at) ymail (dot) com

How not to EngPhys, or 'make sure your suffering counts'


For better or for worse, I graduated from UBC’s Engineering Physics program in 2022.

If you are here to learn how to survive and thrive in Engineering Physics, you have come to the wrong place. In retrospect, I consider my time then to be turbulent. I aced some classes and almost failed others. I led teams on complex projects, and also became a recluse. I carried the groupwork many times, and got carried more times than I could count. I became a shell of my former self but also its greatest iteration.

On one hand, I deeply regret many things and I wish I could go back in time to do things differently. On the other hand, I know that Past-me would have probably disregarded the rational advice of Present-me, just for the satisfaction of exerting his own freedom. He would consider me a well-meaning but condescending fellow, and in most things he would have insisted on making his own mistakes to learn from them properly.

Here are some things that I learnt along the way.

Approach work with a beginner’s mindset

From what I have seen and experienced, seniors like teaching and mentoring. It gives them an opportunity to fulfil their perceived duty towards their juniors, it gives them an outlet to show off their abilities after many years of being juniors themselves, and it is a way for them to meet new people when many of their peers and seniors have all gone their separate ways. In a way, they need you almost as much as you need them.

There are exceptions, of course. Sometimes the problem is on their end. But by not being rude, avoiding asking easily-searchable or repetitive questions, and refraining from demanding that they solve all your problems(like on Stack Overflow or on Github issues on open source projects), I think your chances of getting help are pretty good.

So, by all means learn from your seniors. They have taught me much in school, and in time I was able to learn a few things on my own and teach the next generation.

Fulfil your leadership responsibilities, but know when to step down

In my second year of university, I was elected to become a chair of the Power & Energy Society at the UBC IEEE, and in my third year, I became the software lead of the UBC Solar Car Design Team. The experience of leading was challenging, but it showed me parts of myself that I did not know about. For one, I learnt that I could be passionate about teaching and explaining and learning, but at the same time I learnt that I had an obsessive side and I struggled with delegating work to my team members.

I consider my tenure as chair of the PES to be pretty good as we had planned and delivered on our agenda and ensured continuity to the next generation. Being software lead was a more troubled process, however. In the months leading up to a competition, I spent almost every waking hour attempting to debug an electrical issue without a clear methodology, and it definitely had consequences on my health, academics, and my leadership. Fortunately(unfortunately), the 2020 competition was cancelled due to a pandemic and I could finally think about other things.

During a late night work session, I declared to my team captain that ‘if I could not take on the responsibilities of being a leader, I should not be a leader’. My experiences have taught me just how serious the consequences of assuming responsibility could be. Deciding that I needed to pass my courses too, I voluntarily stepped down after a very turbulent year.

Take incremental steps towards your long-term goals

On a spiral pad somewhere, an overconfident 17-year-old me sketched out a detailed and comprehensive plan for my entire life that ended with me sitting on top of a metaphorical pyramid like the villain of Blade Runner, having solved climate change at home and abroad. Steps 3 and 4 of the plan were ‘get good grades at university’ and ‘work in renewable energy’. I sometimes go back to that spiral pad, both recognizing that I am currently at ‘Step 4’ and also acknowledging how radically my mentality has changed over the years.

‘Solve climate change’ would be the phrasing that my younger self would have used, not recognizing the complex interplay of systems underlying the symptoms of the problem. In the following years, his sense of destiny would be challenged, after seeing setback after setback personally and witnessing bodies upon bodies pile up on the streets without cause or consequence. In the words of Rick Remender in his graphic novel “Low”, ‘I felt like a powerless observer at the end of my species’. Yet, I was still alive. What is there to be done?

‘Follow virtue and reject vice’?, ‘Do not lie to yourself’?, ‘Minimize suffering’? I did not know what worked and what did not, but I resolved to try to make incremental progress personally and professionally, nevertheless. I did research and changed my lifestyle accordingly, accumulated professional experience in renewable energy and studied in my own time. I’d like to think that my personal choices had a compounding effect to let me follow through with my long-term goals, but I’m sure that I was also very lucky. Either way, I would not have been able to benefit from the opportunities presented to me without years of incremental improvement.

And yet, my success was attained through the eye of a needle, and it was only possible through the efforts of everyone who had improved my odds along the way. My future is not a yellow brick road, or a game of snake-and-ladders as my younger self understood it - there was, and still is, a wide spread of potential outcomes. Doors after doors, decisions after decisions, and rooms to change, reflect, and grow.

Know what burnout and insomnia looks like

I think the hard things about being burnt out are (1) it is a gradual regression from well-being to struggling-day-to-day, and (2) the things that help to get oneself out of being burnt out are the same things one sacrifices first to overcommit to the thing making you burnt out. It is definitely possible to be burnt out for entire months without realizing that ones habits and commitments are in pieces. Some things I learnt along the way, in hindsight:

Insomnia could be a medical or hereditary issue, but it could also be caused by easily preventable issues. Not being able to sleep properly probably negatively affected my grades by a lot. Here are some things I did that helped.