How to Choose A Grad School

Figure out what you want and who can give it to you

5 min read

"Can you hold on a minute? I need to charge my robot."

Uri Kartoun is developing robots, nicknamed EDNex and Clango, for handling suspicious packages. Down the hall, classmate Juan Wachs is working on a computer interface that responds to hand gestures.

Both are enrolled in a joint master's/Ph.D. program in intelligent systems at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, located in Beersheba, Israel [see photo, " School Daze"]. But their reasons for choosing Ben-Gurion were very different and illustrate the range of issues prospective students should consider when choosing an engineering graduate program.

Kartoun, an Israeli native, earned his bachelor's at Ben-Gurion and went straight to grad school, staying on to work with robotics experts Yael Edan and Helman Stern. Wachs, who moved to Israel from Argentina, took a more circuitous route. He earned a bachelor's degree in education and science, then taught high school and college electronics for four years. When he decided to return to school, he had difficulty finding a program.

One university he applied to "wouldn't even consider me unless I got another undergraduate degree in engineering, which would have been four more years," says Wachs, who, like Kartoun, is an IEEE member. "But Ben-Gurion was willing to let me prove myself. They said, 'If you get good grades in certain engineering graduate courses, we'll take you.'"

Many engineers, regardless of where they work or what they work on, are coming to regard graduate school as inevitable. Engineering's ever-increasing complexity, its cross-disciplinary nature, and its demand for workers skilled both technically and managerially require more education than can be crammed into a bachelor's program.

Graduate school also trains students to focus on problem solving instead of on achieving grades, educators say. "If undergrad is where you learn the nuts and bolts of engineering, graduate school is where you learn how to apply those principles to solve problems," says Kevin Craig, a professor of mechanical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, N.Y.

The key to choosing a suitable graduate program is to think less in terms of degree titles and more in terms of the concrete things you will experience and learn. For example, a department that has little interaction with other departments on campus probably won't serve students looking for an interdisciplinary approach. On the other hand, a program that offers a flexible curriculum can be tailored to suit a student's individual goals.

"Curriculum flexibility is much more noticeable in interdisciplinary graduate schools, where engineering majors are increasingly adding nontraditional course options," says Wade Shaw Jr., professor of engineering management at Florida Institute of Technology, in Melbourne, Fla., and editor of the IEEE Engineering Management Review.

"Ask yourself: 'What do I want to know at the completion of my school experience and what courses support that?' and then work back to see how to craft a custom curriculum," adds Shaw. "When you ultimately market yourself, you're less likely to say, 'I have a master's degree in computer science' than 'I'm an expert in graphics or parallel processing.' Employers want to understand what you can contribute, not what your degree title is."

Engineering problems, especially in industry, tend to require a working knowledge of several areas, such as material, mechanical, and electrical systems. Employees with broader engineering knowledge are often more prized than those with niche expertise.

"Companies are desperate for people who can take a product from conception to model to prototype to testing," says Rensselaer's Craig. "Engineers are also incorporating management, law, and medicine into their studies. To be unaware of those fields will lead to a narrow and limited career."

Graduate school can also benefit those with established careers. Despite a nine-year ascent through the ranks at Sun Microsystems Inc., in Burlington, Mass., Steve Klosterman realized that he needed a graduate degree while interviewing engineering applicants. "Many with backgrounds similar to mine were being jettisoned from other companies," he says.

In 1998, Klosterman headed to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's System Design and Management program, where courses in the engineering and management schools enabled him to stay current with technology while learning management and leadership skills. Since graduating in 2000, he has leveraged his degree to become Sun's product line director.

Most engineering master's programs offer tracks to accommodate working engineers. So choosing one means looking at the kinds of courses you need, how much of the cost your employer will underwrite, the availability of distance or part-time learning, and the presentation of course material. To get a flavor of campus life, consult university marketing sites like Peterson's ( The student-run College Prowler (, although focused on undergrad programs, offers tidbits on overall campus culture, food, and faculty.

Nearly two decades after getting his master's in electrical engineering from Pennsylvania State University, in University Park, Hal Mueller, an IEEE member for nearly 30 years, found himself searching's listings for distance-learning technical MBAs. He was struck by Philadelphia-based Drexel University's Web site and its program offering some study abroad, so he decided to enroll there.

One course, on strategic thinking, proved particularly valuable, Mueller says. "The Drexel program took all this information I had in my head from years of work and school experience and showed me where it all fits and how it relates to each other." After graduating in June, he landed a job as vice president of sales and marketing at C&M Corp., a wire and cable manufacturer in Wauregan, Conn. "I wouldn't have this job without this degree, because I wouldn't have known the first thing about running a marketing program."

Engineers pursuing a research career instead should be prepared to do some--what else?--research. This will allow you to target schools that do the kind of work you want to do and will give you the greatest access to professors engaged in those kinds of studies. If you want to do robotics, for instance, and only one professor at a school is doing robotics, the odds aren't great that you'll get to work with him or her.

To get an idea of where research is being done in your desired field, consult databases like IEEE Xplore or attend conferences and professional society meetings. Look at the papers and presentations that interest you and find out where their authors are from.

Paying for grad school need not leave you broke. Many schools have grant money to cover tuition and living expenses. Ben-Gurion's Kartoun and Wachs earned education subsidies and worked as teaching assistants to get the school to waive their annual US $3000 tuition; Israeli universities also offer scholarships based on grades or national origin.

Engineering scholarships for U.S. citizens and legal residents are available from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Defense; one DOD program is the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship Program. In the European Union, the Researcher's Mobility Portal allows you to search for EU-wide fellowships and grants [see].

If you're interested in a particular European country, you'll have to dig a little deeper. For example, Britain's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council offers funding through universities based on a specific research area, while the Royal Academy of Engineering, in London, offers teaching fellowships. Germany offers funding for research and study through the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation's German Chancellor Scholarships, among others.

There's been an increase in financial aid for women and minorities wanting to study engineering and science. The Society of Women Engineers, for example, maintains a list of U.S. and international programs for women, including the Third World Organization for Women in Science, which offers training fellowships to female Ph.D students from sub-Saharan Africa.

"The biggest mistake grad students make is not realizing that they can get paid to go to grad school," says Thomas Kurfess, professor of mechanical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, in Atlanta. But money isn't everything, he adds. "Do not just go for the university that pays the highest stipend. Rather, choose one that offers the best learning opportunity and career options after graduation."

Finally, once you've narrowed your choices, visit the campuses. No brochure or Web site will match a firsthand assessment of the culture, student population, faculty, and research facilities; nor will it offer impromptu conversations with students about their advisors and professors. A two-day trip could save you from deciding, a year into a program, that you wish you were somewhere else.

About the Author

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles ( ). She has contributed to The New York Times, Forbes, and Discover.

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