The basics of grad school
MechSE professor and Interim Associate Head of Graduate Programs and Research Tony Jacobi, with Assistant Director of Graduate Recruiting and Admissions Katrina Hagler, spoke in ME 390 about graduate school and the basics of applying.
Some quick points about grad school:
- Everyone who gets admitted to grad school starts out as a prospective Master’s Degree (MS), and then can later choose to continue to a PhD. A Master’s degree with a thesis takes two years, while a PhD can take three and a half to eight years (typically four to five).
- You can either go professionally or for a traditional thesis. If you go traditional, obtaining your degree will require working as a teaching assistant or research assistant.
- Some of your options for financial support include assistantships such as being an RA, and the award of a fellowship. Fellowships can come from outside the university – for example, from the Department of Defense or the National Science Foundation. You will also most likely have a stipend (U of I generally pays grad students a stipend of $2,000 per month for a traditional thesis). Schools often waive tuition and fees for some students as well. If you go professionally, you will pay for yourself. However, this should only take one year.
- There is also the option of getting an MEng degree, which is a non-thesis master of engineering degree that takes one year with coursework only and serves like a professional degree. This costs ~$30,000 and has no TA/RA requirement.
- There are roughly 400 grad students in MechSE. The department typically receives 900 applications, and accepts one third of its applicant pool. About one-third of the admitted students will accept, making an average incoming class of 100 students.
- Of MechSE’s grad school PhD alumni (in a survey of graduates from 2005 to 2011) 42% go into industry, 25% make the academia tenure track, 13% do an academic non-tenure track, and 10% go into labs or government work.
- Illinois will have its first MEng degree class this fall.
- If you’re within 5 credit hours of completing your undergrad degree, you can be switched to grad school status (in addition to filling out an application).
If you’re uncertain about grad school but feel like maybe you will want to go, you should be looking into where you might apply and what you could study. Professor Jacobi advises that you be proactive even if you’re not sure so that the door is already opened if you later decide that it’s what you want to do.
One of the pros of grad school is that your salary is virtually guaranteed to go up for an MS or PhD degree. The con is that the years you spent in grad school are years you could have spent working. However, in making the decision to go or not go to grad school, Jacobi advises that “you should go to grad school because you want to go to grad school, not because you want to make more money.”
Prof. Jacobi advises going to grad school straight from college, as opposed to getting a job first. “You leave school and you get distracted. You get a job, maybe get married and have kids… It’s hard to leave that life and go back to school,” he said. Going to grad school right after college also ensures that the skills you learned in college will still be fresh in your head, making more years of school easier in the long run.
For the application, you will need three letters of recommendation, your transcripts, your resume, and a statement of purpose (explaining your goals for grad school and beyond). Rec letters written by professors carry more weight than letters written by TAs. Make sure you give your letter writers plenty of time to write your letters, and thank them for doing so. You should also take the GRE (Graduate Record Examinations, a standardized test required by most grad school admissions). Applications are commonly due by October 1, and the deadline for accepting an offer is April 15.
Grad school isn’t for all of us, but it is a choice each of us can make. And for those of you who do choose to go, grad school can be another stepping stone on the path to achieving some of your life goals. As Jacobi said about the purpose of going to grad school, “I don’t believe you should set your objective function to be dollars. You should set your objective function to be happiness.”