The fall semester is the time hundreds of thousands of engineering undergrads around the world think about higher education. If you ask me, everyone should work for at least a year before they start an MS or PhD, but no one ever listens to that kind of advice. So here’s what I would do to make an informed choice while joining a graduate program. That’s 1-5 years of your life and tens of thousands of dollars in tuition and living expenses. You better be absolutely sure that this is what you want to do, so it’s wise if you invest the time to figure out if you’re making the right decision. Let this be one among the hundreds of articles you read before you take the plunge.
So how to you choose the graduate program that’s right for you?
It’s hard to answer that question and people struggle with it because there is no straight answer. The “top 10” universities are rated on metrics which range from number of research papers, number of citations, quality of cafeteria food and happiness level of the students.
I know of professors who would write three research papers where one would suffice because their performance metrics are based on volume of research, and they can get grant money and tenure faster and easier.
Happiness level of students will vary based on a number of irrelevant factors like the weather. Students living in Tampa are probably happier than students in Minneapolis during the months of October to January, all other factors remaining the same.
So what should you look at when you decide if a university is good for you? I’ve answered it here with a mechanical engineering focus as that’s my background, but it can apply to just about anyone in science and technology.
First of all, you need to get more specific. You’re not an undergrad who’s choosing mechanical engineering because you like physics or working with cars. You’re looking for MS programs, and based on how you do there, you may decide to pursue a PhD. The top 10 or top 100 university rankings for a program are tailored towards undergrads who have simple needs. Your needs are narrower and more complex.
Create a framework with which you can vet a university before you send in an application. Ideally, you should be in your third year of college because it will take you at least one full year to narrow down on your dream universities. If you’re in your fourth year, spend your free time doing research. Take up a job next year in which time you can start the application process. You will then also have an idea of what it will be like working in the industry, and that will always help you with your higher education.
The vetting process:
a) For candidates pursuing employment as the main goal:
If you are interested in getting a Master’s purely for employment opportunities, then you’re better off going to one of the top 10 universities which have a better brand name. If this is your goal, you don’t have any justification looking for a specialized focus during your program. That will hurt you more than it will help you. Get your grades up during undergrad, do a bunch of internships, get a good GRE score and get to the best school you can afford.
If you cannot afford to pay hefty tuition fees, there are some universities which also have a guaranteed co-op program for one semester, allowing you to get work experience during your tenure at school. This is definitely worth considering. I’ve heard that Rochester Institute of Technology has one such MS program, while the university I went to (North Carolina State University) prohibits all MS and PhD Mechanical Engineering and Aerospace Engineering students from pursuing internships (students of other engineering graduate programs can pursue internships). American students can bypass this rule, but if you’re an international student, you need the department director’s signature to get valid work authorization, and you will not be able to go. If employment is your only aim, don’t go to NC State University for your MS.
Once you’re there, you’ll need to take courses which balance out all academic areas. Take courses in design, manufacturing, analysis and a couple of business courses too. When you’re looking for a job, try and get into a graduate development and rotational program. This will give you all round experience in an industry and you can move up the ranks quickly.
So your needs are a university which offers courses in a wide range of topics and makes it easy for you to gain work experience through career fairs, internships, and co-op programs.
b) For research candidates:
Go to the mechanical engineering web pages of 10 universities. It could be the top 10 universities or second tier universities, but make sure they are universities which have PhD programs in Mechanical Engineering. In the “research” tab, you’ll see their research split up into various categories, such as in the link below for NC State University (we have a lot of excellent research going on in cutting edge areas of engineering and technology).
In the above page, you’ll see the key areas are:
1. Aerodynamics, Fluid Mechanics, Propulsion and Space Exploration Systems
2. Dynamics, Vibrations, Controls, and System Design
3. Structural Mechanics, Materials and Manufacturing
4. Thermal Sciences and Energy Systems
For undergrads who don’t know anything about what a real engineer does, the first one will look a lot more attractive and you’ll decide to focus on one of them. Don’t be that guy. Like Feynman says, there’s a difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something. Space Exploration or Aerodynamics will look really cool, but when you actually get to work, it’s just as boring or interesting as anything else. There are numbers and ways to manipulate them. That’s what engineering problems are at a low level. At a high level, the impact you create might be different, but when you’re working on a problem every day for a few years, the big picture doesn’t matter as much as how you feel about the grunt work.
