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questions from an engineering undergrad.


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So recently I have been giving significant thought to the idea of pursuing a career in academia in the engineering world. Both my parents are professors and it seems like a very rewarding career. My engineering program is a co-op program that gives several 4 month work placements. I am realizing that while I love my schooling I seem to dread the work placements and really dislike the idea of the 8-5 grind. Not to mention, I find the oil and gas industry has so much paperwork and politics that I can’t find what I’m looking for: A career that is mentally stimulating, allows for problem solving and is cutting edge. Basically, I really enjoy school, have a passion for learning, would love to teach, and need to be constantly challenged.


I have 4 4 month internships in oil and gas, have a 3.9 GPA, and have been top 10% of my class every term.


Anyways, I have several basic questions that would be a big help if anyone could take the time to answer some of them.


-First off is an MS in mechanical engineering classwork based? I assume it is similar to the undergrad.


-Is MS generally funded? It appears several PhDs are funded but can’t see much info on masters.


-How long does an MS take? I am looking at several schools and see that Columbia appears to only be 1 year. Is this normal?


-How long is a PhD normally?


-What is grad life like? How many more hours is it than undergrad? We had 6 courses a term in undergrad. I assume there is free time and some form of life balance (maybe not for final year of PhD??)


-Do you recommend doing the MS and PHD at the same school? I am Canadian but would love to get an ivy league school on my resume and have always wanted to live in NY. My dream would be 1 year at Columbia and then a top engineering school here in Canada for PHD. Plus it would be easier to get funding in Canada as I would not be an international student.


-For the PHD, how much of it is class work, how much is research? Is the final year dissertation?


-Do grad students go home over the summer if they want? Do you stay at the university for the final year of dissertation?


-Would you recommend working for a couple of years after I graduate? I am thinking it would be a good to idea to try industry 1 more time (not as a student on an internship), get a little bit of money saved, and get my P.Eng designation. Is this a bad idea?


Thanks a lot for your time, I know some of these may seem like stupid questions but I don’t really know where to ask them.



-Liam M

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I think you want my career, and I want yours. I can't answer all of your questions but I would suggest researching Oceanography, Environmental Management, Ecology, Marine Biology, Geology, any science related field. They are all mentally stimulating when it comes to research and you don't work 8-5. However, you will not as an engineer be required to use your tools you acquired in your undergraduate career. You will only be required to research, understand, and explain. 


I, as a recent graduate from the environmental sciences, would like to go into environmental engineering as 


1) the job field for ecologists/oceanographers/marine biologists is not as placeable 


2) I will only be required to "understand" and not fix. I want to fix, or use the skills I acquire in school to SOLVE PROBLEMS! This is not required in the sciences I am describing. I would like to research, link clues, gather information and use this information to come up with a solution. This is what I am best at. It is debilitating to not be able to do something when reading about an invasive species tearing up the ecosystem. As an ecologist, you're not inventing anything to prevent this invasive species. As an engineer, you can design, draft, create the ballast machinery to insert into a ship. And put your label on it!


3) Engineering an interesting field because it is applicable. You can apply your skills and do hard work. The other sciences are about knowledge, understanding, and researching a tiny small part of the puzzle. Often, thousands of other scientists have already done so and published what you wanted to publish.

Edited by stephchristine0
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Yeah I still don't totally know what I want, I thinking getting some of these basic questions out of the way will hopefully help me to know what graduate school/life is all about.

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Some answers to your questions, in order:


1.) This depends on the program. Some schools offer the option of a thesis or non-thesis based Masters. For the non-thesis, it is coursework based only. For the thesis, you perform research under an adviser that ultimately manifests into writing a thesis. This option requires more work and more time. Check with the programs to see what options are available.


2.) Also depends on the the program. Some schools have more funding available than others. For example, Princeton is able to fund all of its Masters students, while Georgia Tech is only able to fund a select few. Stanford doesn't fund Masters students until they've completed one quarter, I believe. This is something you want to look into when applying, but there is definitely funding available. Many people who are unsure about doing a Ph.D. will apply to the Ph.D. program and drop out when they get a Masters. In science and engineering, funding is almost always available for the Ph.D. students as long as you are applying to top schools.


3.) Also varies depending on whether you're doing thesis or non-thesis. The non-thesis option will only take a year. The thesis option typically takes 1.5 years to 2 years.


4.) The average is 5 years from Bachelor's to Ph.D. Starting with a Masters, it's probably closer to 3 years. Some people take longer (closer to 6 or 7 years). You usually have a good bit of control over how long it will take, but some people have better (or worse) luck than others. I've also heard of people getting out in just 3 years, but you typically don't wanna do that if you're going into academia since it isn't enough time to publish enough papers.


5.) Again, this is what you make of it. If your goal is academia, you really ought to be putting your all into it. I'd say 50-60 hours a week on average, maybe some weeks better than others. Expect a 40 hour minimum in years 3-5, as your Ph.D. should be treated as an actual job. One of my friends in his final year of his Physics Ph.D. is working 40 hours a week, but his ultimate goal is a job in industry.

Personally, I'm expecting work to be more enjoyable and a little bit less in quantity than some of my undergrad semesters. In my worst semester, I was working  60 hours a week Sunday through Sunday in addition to going to classes. I don't think grad school can get any worse than that. Most schools let you focus on getting coursework out of the way your first year so you can focus on research for years 2-5+, so it might be comparable to undergrad the first year. The key is to find work that you enjoy doing, so you don't really care about how much work you have to do.


6.) I don't see any issue with doing a masters at one school and a Ph.D. at another. I know a few people who have done this, and I've had a few professors who have done it as well. You will have to reapply though, and you'll see how stressful application season will be when you first start applying to grad schools.


7.) Usually the first 1.5 years - 2 years is classwork and the rest is mostly research. Maybe a class or two mixed in those last few years. There isn't really a timeline to the Ph.D., so you will be working on your dissertation throughout and will prepare it for submission during your final year. Your adviser will work with you on this and will tell you when you are ready to defend.


8.) What you do for your summer is discussed with your adviser. For those who want to do industry, they usually do internships with companies their adviser has connections to. For those who want to do academia, they stay on campus to do research, as this is most important. The less time you spend on your research during the summers, the longer it takes to graduate. Some people will visit other universities to work with professors doing research in the same field during the summer. I've never heard of people taking the summer off, if that's what you're asking. For the final year, you need to stay on campus to finish your dissertation. It doesn't make sense to do this elsewhere away from your adviser.


9.) Nowadays people typically need to do post-docs before getting a faculty position just because so many more people are getting Ph.D.'s than they were 30 years ago. You aren't at a disadvantage by working in industry for a few years first, and many professors start out in industry and end up in academia, but it might take more time than you want. The profs I know who jumped from industry to academia did so 20+ years ago and never did a post-doc, but things may be different today. It'd be better to sample industry again early on in your Ph.D. to see if you like it. There are also places that offer a good blend of industry and research, especially at national laboratories, that you might want to look into.


If you want a P. Eng license, then go for it! It really isn't very useful though unless you're working on public works projects. It's very common for Civ. Engineers, but I know a few EE's that have them as well.



I hope this helps! Let me know if you have any more questions on here or PM.

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