All you need to know when applying to graduate engineering programs [Show Summary]
How should you approach an application to a graduate engineering program? Dr. Karin Ash, a top-notch admissions consultant and career coach for aspiring engineers, shares everything you need to know.
Interview with Dr. Karin Ash, Accepted consultant and former Dir. of the Career Management Center at Cornell’s Johnson School, career coach at Cornell’s College of Engineering, and Dir. of Cornell Career Services [Show Notes]
Welcome to the 486th episode of Admissions Straight Talk. Thanks for tuning in. Do you know how to get accepted to graduate engineering programs? Dr. Karin Ash does, and she shares her knowledge and insight in Accepted’s guide, “Applying to Engineering Programs: What You Need to Know.” Download your free copy at accepted.com/486download.
Our guest today is Dr. Karin Ash, author of the guide that I just mentioned, and the former Director of Cornell University’s Career Services, Director of the Career Management Center at Cornell Johnson School, and a career coach at Cornell’s College of Engineering. Dr. Ash joined Accepted in 2015 as an admissions consultant and career coach. She has been guiding clients to acceptance at leading masters and PhD programs in engineering at top universities, including UC Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon, Cal Tech, Cambridge University, Columbia, Cornell, Duke Georgetown, Harvard, MIT, Northwestern, NYU, Stanford, UCLA, USC, University of Michigan, UT, UVA, and University of Washington, among others. She’s here to discuss how to get accepted to graduate engineering programs.
Much of your experience before joining Accepted was in the career guidance side of graduate and undergraduate education, how do employers influence admissions decisions? [2:16]
They can influence it in a couple of ways. Let’s say all of a sudden, a lot of employers decide they need more computer scientists. The programs at a university might expand the number of candidates that they are willing to bring in. It can also make a difference if they emphasize certain areas within an academic area. For example, they can say they need more calculus because the new hires are coming in with not as much math skills as they might need. So they can affect the curriculum.
The other way is if I’m sitting on an admissions committee and I going through files trying to decide who should be interviewed for a possible spot and an applicant’s story seems very clear, and it seems like they would not have a hard time finding employment. It can make a difference if I think the story doesn’t make sense, and I don’t think they’re going to have an easy time getting employment. It doesn’t mean they’re totally out of the picture, but I might put them in another pile because schools get ranked somewhat based on what percentage of graduates find employment and what their salary level is. Those are some ways employers can influence admissions.
I think teamwork has been a skill that employers have increasingly valued over the last 20-40 years. Is that something schools are emphasizing more in admissions decisions? [4:19]
Absolutely. That’s a good point, Linda. I think that’s been true in the MBA world for quite a while, but with engineers, more and more companies are insisting that people work on teams. They realize that there’s more productivity and a more creative outcome when you have diverse teams working together, not only within a department but across departments. You can get into a school without having great leadership or communication skills, but if you have them, it’s an asset and there’s more assurity that you’ll get in.
It also depends on the department. If you’re being hired for a coding position, it’s going to be less important than if you’re being hired for operations management or civil engineering, where you’re dealing with construction sites and architects, and you’ve got to be able to communicate across many different types of people.
What do engineering master’s programs want to see from applicants, both academically and experientially? [5:54]
You’re asking a very good question because while there may be some distinctions, I think there’s more in common across departments in that employers want very advanced math skills and, depending on the department, various sciences and statistics. If you’re going into mechanical engineering, physics is going to be very important. If you’re going into biomedical engineering, chemistry and biology are going to be important. But those math skills are important across the board. So are any kind of problem-solving and analytical thinking skills.
Do most engineering master’s programs want to see engineering experience? [6:54]
No, it’s not like MBA programs. There are a lot of applicants right out of school, and it’s not required in most programs to have experience. If you are coming straight from undergrad, it’s a big plus if you’ve had internships related to the field you’re trying to go into. It could be paid experience or volunteer experience where you can show you have the passion, the motivation, and some knowledge of the field, in addition to whatever your classes were. I’ve worked with many applicants successfully who came right from undergrad, and I’ve worked with probably fewer who have had years of work experience. When they do, it’s a plus but only up to a point. If you have too much experience, then the schools begin getting a little worried and say, “Maybe you should be in some kind of executive program.”
