How does graduate school in engineering work?

I suppose I should probably give you some information about myself. I am 20 year old male. I am a Junior Computer engineering with a 4.0. My ultimate goal (career wise that is) is to work for NASA. I realize it’s a long shot, but I figured if I try and don’t get it then I can always say I tried. If I don’t even try then I know it will never happen.

I became a junior this past spring. I really enjoy the material we are learning and was seriously considering going to graduate school (even though its still a long way away with at least two more years + cooping).

  1. What can I do to prepare myself now besides trying to have as high of a GPA as I can get?
  2. How much will I usually have to pay to go?
  3. How selective are graduate schools if you have the money/don’t have the money to attend?
  4. How difficult compared to undergraduate coursework?
  5. Does PhD = teach and that’s it?
  6. Would you recommend it?

Sorry to give you twenty questions, but any information would be greatly appreciated. Thanks in advance, Loctan

I thought of another question: Do you take classes in graduate school just like you do in undergrad? Or is part of it research and some classes? I mean does everyone have to do the big thesis paper or is that an option? (ie, take all classes and no thesis or big paper, or take fewer classes, but have the big paper?)

Again thanks in advance for your help. Loctan

I have an engineering graduate degree and have taught graduate classes, although I am no longer on any faculty.

  1. The first and most important thing you can do to prepare is to determine if this is really what you want to do. Gradute school is not something that one does on a whim, and doing “all but thesis” is generally worth only a gnat’s eyelash more than a BS, so you have to make sure you will be in for completion. And this means as well you need to find something you are interested in, since there is going to be either a research project or a thesis to do, and this is going to take a lot of time and committment. So it had best be something you are interested in or else you will hate your life and end up killing yourself one morning in your student flat after your breakfast of cold Top Ramen and beer.

You also need to make sure that the school you choose has advisors and course and resources in your area of interest. If you want to specialize in EMP shielding and hardening of computer equipment, and no one on the staff has either experience or interest in advising you, well…you will have very stunted possibilities for doing something you like.

  1. This varies far too much to quote reliably. Typically, however, per credit hour it tends to run 50% more than Bachelor’s courses.

  2. I’m not aware of money being a criteria for selection, only attendence. I don’t recall ever seeing a form asking me that as it really was none of their business - students should be admitted on merits. However, there are exceptions, such as cases where there are certain “low-income set asides”, low-income programs, quotas, and so forth. This will vary greatly.

  3. I found it only marginally more difficult. Let’s face it, aside from physics or math engineering is about the hardest degree one can get, and if you can make it through the hardest courses OK, the rest tend to be just natural evolutions. The most difficult thing for me was I was working 60 hours a week at my full-time career, traveling around the world, and taking 6 hours of graduate engineering courses. I guess that tells you something - if people can take 6 hours and still have a career, then it can’t be that bad…

  4. This varies greatly depending on discipline. A PhD allows you to have the ability to teach, but oddly can shut you out of some industry jobs. The Masters is often the “terminal degree” expected for positions, but sometimes PhD’s are desired. I’ve found this to be rare, however. My company pays about 2% more starting salary for a PhD over a Masters, which pays about 8% more over a BS. So you spend maybe 2-3 years past your Masters to get a degree that pays you 2% more, giving up 2-3 years of experience and $120k-180k of revenue for not working those 2-3 years. However, other companies are not that way.

  5. Depends. On what the job market looks like, and what you want to do.

Traditionally, you take about 24 hours of classes, and then do 6-12 hours of research which results in a Thesis. Some universities do 30-33 hours and then a 3-hour “research project”, which generally ends up taking about as much work as a thesis anyhow, especially if your advisor is evil. Some have a non-thesis option entirely, which takes maybe 36 hours of classes. I’ve even seen an industry-based “MSE” degree, which took 24 hours of courses, a 1-year directed internship, and THEN a thesis on top of it. Generally, although I tried a few back door ways, I could not escape the thesis. Others have been luckier.

Some people will tell you “never take a non-thesis option” because it is “looked down on”. I doubt that is true outside of academia - I’ve never put my thesis down on a resume, and very very rarely seen it listed. All I really care when interviewing people is “MSEng or not”. However, the above is my opinion, which is a sample size of at most one.

If you want to work for NASA, try to see if you can get an internship with NASA. Even if the pay stinks (or you don’t even get paid) it will make a big difference after you finish your degree.

