With years of experience preparing engineers for their careers – and as an Accepted admissions consultant since 2015 – I’ve seen what works and doesn’t work when one is applying to master’s and PhD programs in engineering. Whether you’re applying in software engineering, chemical engineering, computer science, civil engineering, systems, mechanical engineering, or biomedical engineering, you will benefit from the following tips:
- Determine your graduate school and post-grad school goals
- Understand GPA and test score requirements
- Explore a wide range of graduate engineering programs
- Know the research requirements
- Write a sizzling statement of purpose
- Prepare a relevant resume
- Snag first-rate letters of recommendation
- Reveal appealing personal qualities
- Create an application schedule…and stick to it
And, don’t miss my Admissions Straight Talk podcast episode, where I chat with Accepted founder Linda Abraham about how to get accepted to graduate engineering programs.
Determine your graduate school and post-grad school goals
Why is it important for an engineering applicant to define their short- and long-term goals in their application?
The most basic reason is that most engineering programs require a statement of purpose. It’s extraordinarily difficult to write such a statement when your only purpose is to obtain a graduate degree!
There are far more substantive reasons that you should have, and you’ll need to demonstrate clear goals in your application.
Many undergraduate engineering students decide to do further study in their field for the following reasons:
- To develop their skills beyond the general education they gained as an undergraduate
- To specialize in an engineering discipline
- To further define or to change career direction
These are all valid reasons for pursuing a graduate engineering degree, but they really don’t go far enough. Schools have learned from experience that applicants who understand the type of work they want to do post-graduation are more focused while studying and are better prepared for the job market upon graduation. Because applied engineering master’s programs are only one to two years in length, you don’t have as much time to “find yourself” as you did in undergrad. If you enter school with a clear goal in mind, you are more likely to do well academically and be better prepared to interview with hiring organizations when you’ve completed your studies. If you are pursuing a research program, the department will want to know what specific area of research you are targeting and with which professors.
Aligning your goals with the vision of the program
When applying to schools, you need to be accepted not only by the school but also by your target academic department, such as the following:
- Aerospace engineering
- Applied physics
- Biomedical engineering
- Chemical engineering
- Civil and environmental engineering
- Electrical engineering and computer science
- Industrial and operations engineering
- Mechanical engineering
Top engineering programs (and their departments) have a strategic vision, with a set of values they use to help determine their curriculum. Often, the schools want to produce engineers who will pave the future in research, creating new products and services that are daring and innovative and that serve society. Other programs are more focused on practical and immediate application or problem-solving, either in business, defense, healthcare, or any number of fields. You need to understand the department’s vision and strengths as well as how those qualities will help you realize your goals.
As mentioned earlier, you will be required to write a statement of purpose as part of your engineering application. You are expected in this essay to describe your short- and long-term goals. What do you see yourself doing for three to five years after graduation? If you want to work for a company, you will need to describe whether you want to join a start-up, consulting firm, or large firm. What industry do you want to work in, and in what job function? For example, do you want to be a project manager in the operations department of a large chemical Fortune 500 company? Or do you want to be a technology entrepreneur in a start-up focused on machine learning educational services and eventually own your own company?
Two steps to discovering your goals
If you are unsure of your direction, the following steps will help you determine this element of your application:
Meet with professionals in fields that interest you.
Ask your undergrad professors for referrals to former students of theirs with whom you can have a conversation about their work. Pose a series of questions to those individuals, including what projects they work on and what they find most satisfying about their job. You will gain valuable information that could eventually help you write your statement of purpose.
Consider the projects you have participated in, internship positions you have held, and any relevant work experience. What kind of work is too tedious for your liking? What kind of work do you love? What kind of environment do you thrive in?
Your goals should be top of mind
If you can describe your goals with some specificity, especially if they flow from your experience or academic education, your story, essay, and entire application will be more compelling. Also, you will have a much better chance of being accepted to a school that is aligned with your goals and credentials.
Understand GPA and test score requirements
Most top engineering schools require a minimum GPA of 3.0. Some schools rely mainly on the grades an applicant earned in their junior and senior years in making their admissions decisions. However, if your GPA is below a 3.0, you might be able to compensate with a higher GRE score and with excellent research and/or work accomplishments.
Every school you apply to will require an official transcript that only your undergraduate institution can provide. You can consider taking a few courses prior to beginning your application and earn A grades to show that you are ready and able to manage the curriculum. Classes to consider taking include calculus 1, 2, and 3; physics; chemistry; linear algebra and differential equations; biology; computer science; and statistics.
The top-ranked engineering schools seek GRE math scores in the 164-167 range. Although an applicant’s verbal score is not as critical, schools generally like to see a score above 150. Not all engineering programs list their minimum standardized test score requirements on their website. Check U.S. News & World Report’s list of Best Engineering Schools to see whether the schools you are interested in have reported their average scores.