What is considered too much work experience for a master’s program? [8:04]
More than seven years of experience.
What are engineering PhD programs looking for academically and experientially in their candidates? [8:13]
Most PhD programs are going to demand that you’ve had some research experience, whether that be from a master’s program or undergrad research opportunities. I see that less often, but I have seen it, and it has been very successful. If you don’t have any research experience as an undergrad, then I would recommend starting with a master’s program.
I just talked to a client this week who had applied to eight or nine PhD programs. He had a 3.9 grade point average from a very good UC school. He had very good GREs, but he got rejected from all of them. I have not read his statement of purpose, but he hasn’t had much research experience so this year, he will apply to MS programs. At the PhD programs, by and large, they want to know that you understand what research is and that you have a research focus coming in. They want to see that you know what professors you would like to study with. You can change your mind once you get there, but they like to see that clarity.
What are some of the distinctions among the different engineering aspects? [9:45]
Having some coursework. If you had the opportunity to have specific coursework leading towards an area, that would be obvious. Everybody is studying computer science in high school these days. Something like environmental sustainability might not be as available in high school. But if you have somehow been able to get some experience with it, whether it be volunteer work or an internship, that’s going to make a difference in your chances of admission.
What if a college graduate, either a senior in college or somebody just out of college, decides they want to get a degree in computer science or computer engineering but they didn’t pursue an undergraduate degree in engineering or a related field? Do they have to get an entirely new bachelor’s degree before going for a master’s degree? What would you advise that person to do? [10:45]
I’ve worked with a number of clients who did not have a degree in the field they wanted to go into for their master’s program, and they’ve handled it in different ways. One client took a lot of courses through Coursera and some of those courses were offered through the schools that he wanted to apply to. Some have taken courses at their local college or community college. I had one client who actually moved to the location where the school was that he wanted to attend, and he took every continuing education course he could take, which did not lead to a degree or be transferred to the program, but he was in classes with full-time resident students. He got A’s in all those courses, and he got into the master’s program in computer science with an undergrad degree in social science and not a very high GPA.
It can be done. It’s hard. It’s going to take a little bit more work on the client’s part, and they’ll definitely need to take the prerequisites in one way or another.
What if someone did poorly in a quantitative or engineering-related field, how can they enhance their undergraduate record and repair that GPA? [12:28]
You would have to retake courses, whether it be at the same school or a different school, but you would have to take the courses you already took and get good grades in them, like an A.
If you do that, then you show the school that you have improved. For one reason or another, you didn’t do well the first time. Often it’s the maturity level at the undergrad level, especially for males. I don’t mean to discriminate, but many males will say they just weren’t ready and they didn’t apply themselves, but then they grew up and took the courses elsewhere and studied because they had the motivation and did very well.
Do you recommend that the applicant in this situation address the poor grades? [13:20]
They can. They would have to show that they excelled at work and that they developed maturity through the work that they did and that they get good references from their supervisors at work. But I would say taking the courses you did poorly in is probably a better bet.
What factors should applicants consider when they’re choosing where to apply? [15:02]
A lot of clients will come to me wanting the top schools, and not everybody can get into the top school, even if you have excellent scores in every way and excellent recommendations. There are just too many good applicants. You have to really focus on, “What program am I the best fit for?” or “Is that program the best fit for me?” In engineering, there are two types of academic programs. There’s the applied, and there’s the research focused. If you’re going for an applied program, let’s say a master’s in engineering with no thesis or research and just courses and projects, it’s important to look for the courses that match your interests. It’s probably a little less important to focus on what professors are there as much as the coursework. It’s good to look into the student organizations and the employment rates for the field you want to go into.
If it’s a research program, those are usually MS programs, then it’s essential that you look at the professors in those schools. Look at their research and reach out to them. They won’t always answer you, but sometimes they will. If they do, that really helps your application. I think applicants have a better outcome of writing to professors when it’s a PhD program rather than an MS program, because there are more MS applicants and professors can’t respond to everybody. But it’s just so important to understand the research done at that university. Does it align with your interest? Can you envision researching with this professor, given their interest and your interest? That’s critical for a research-focused program.
