Tag Archives: research

Episode 78 — Grad School

equationsWe discuss the pros and cons of returning to school for an advanced engineering degree in this episode of The Engineering Commons podcast.

  • After knocking over a beer, Brian asks about the “industry exemption” for engineers.
  • As a point of reference, Jeff has a PhD, an MBA, and an MS in Mechanical Engineering. Adam has a Masters in Civil Engineering, and Carmen has an MS in Electrical Engineering. Although Brian attended grad school for a while, he does not (yet) hold a graduate degree.
  • Brian makes an inquiry about PhDs in industry.
  • Jeff explains why the subject area chosen by PhD students is normally very deep and not very broad.
  • Should we put this podcast on Stitcher Radio? Let us know in the comments, or via Twitter, or with the Contact link on our home page.
  • Our pros and cons for obtaining an advanced degree are distilled from the list put together by Petersen’s Guide for Potential Grad Students.
  • Pro 1: Earn more money. According to January 2015 Salary Survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the average starting salary for engineers in the US with a bachelor’s degree is $63K, while the mean starting pay for those with a Masters degree is nearly $70K. If you move on to a PhD, the starting salary increases to $88K.
  • Estimated lifetime earnings for engineers are tabulated in a US Census Bureau report.
  • Con 1: Grad school is a highly competitive environment. According to Sayre’s Law, “The politics of the university are so intense because the stakes are so low.”
  • Pro 2: Advance your career. You may be able to distinguish yourself from other candidates for a plum job if you have the proper credentials.
  • The American Society for Civil Engineering (ASCE), the National Society for Professional Engineers (NSPE), and the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) are advocating that engineers obtain education beyond a bachelor’s degree, although this position has caused some debate within the engineering community.
  • Con 2: You might like student life too much. If you get really comfortable with the grad school life, you may discover that you’ve become a perpetual student.
  • Pro 3: A higher potential for future promotion. Your graduate degree may help you move up the corporate ladder.
  • Con 3: Grad school can be very stressful. This is discussed in an article titled “Dealing With PhD Stress The Right Way.”
  • Pro 4: Get recognized for your professional efforts. You can become well-known in your industry or field if you uncover a new physical phenomenon or process.
  • The Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering recognizes engineers for ground-breaking innovation.
  • Con 4: Writing a thesis. It can become a chore to organize your research into a cohesive document. Many PhD students get stuck in a state of having completed All But Dissertation.
  • Brian references the movie Particle Fever as illustrating how years of research effort can be quickly derailed by new experimental results.
  • Pro 5: Join an elite population segment. Only about 5% of practicing engineers in the US have a doctorate.
  • Con 5: It can take many years to finish. If you’re doing novel research, it’s impossible to know in advance how long it will take to produce meaningful results.
  • The Michelson-Morley experiment is the rare case of a negative outcome (disproving the presence of Luminiferous aether) that was accepted by the research community as having great value.
  • Pro 6: Work on ground-breaking research. Grad students sometimes find themselves performing research that has the capability to change the world.
  • Con 6: Grad school is expensive. Not only do you have to pay for books, tuition, and housing, but there is a large opportunity cost to attending grad school.
  • Pro 7: An advanced degree can open up teaching opportunities. A PhD is usually required to teach engineering at the university level, especially since US News and World Report dings institutions for using instructors without doctoral degrees.
  • Con 7: No guarantee that an advanced degree will result in a higher salary. If you can’t find an employer who values your skills, you’re unlikely to be highly compensated for your abilities.
  • Pro 8: Work with state-of-the-art tools. Grad students sometimes design and build new devices that can revolutionize old industries, or create new ones.
  • Con 8: You may be perceived as “too qualified.” One has to judge whether an advanced degree will be a help, or possibly a hinderance, based on the type of work they wish to perform.
  • Pro 9: Because you want to. Grad school is a great opportunity to expand your professional horizons if you have a passion for research and study.
  • Con 9: Because you don’t want to. There’s no reason you can’t find a satisfying engineering career, even if you don’t have an advanced degree.

Thanks to Clay Shonkwiler for use of the image titled “Studying….” Podcast theme music by Paul Stevenson.