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Picking and Pursuing Online Engineering Graduate Programs

Picking and Pursuing Online Engineering Graduate Programs

Pick an online engineering graduate program that’s right for you and meets your financial need. But don’t forget to stay connected and disciplined to succeed.
It can be grueling to work full time and attend graduate school. And the stress can be compounded further when you are also trying to meet family obligations.
While online graduate engineering programs may not afford the same level of interaction with professors and peers offered by in-person programs, successful students appreciate the flexibility and other benefits of remote education.
“Today’s global and distributed workforce is very similar to how online education works today,” said Shubha Kashyap, director of student affairs and faculty relations for the University of Michigan College of Engineering’s home for online and professional education. “We work in different time zones, are geographically distributed, and benefit from the vast and diverse experiences of our peers. For many, the online modality is a natural fit and aligns with how they currently or will work in the future.”

Choose a program

Some online programs are highly structured, while others offer more latitude. In addition to thinking about the program’s reputation and course topics, students should consider how frequently courses are offered and how that fits both into their lifestyles and the time to complete a degree, said Kashyap.
For example, some learners may need to pause course work to deal with major life events, military deployments, and other priorities.
Be sure to also find out about the program’s support structure, advised Susan Roughton, program coordinator for the Master of Engineering in Mechanical Engineering program at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaigns Grainger College of Engineering.
“If you need help selecting your classes, or you’re having a challenge, or if something’s going wrong, who is going to be the point person advising you?” she asked. “Students who never come to campus can get lost in the shuffle. There should be somebody they can go to when they have a need that's not being met, because it should be met.”
Aside from Roughton, her program has a faculty director and associate faculty director who advise students and are regularly available to meet with online students through Zoom.

Maintain discipline

Pursuing an online graduate degree requires good time-management skills and a high level of comfort working independently, as students often spend several hours earning and studying each week.
If this doesn't come easily, take steps to prioritize your commitment, said Kashyap. “Consider going through the program with a peer, set up a social network or colleague study group in the program, establish accountability partners for staying on track,” she said.
Try also setting aside a part of the day to study, noted Dimitrios Peroulis, who led Purdue College of Engineering online programs before becoming senior vice president for Purdue University Online.
“The same way you would create the time for a meeting with your boss or go to the gym, make the same time commitment for this,” he said.

Stay on schedule

One way to keep self-discipline in check is to pick a schedule that doesn’t feel overwhelming.
Being able to take one course at a time per quarter was one of the reasons Gabe Albacete decided to pursue an online masters degree in mechanical engineering from UCLAs Samueli School of Engineering.
“You get to focus on that one course and really learn all about it instead of trying to balance a whole bunch of courses, which would've been too time-consuming for my work and social life,” said Albacete, who finished work by 6 p.m. and studied from 7 to 10:30 p.m. nightly.

Stay connected

Albacete wished he had set up more group chats with classmates or found a study buddy.
“I feel like I was too focused on my individual studies and didn't make it a priority to make those connections,” a decision that would have made group projects via Zoom more enjoyable, he said. “There would’ve been more of a sense of community.”
Abacete suggested exchanging emails and phone numbers with other students on the first day of classes and communicating often.
Said Peroulis, “It's a little bit too easy to feel isolated in an online learning environment where all you see is a computer in front of you and not real people. Even just connecting with one other student is really, really important.”

Get financial support

If finances may be an issue—and even if they’re not—know that employers frequently provide education reimbursement because it helps retain high-performing employees, shows a commitment to career growth, and can help advance the company, according to Kashyap.
That said, be clear about what you’re getting into.
“Some employers expect employees to repay fees if they leave before a certain number of years of service,” Kashyap added, “so keep an eye on the fine print and details for your institution.”
There’s no doubt that remote education is much different from in-person learning. But those on both sides of the online experience agree that drive and perseverance gets you to the finish line.
“Just keep it fresh,” said Peroulis. “Stay curious and eager to learn.”
Students will get out what they put in, said Albacete. “Being proactive is the most important part when you're getting an online degree.”
Robin Flanigan is an independent writer in Rochester, N.Y.

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