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Engineering Grad School - What to Expect


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Finishing up my engineering undergrad and I honestly really enjoy the material and feel like pursuing my studies further may be a good idea. However, as I read more about grad schools a lot of people speak very poorly of it and talk horror stories of 80 hour weeks. I am willing to work hard, but this seems excessive. Could anyone comment on what to expect and roughly how many hours a week I could expect?





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I'll preface by saying that every program is different.  But a few things to share:


  • Yes, it's a lot of work. Your ability to get through your program depends on your research area, your adivsor, your committee, and your school's requirements.
  • With that said, those claiming 80-hour work weeks are likely exaggerating.  No one keeps a time sheet in grad school, so anyone talking about their hours spent is making a very broad guess, at best. Ask anyone claiming an 80-hour work week to describe exactly what they are actually doing for those 80 hours.  I'd estimate the actual work time is far less.
  • The number of hours you spend varies depending on how you work. Do you work fairly quickly? Can you grasp concepts pretty readily? Do you know how to do research? How well do you write?  If your answer to these questions is generally in the negative, you can expect to work more hours than another student in a comparable program that is more resourceful and writes well and fairly quickly. Many engineers that I have worked with do not write well at all and do not like writing, and this applies to both PhDs/MSs/MEs and those with a BS.  
  • Thesis-based masters does not require the same depth of study, generally speaking, compared to a PhD. There are more steps in getting a PhD (e.g., qualifying exams).  Expect to do more work for the latter.
  • If you are in a field that you enjoy and work in a supportive research group, you probably won't think too much about how many hours you're working, because you're doing good research in an area that you like and will be equipped to take on a position in the real world when you're done. There are lots of fruit-bearing milestones (publication of journal articles, presenting at conferences) that come before graduation that help keep things going when it seems like there's no end in sight.
  • In my research assistantship in my master's program (top 10 school in my discipline in the US), I spent between 30-40 hours per week on my research (this is exclusive of classes and other time drains common of grad students).  It did not feel like a lot of time.  At the time, I would say my writing was fairly good and my research skills were above average compared to my peers. Most of that time was spent in the field doing my research experiments.
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