Engineering Your Graduate School Experience

Aug 9, 2012

by Vaibhav Bahadur University of Texas at Austin

So, you’re an engineer and you’re thinking about graduate school. I’ve been there. I actually am there, still. After completing a 2-year MS, spending two years in a PhD program that was not right for me and starting over in another PhD program three years ago, I have had plenty of time to ask myself important questions about my education. Unfortunately, I did not realize I should have asked myself some of these questions at the beginning of my journey. As engineers, we are taught to break down problems and questions, make sure we are aware of all of our knowns and unknowns, gather all the necessary equations, and formulate a solution. Sometimes, we forget to apply that knowledge in other facets of our lives. An engineering education does not just prepare us for a job in engineering; it supplies us with problem solving skills that can help make our lives easier in the long run.

Let’s start with a series of questions you should ask yourself when considering a graduate education. What is your motivation for attending graduate school? What type of degree will benefit you the most? Just how far do you want to take your graduate education? How will you pay for graduate school? What is your learning style? What are you looking for in an advisor? Do the program’s goals and your goals have anything in common?

The answers to each of these questions will be different for each person, but it is important to find the answers that best fit your situation and/or long-term goals before starting down the graduate school road.

What is your motivation for attending graduate school?

For me, my motivation struck me when I was in my final year of undergraduate work; I wanted to become a college professor. I knew to achieve that goal I would have to obtain a PhD. My husband, a computer engineer, wanted to increase his business and management skills and chose to pursue an MBA. One of my college roommates wanted a specialized education in the aerospace field. Other friends were simply looking for a chance at a raise at work. Some people got their masters because their company paid for it. Others went straight into graduate school because they were not able to find a job at graduation.

The first three reasons mentioned, in my opinion, are the most reasonable ones. In each my roommate, my husband and my case, we had very specific reasons for continuing our education. Getting a raise is a pretty specific reason, and if you do not have to pay for it and it will make you better at your job, more power to you. But I personally believe that graduate education is a time for you to pursue your passion. Undergraduate work is somewhat similar to high school in that you have to take some courses that you do not want to take to meet the school’s requirements. If you dread the idea of taking even 25% of the classes you will have to take in graduate school, you are either not looking at the correct engineering program or you are not pursuing the correct field of education. A master’s degree is meant to show that you have gone above and beyond to learn more about a certain field. A PhD is meant to show that you are an expert in your field of study. Those are both pursuits that require some level of passion and interest beyond earning a diploma. Take some time to figure out what that piece of paper will truly mean to you before jumping into a graduate program head first. In a recent survey, an ASME member advises early career engineers, “It is best to work 2 years at least in an entry level position in your field of choice in order to know what skills or training the industry needs before running off to a random graduate program. There is nothing more disappointing that finding than your education does not adequately apply to the work you are presently doing or will be doing the foreseeable future.”

What type of degree will benefit you the most?

This question follows pretty closely with the previous question. For my career aspirations, pursuing an MBA would not have helped me. I also struggled to find my niche throughout my studies. I have a BS in Mechanical Engineering, an MS in Materials Engineering, and my current PhD pursuit is in a Biomedical Engineering program. I knew I wanted to teach, but I did not know which area of engineering excited me the most. It took me a couple years (basically the entirety of my master’s degree) to realize that I was most interested in biomechanics, ergonomics and rehabilitation. Luckily, I have been able to apply some of my master’s education to my PhD field, but I would not say I took the most direct route. I had an opportunity to have my master’s degree paid for, and I took it, but had I taken the time to really think about what I wanted to do with my life I might have chosen differently. Make sure to take time to figure out your end goal.

Just how far do you want to take your graduate education?

This question is pretty important. If I had known what field I really wanted to pursue, I could have applied to a program and done my MS and PhD in the same place in the same area of study. Instead, I spent extra time going from one school to the next. I could have saved myself some time and hassle with a more directed approach. If you are not sure why you should be getting the next degree, you should probably wait until you have a solid answer to enroll. One way to determine your interest level talk with others (students and faculty) that are currently in the program you are considering to see what resonates most with your interest.

How will you pay for graduate school?

I have luckily never had to pay for graduate school out of my own pocket. With all of the opportunities for funding like graduate research assistantships, teaching assistantships, NSF, NIH and other national funding sources, funding from your company, and funding from individual professors, I encourage anyone considering graduate school to try and find some way to have your education paid for by someone else. The idea of having to take on additional student loans to spend a few more years in school and waiting even longer to have a real job was unimaginable for me. Keep in mind that you have other options than dipping into your own pocket.

ASME also offers scholarships and grants.

What is your learning style? What are you looking for in an advisor?

These two questions go hand in hand. Are you the type of person who would like to take classes part time and do research the other part of the time? Would you rather finish your coursework as quickly as possible so you can devote your time and focus completely to your research? What many people do not realize is that your advisor will probably play a key role in how you complete your degree: how quickly you finish your coursework, how much work outside of your own research you are conducting, how much time (how many years/hours per week) he/she expects you to devote to said research, and how much of your time is yours versus your advisors. Judah Richardson, an ASME member suggests, “Do not agree to any assistant position without meeting with your advisor and the people you will be working with first.” Some advisors are going to be early in their careers and still looking to prove themselves, while others will be late in their career and maybe not as concerned with leading edge research. There is also a complete spectrum of types of advisors in between. Consider this: for the next two to six years (approximately) you will see this person and have to work with this person on a weekly and perhaps daily basis. That is a pretty big commitment to make if you do not really get along with that person or their style of work/research. Judah went on to say, “If you're a research assistant, choose your advisor very carefully. They will have more power over your life than any other boss you will work for. I made the mistake of not really finding out what my advisor’s style was at my first PhD program, and after being there for a while, I realized that we did not mesh. Had I spent a little more time investigating the situation, I might have avoided spending two years in a program and research lab that was not right for me.

Do the program’s goals and your goals have anything in common?

Program requirements can be pretty shifty things. Judah warns,Watch out for department requirements vs. overarching graduate school requirements at your university.” Faculty can have very different impressions of what is required of a student than what is, in reality, required of a student. A program can also claim to offer opportunities for classes that in actuality are rarely taught (or in some cases have not been offered in many years). Knowing whether you will actually have the opportunity to take the classes you want in the amount of time you want is very powerful knowledge when making the decision about where to attend graduate school.

And in conclusion…

Obviously, I do not consider myself an expert in making decisions about graduate school, unless making plenty of mistakes qualifies me as an expert. I do hope, however, that my experiences and observations may help ease the stress and burdens you might be encountering while making this life-changing decision. So, remember your engineering skills, ask yourself the important questions, good luck, and happy learning!

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