I’m not talking about the tools you use. It doesn’t matter whether you’re clicking buttons on Ansys or coding on Matlab. You should be interested in the new progress you’re making this week. Only then will you have results at the end of your program.
So how do you find out if you’ll like it? By actually working on it.
Once you’ve gone through 10 research webpages, you’ll have a high level idea of the various areas of research in academia.
Now, start eliminating them one by one. It’s more important at this stage to figure out what you don’t want rather than what you want. Start with something a lot of people find dry, like Heat Transfer. You want to eliminate it, but first you must put in the effort to find out if you can end up liking it after getting good at it.
Do this over the next 2 months:
Borrow a Heat Transfer text book from your college library. Read through the fundamentals, and start solving the problems in the advanced chapters after REALLY understanding concepts. Once you’ve solved a really difficult problem, see if it makes you happy. It likely will. See if you have the motivation to solve an even more difficult problem. If no, move on to the next topic, say Fluid Mechanics or Vibrations.
If yes, get a graduate level Heat Transfer text book and try to solve those problems. If this doesn’t excite you, move on to the next topic. If it does, get to more advanced problems which cannot be solved by hand and requires algorithms to be written. This is the only thing you will be doing if you are solving MS or PhD level problems. Using just a laptop and a few books, you can do the same thing at home.
Spend a few days to a few weeks like this on each topic listed in the research areas you find on university webpages. You might find that none of the problems excite you. If that’s the case, find a job or pursue an MS for better employment prospects. Or you might find that multiple topics excite you. If so, then you have multiple options for higher education.
Do this over the next 6-8 months:
Once you’ve solved a particularly challenging algorithm based problem in your chosen area of interest, read one full graduate level book on that area. And I don’t mean read it like a novel. Understand the equations and every single derivation. Then read another book on a different area of the same field. And a third book on a third area. Do NOT skip this step. This will allow you to understand the landscape in that field, and form an opinion on the subject. Now is when you can call yourself a serious contender for a research based program.
After you’ve finished reading three books in the research area, you can move to research papers.
The authors of the three books will be from various universities in the US most likely. Go through the webpages of professors working in this area of research in each of those universities.
You have strength in numbers. If there is a university which has five or more professors who are currently working in your chosen field(s), it’s a safe bet.
note: a Professor Emeritus is a fancy way of saying retired professor. If you want to apply to a university’s program because one of the books you read was written by a professor emeritus from there, don’t. He’s already gone.
Your next step must be to read through the research papers of each of these professors. This will suddenly become interesting because you’ve already read three graduate level books on the area, and you’re now looking at the frontiers of human knowledge in this area.
Your first step will be to read through the research description of each professor’s webpage. If you’ve done all the previously listed work, you’ve earned the right to go by what sounds fun and interesting. You’re no longer being superficial.
Find 3-5 such professors (each from a different university) and start reading.
Sometimes you’ll find that 2 different papers are minor variations of the same thing. That’s because the professor split up his results into 2 parts for grant money. Don’t waste too much time rereading once you figure out it’s just a split.
After you’ve read all the papers written by a professor in the last 3 years, write an email to him/her explaining your perspective of their work, and let it show in your language that you’ve actually put in the work. Mention that you may be interested in working with their research group (if you really are).
I guarantee you’ll receive a reply if you put in the above work. They will either encourage you to apply, or they will say that they don’t have funding at the moment and will let you know when they are expecting to receive funding. You can now even ask them for advice on which universities/professors are doing good work in their field. They may personally introduce you to them. Repeat process with these professors as well.
Based on what these professors say, you can add another 5-7 universities to your list.
Now comes the easy part. Write the GRE and apply to these universities. Make sure you write about the work you did over the past year, and heavily name-drop in your essays. Mention that you read such-and-such paper by Professor X from that university, and you are interested in working with them. The admissions committee will consult with that professor and decide whether or not you should be awarded an admit. Funding will be the next step.
With the above process, I can guarantee you’ll have at least 3-4 admits, even if you’ve got no experience and haven’t done any internships. You will be a rock star among the other grad students who came in without putting in thiswork. Plus, you’ll know for sure that you made the right choice by pursuing this program, instead of grappling with the self-doubt that other students struggle with.
If you ask me, that’s worth a year of effort.
Edit: I’m planning on building a structured course around this and will be taking on students. Comment here if you’re interested and I’ll send you an email.