Fast-Track Your Engineering Career with a Master’s Degree
Meghan Brown posted on February 06, 2017 |

Whether you’ve decided to pursue a master’s degree right out of undergrad, or you’re heading back to school after working as a professional engineer, there are a ton of factors you need to think about, including:

  • How long will it take to complete a master’s program?
  • How much will a master’s degree cost?
  • How will this degree help my future career prospects?

Great engineering jobs increasingly require applicants to hold advanced degrees, making an advanced degree an important advantage for career advancement. 

“Employers find that students with a master’s degree not only have significantly greater skills and knowledge than bachelor’s degree graduates, but that they are accustomed to working independently, which is a quality employers value,” said Douglas Reeves, associate dean of graduate programs at the North Carolina State University College of Engineering.

The breadth of coverage in many undergraduate degrees can reduce the specialized technical expertise students will acquire, added Laurence Jacobs, associate dean of academic affairs for the College of Engineering at Georgia Tech.

“While this breadth is important for developing critical thinking and problem solving skills, it does limit the teaching of technical skills that employers can immediately put to use,” Jacobs said. “This is why the specialized technical classes of an engineering master’s makes graduates more valuable to employers.”

Pursing an engineering master’s isn’t an easy decision, but it’s only once you “pull the trigger” that the real work begins.

Considering an engineering Master's degree?  Find the right program for you with the Master's Discovery Tool.
Considering an engineering Master's degree? Find the right program for you with the Master's Discovery Tool.


How to Choose Schools and Programs to Apply

We’ve put together a list of eight factors worth considering when choosing where to pursue your degree.


1. Availability of Degree Programs

There are two general paths for graduate engineering students to pursue, as described by Kathryn Caggiano, director of masters of engineering studies at Cornell University:


1. A research-oriented master’s degree and PhD degree

OR

2. A professionally-oriented master’s degree, such as a masters of engineering, masters of engineering management or masters of operations management


The choice to pursue one of these directions over the other will depend largely on what you want to get out of your grad school experience.

Students who are passionate about figuring out how and why things work may want to explore the MS and PhD programs that are more research focused. In that case, it helps to have an excellent academic record and a love of the academic environment.

Alternately, if you:

  • Are looking to broaden and deepen your understanding of a specific discipline
  • Enjoy developing solutions to practical engineering problems and
  • Are interested in leadership roles

In that case, a professional master’s degree program is more likely to be a good fit for you.

Specific program details will vary between schools, of course, so be sure to seek out detailed curriculum information, course outlines, recent research papers or announcements, admission acceptance rates and other details to find schools and programs that offer a degree that can take you where you want to go.


2. Accreditation

It’s also important to choose an ABET-accredited program and institution to earn your degree.  ABET is the accrediting body for engineering and technical programs in the US, and accreditation ensures that a program conforms to international education quality standards, and degrees from schools without ABET accreditation may be considered less valuable by employers.

“When you look objectively at factors that impact the prospects of engineering graduate students, such as access to faculty, resources and job opportunities, reputation matters,” said Caggiano. “Most people will take the reputation of your graduate institution as an initial proxy for your capabilities, your competence and your potential.  If you earned a graduate degree from an accredited institution, you walk away carrying the implied advantage of your school’s reputation.”

Mark McCready, senior associate dean for research and graduate studies at the University of Notre Dame, also pointed out that a non-accredited school could cost you more, in the form of missed opportunities for financial aid.

“There are some kinds of financial aid that cannot be used at a non-accredited institution,” he said. “There may also be licensing problems, if a degree from a non-accredited institution is presented as a credential.”


3. Location and Lifestyle

There’s a joke that hits a bit too close to home for veteran graduate students:

A grad student walks into a bar,

‘You should be working.’

While the cliché is that grad students don’t have time for a social life, that’s not necessarily the case, which means that the location and lifestyle a school offers are important things to think about. If you’re looking at an on-campus program, you’ll need to live close by for at least a year, though it could be as many as five years, or more. 

Consider whether you’d be more comfortable on a larger or smaller campus. What about class size? Do you want a city with an energetic nightlife or a small-town feel? This all comes down to your personal preferences. It’s essential to find both a school and a city that suits your lifestyle.

Your location options can also be affected by other factors, however, such as finances and your family situation.  Can you afford to uproot and relocate for several years?  Do you have a spouse, partner or family member who would need to relocate with you?  Are there affordable housing options?  Does the city have job prospects for the people in your life who will move with you?


4. Financial Costs

The financial costs of grad school cannot be separated from your decision-making process, so it’s important to know where you stand, financially speaking, before, after and during the pursuit of your degree.

Depending on the program, location and your own circumstances, the costs of attending graduate school will include tuition fees, residence fees or rent payments, books and other course materials, lab materials and equipment, food and other personal living expenses.

It’s a good idea to keep track of the cost of all these items for each program and school as you research, and build a chart or other way to compare schools, so you can determine the approximate budget you’ll need to get the degree you want.

There are many avenues for grad students to acquire financial assistance and funding to pursue their degree. These include:

  • Scholarships through private, public and government institutions and programs
  • Merit grants and research grants
  • Family housing allowances
  • Fellowships and teaching assistantships
  • Scholarships and grants from the university, local companies or community organizations
  • Employer contributions for professional development

The funding options open to you will vary by program, research direction and state, and will therefore affect your decision of where to attend.

In addition, as Jacobs points out, openings for graduate research positions and teaching assistantships are very competitive. They are often awarded to doctoral students, leaving master’s students to pay their own way.

“You should do a cost-benefit analysis of the expense in paying for a master’s, and the lost wages during the time you’re studying for your masters, versus the long-term salary gains,” Jacobs advised.