What if I decide I want to go into academia? That means I need a PhD but I haven’t done research in the past. What should applicants do if they want to change course and they don’t have research experience? [18:16]
You don’t absolutely have to have research to get into an MS program. If you have a good story as to why you’re changing direction, why you want to do research, and what you want to do research on, you can get in without having had much experience.
But for a PhD program, you have to have had research experience. You don’t necessarily have to have published your research, but you have to be able to draw on, “This is what I researched. This is what I was motivated about or why I decided I wanted to go in a different direction. Now I want to go in this direction of research and your professor doing this is exactly what I want to study. I would love to be part of his project group.”
I assume if you don’t have research, then the idea would be to go to an MS program that doesn’t require research and then pivot to the PhD? [19:29]
It’s interesting in engineering. I would say a minority of my clients have wanted to go into academia. I’d have to count it up, to be exact, but a lot of them want to go into industry doing research. They want to work for a Google or a Tesla type of company, coming up with the next great design for a product. Especially if all their life, they loved automobiles or microchips, whatever it is. They often realize the academic market is somewhat saturated. It’s not that easy to get into academia anymore. Industry, with the salaries that they’re offering, is very enticing.
Do most engineering programs, whether they’re on the master’s or PhD level, require an interview? [20:46]
I’ve rarely seen it for master’s programs but yes for the PhD.
Do you have any advice for engineering PhD interviews? [21:01]
Know your resume. Know the research you want to discuss and know how it relates to the research in the school and with the professor you’re about to talk to. The interview is usually with a professor. I have found overall from what my clients tell me, it’s a conversation. It’s not a grueling interview, where they’re trying to see how much you know. They can see that from all of your application material. They’re trying to see if you’re the right fit for their work group. They already have PhDs on their team. Does it look like you would be a good addition? That means both the skill that you’re bringing and your personality that you’re displaying when you interview. I would say to go into it thinking of them as not having power over you, but being a colleague that you’re having a conversation with. You also want to find the best fit for you so you need to come with a set of questions to determine if it’s right for you.
Do you have advice for re-applicants to master’s or PhD programs? Do you work with re-applicants? [22:14]
Yes, I do. I’m working with one now. Often the client knows what they were weak in and where they need to strengthen their application. If they have no clue, then I would go through all of their material. Often, it’s the essay that the applicant, for whatever reason, just didn’t clearly tell their story. They didn’t clearly define their goals, or their goals didn’t relate to their experience. It’s a process of eliciting that information from a client, which we do at Accepted by sending this unbelievably lengthy questionnaire that the client answers. From that, I develop an outline for a draft of an essay. That can make a big difference.
Sometimes it can also be a matter of recommendations. Did you use the right people? Did you provide enough information for them to provide a strong recommendation? I don’t think recommendations often make or break an applicant’s acceptance, but they certainly can add. They help an application if they’re excellent and if there’s a theme coming across through three different references saying someone is really creative, original, and stands out from their peers.
I help applicants look through what they did before and what’s changed. Have they taken other courses? Have they had another experience at work? Have they had a leadership opportunity? Anything that’s different from when they applied the first time should be included.
What advice would you give current applicants and applicants planning ahead? [24:40]
I think for both it would be setting out a timeline of what needs to be done by when, certainly for those planning to apply in the current cycle. What is most on their mind? What are they most worried about? If it’s the writing of the essay, begin by tackling that. At least get a draft done way before the deadline, so there’s time to amend and edit it.
If it’s somebody a year or two out, what experiences might they be able to garner before they apply that would strengthen the application? What information might they gather about careers in that field? Which people or professionals in that field can they talk to to gain an even better understanding of the program that they’re applying to and what they might want in a candidate?
What do you wish I would’ve asked you? [25:46]
Linda, you’re a master of interviews. I don’t think you missed anything.
- Applying to Graduate Engineering Programs: What You Need to Know, a free download
- Accepted’s Engineering Calculator Quiz
- Dr. Ash’s Bio Page
- Contact Dr. Karin Ash for help with your application
- Accepted’s Graduate Admissions Services
- How to Write a Great Statement of Purpose
- How This Student Got Accepted to MIT’s Engineering Program and Landed a Job at Apple
- What’s New at NYU Stern’s Online Masters of Science in Quantitative Management
- What to Know About Applying for a PhD in STEM
- How to Get Into Cornell’s Master’s in Engineering Management