I’m getting my MSEE, but I’ve chosen the “slacker route.” This means I take one or two evening courses every year. But I have little choice, since I have a full-time job, family w/ 3 children, house, etc.

You sound very ambitious career-wise. That’s admirable. Just don’t forget that there’s another world that exists outside work… :wink:

If you live close enough to any of the NASA centers, you should check out their websites about various internship programs. Most have several different programs.

I have had various internships at Ames for the last two years, and my current job has several interns from as far away as New York and St. Louis ( Ames is in California ), if you email me or post a reply asking about it, I could give you a few things to look at.

Hi Loctan, questions seeking advice and opinions belong in IMHO.

I’ll move this for you.

-xash
General Questions Moderator

I would like the thank everyone for their answers/advice.

I can’t email you as I am just a guest and can’t see your profile, but I would really appreciate any information you could give me. I actually have quite a few relatives in California (Manteca/Stockton area - you near there?) I am seriously considering COOPing this next January and I would like all of the information I could get. Thanks in advance.

Here’s a map of the various NASA research centers, Ames is in Mountain View, which is a bit south of San Fransisco. That is about 80 miles from Stockton, but most of the internship and Co-op programs have housing assistance avaliable.

http://www.ham-shack.com/maps/usa_map.html
http://education.arc.nasa.gov/pages/students.html#Undergrad

This is list of the various programs that Ames offers. The Education Associates program would probably be best for you. A few of the others require a one year commitment, or are mainly over the summer. Don’t hesitate to call any of the offices there and ask questions, the through Eduacation Associates are usually custom made for a specific person, so if all you do is fill out the form on thier website, you probably won’t have much luck. What you should do is call the various offices, talk to the people there, and they should be able to either give you email addresses of potential sponsors. Then you could get in touch with the sponsors, and hopefully find a postion.

http://education.jpl.nasa.gov/students/university.html

This is JPL’s student website, I can’t really comment on these because I have never been to JPL, but I could also help you out.

Good luck!

I have a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and have taught undergrad classes. I work in the aerospace industry. If you are in computer science and you want to work for NASA, you will be heading to Ames. However, I heard some of the NASA research centers may be spun off as federally funded R&D centers, like JPL is.

If you have a 4.0 GPA as an undergrad, you can probably handle the graduate classwork without too much stress.

I can’t speak for an entire industry, but I can tell you that when I evaluate applicants, a thesis is a big, big plus to me. An M.S. without a thesis is just like doing another couple of years of undergrad. But writing a thesis is similar to what research engineers do for a living - you formulate a problem, come up with a reasonable approach, do the work, and write it up. There are a lot of B.S. and M.S. level people who just never develop a knack for taking a new problem and wrestling it to the ground, and those people usually either get mired in low-level positions, or else go into management. A thesis is some evidence that you are not one of those people.

In grad school, you really work for your advisor in a specialty, not for a department. Therefore, you want to set yourself up with an advisor before you commit to the school. Make sure he/she is well-known in the field. You will want his influence and connections when you try to get a job. Don’t make the mistake of going with a lousy department in a prestigious school.

If you want to get a Ph.D., ask yourself whether you’d do it even if it wouldn’t get you a bigger salary or faster advancement. If you’d still do it, then go for it. A Ph.D. will get you a bigger annual salary in the long run, but probably not enough to make up for 3-4 years living on a stipend. I think the only times a Ph.D. is an actual liability is if you are one of these people who never really should have done one in the first place and are not living up to what people expect of a Ph.D. Then people hold it against you. I have no regrets about doing a Ph.D. although it probably cost me $150,000 in foregone salary. It was fun, I published papers and went to interesting conferences, and gave me time to develop some scientific maturity. And it almost always gets you respect, although the respect is yours to lose if you don’t work up to a Ph.D. level.

Loctan writes:

> I am a Junior Computer engineering with a 4.0. My ultimate goal (career wise
> that is) is to work for NASA.

Why do you want particularly to work for NASA if you’re in computer engineering? There are lots of places to do computer engineering, and it didn’t occur to me that NASA is the most cutting-edge place to do it. I assumed that you wanted to work at Goddard (I guess because it’s just down the road from me), but other posters point out that there are a number of NASA locations. I think that you need to look at all the possible sorts of things that computer engineers can do and find where would be the best place to do the sorts of things that you want to do.