There is also the decision of whether to enroll full-time or part-time.  Full-time studies require a larger cost up-front, while part-time enrollment can be less costly per semester or per year, but will stretch the cost requirements over a longer time span.


5. Time to Completion

How many courses, semesters or years of study does the program usually require?  What are the options for attending part time versus full time?

The answers to these questions will affect the other factors discussed above. This is particularly true of cost and location, because the length of time it will take you to complete your degree will partly determine where you will want to live and how long you can afford to live there.

If a degree is comprised primarily of coursework, McCready explained, then you can estimate the total time to complete the degree according to how many courses are required. 

With less structured degrees, “shorter times are usually associated with more attentive advising of the students. However, if a person wants to work with a specific advisor, or to attend a specific school, then the student should verify that the expected longer time for the degree is worth the expected benefits.”

Time may not be the most important consideration for many students, according to Reeves. But “a quick, yet low-quality degree program is not a good choice. For programs that have similar benefits and quality, however, the time to degree is important to consider.”


6. Campus Facilities and Student Resources

You’ll want to ensure that your chosen school will have the facilities you need to accomplish your research goals. That means looking into the type and size of lab spaces, what equipment is available to students and what resources students have access to.  

Many universities have partnerships and collaborative projects between campus departments and disciplines, or with external companies and other private organizations. Are there specific equipment and resources you need, or a particular industry you’re interested in?

You should also look into what other resources and services are available to students on campus besides strictly labs and machines. These resources can include career services, academic assistance, libraries, childcare services, exercise and sport facilities and food or entertainment venues.


7. On-Campus Versus Online Degree Programs

Thanks to the Internet, an increasing number of graduate programs are partially or even wholly available online. This opens up a host of additional options, since you won’t be limited by physical proximity to a campus or rigid class attendance schedules.

Many engineering graduate degrees can now be done online, in specific disciplines such as mechanical or electrical engineering, as well as in professional fields such as engineering management, analytics, lean manufacturing, operations management, engineering leadership, or cybersecurity.

Jacobs pointed out that online degrees give students the flexibility to continue working full time as an engineer while taking classes online through a remote university. This makes these programs very attractive to engineers who want to keep the income from their permanent job while learning new skills.

Reeves agreed, adding that, “A good quality online program will integrate the online students with on-campus students so that the educational experience is as close to the same as is possible.”


8. Faculty and Program Advisors

The faculty working and teaching at a prospective school or program is another important factor to consider, since they’re the ones who will be supervising, teaching or running your labs.

There are two primary things to consider about the faculty in your prospective school:

  • Whether the overall faculty’s specialties and research are in alignment with your own interests and goals.
  • Whether there is a specific faculty member you want to work with, either because they are working in your field of interest generally, or because they are engaged in a specific project that you want to be involved with. 

Keep in mind, however, that while some schools will accept incoming graduate students who don’t yet have an advisor lined up, you will be expected to find your advisor after being accepted. Other schools will require that you have an advisor arranged prior to accepting you.

It’s important to learn as much as possible about the faculty in a prospective graduate program, so that you know whether you’ll be able to work with them successfully. Research your prospective faculty, but don’t just look at the overview on the school’s website.

Conduct specific research on individual professors, check out their recent research, and if possible arrange to speak on the phone or meet in person to discuss their research. 

The first question to ask, said McCready, is whether the advisor you’re interested in will be adding graduate students to their program at the time you will be entering the university, so that you know whether joining a particular research group is even possible. “Beyond this, a discussion of the professor’s research in detail, and how graduate students participate in those efforts, should make it clear if the professor’s research matches a student’s interests.”

Further to that, McCready added, “It is expected that a visiting student with a serious interest in ‘Professor X’ will have read all the information on said professor’s webpage, and at least a few of the professor’s publications, as homework before any meeting.”

Caggiano also offered some suggestions for questions that students should ask of prospective schools and faculty, including:

  • What are the primary research directions, goals, learning objectives and desired outcomes of the program?
  • What opportunities are available to students who wish to get involved with faculty research projects or with industry partner projects?
  • What avenues have previous graduates of the program gone on to pursue, such as industry positions or continuing academic studies?
  • What is the description of an “ideal” incoming graduate student, and what is expected of students in the program?

Also, try to speak with grad students currently enrolled in the program you’re interested in, to get their opinion on the program, the faculty, the workload and the overall experience of pursuing a degree at that school.


Ask as Many Questions as You Can

You should be able to find most of the information discussed above online with some time and research into each school or program website.  Most universities offer detailed and extensive information on their graduate programs, professors and campus facilities, as well as past, current and future research projects.

If you can’t find an answer to your question online, consider contacting the school or department directly.

If you have the option, however, nothing beats an in-person campus tour, or face-to-face interviews with faculty and current grad students in your prospective program.

“Current students are the best source of information for understanding the dynamic of a graduate program, such as whether the program is more cooperative or more competitive,” said Caggiano. “You can also ask about how students are generally treated by faculty, what resources are available to students, such as financial support, labs or equipment, and the flexibility of the academic landscape.”

The more questions you ask, the clearer your picture of a prospective program will be.


Making Your Choice

So, you have a ton of information and research on schools and graduate programs – now what?  How do you make your final choices for applying?

In the end, this is a very individual decision and there’s no absolute, one-size-fits-all answer.  Every student’s circumstances are different, and every student will have different priorities out of all these considerations.  The best you can do is make sure you are as informed about all your options as possible.

Most advisors suggest applying to at least 3 – 8 graduate programs, to give yourself the best chance for being accepted.

Currently considering graduate school? Check out ENGINEERING.com’s Master’s Discovery Tool to see what programs and degrees could suit your future.

For more on how to finance your engineering education, check out How Will You Pay for Your Engineering Master's Degree?

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