If you are an international applicant, you can be assured that most of the best engineering schools accept TOEFL scores for the English Language requirement. If you have scored 100 or higher on the TOEFL, you have satisfied most schools’ minimum score requirements. Some schools accept IELTS scores, though Stanford does not. Determine which tests you need to take by reading the admissions requirements for each of your target schools. You will need a 7 or higher score on the IELTS to meet the requirements of quality engineering programs.
As for your undergraduate major, most people applying to graduate engineering programs are seeking a graduate degree in a program that aligns with their undergraduate engineering studies. However, I have had clients with a liberal arts major successfully apply for graduate engineering programs. They enrolled in the prerequisite engineering and math courses prior to submitting their applications and earned grades that showed they could handle the technical and quantitative subjects. Some schools offer “bridge” programs that cover the prerequisite courses necessary to apply to their graduate programs (e.g., Columbia, Carnegie Mellon, NYU).
Explore a wide range of graduate engineering programs
Now that you’ve established your goals and evaluated your competitiveness in terms of GPA and test scores, it’s time to select the best programs for you.
Choosing engineering programs based on your goals
To determine whether a graduate program will help you achieve your goals, examine its curriculum to see what you would be studying and doing during that program. If it prepares you for your future career in the way you want to be prepared, it’s a program worth considering.
MIT Engineering, for example, boasts that its students and alumni have launched more than 32,000 active companies. The school describes its culture as stressing innovation from day one on campus. Berkeley Engineering emphasizes study abroad and global partnerships. The Cornell Tech program in New York City emphasizes entrepreneurship and technology.
Choosing engineering programs based on your qualifications
It makes little sense to apply exclusively to programs where you have little chance of gaining acceptance. Caltech and MIT can’t accept every applicant. Apply primarily to programs where you have a decent chance of acceptance, and if you have one or two dream schools and are willing to spend the time and money applying to them, go for it. Not all applicants aim for the top engineering schools; some candidates – such as those who have lower GRE scores or GPAs – apply only to schools where they believe the odds are more in their favor. However, most clients I have worked with have wanted to earn their degree from an institution they believe will open more doors for them in the future. Do your research and make a list of “reach” and “safety” schools.
Other factors you should consider when researching graduate engineering programs, in addition to these two primary factors, include location, personal preference for an urban versus a rural environment, climate, large versus small programs, and diversity of the student body. Just as you are aiming to find the perfect match for you, the schools are searching for the applicants they believe will complement the peers in their class and represent the school well in their respective fields. Although all programs seek candidates with credentials that reflect past success and the ability to do well in their academic program, there are nuances among the qualities the different schools seek.
How to REALLY get to know a program
While thoroughly reading a program’s website is important, it is not enough. To truly learn about a school’s culture, it is best if you can visit the campus and meet with students, professors, and admissions ambassadors. If it isn’t possible for you to arrange a campus visit, . How? Some schools list contact information for student club officers on their website. You can also contact the admissions office and ask if there are students willing to speak with applicants about their academic experience. Another option is to use LinkedIn, where you can perform advanced keyword searches to find each school’s students and alumni.
If you network with individuals who are studying at or graduated from the institution you’re interested in, you will learn more about classes, internship opportunities, professors, and student organizations than you will from reading only what is presented on the school’s website. You will also be able to include a sentence or two in your essay reflecting what you learned from these contacts, which will show the admissions committee that you made a concerted effort to obtain firsthand information, proving your interest in the school.
Know the research requirements
Many engineering candidates apply to applied engineering programs where prior research experience is not required. These are usually called master of engineering programs. If you are applying for a master of science in engineering, the schools will look for evidence of an interest in research. The admissions committee will want to know what research you conducted as an undergraduate and whether you first and/or second authored any publications. Details about what the school wants will be discussed on its website or in the specific application.
Write a sizzling statement of purpose
Most undergraduate students in engineering are practiced in mathematics, modeling, design, robotics, AI, thermodynamics, and/or simulation but have had little opportunity to take courses that require essay writing. Thinking about what content should be included in a statement of purpose (SOP) and writing a coherent and persuasive essay can be daunting.
The SOP is a critical component of the graduate application because it is an opportunity to persuasively tell the admissions committee your story. That story should explain what motivated you to major in engineering (or whatever your chosen major was) and why earning a graduate degree now is important, as well as how this school and program will help you accomplish your goals. And the story should have both an interesting beginning and an ending that relates back to the starting content.
Once again, it is imperative that you understand the importance of clarifying your short- and long-term goals. Schools want to know that you are clear about your purpose for desiring a graduate degree, how you will use that degree upon graduating, and what impact you ultimately want to have on your community or society.
It is equally important that your SOP address your reasons for wanting to attend the particular program you’re applying to. You can exhibit genuine interest in each program by discussing how courses, professors, extracurricular activities, and/or geographic location will enable you to realize your educational and professional goals for graduate study in engineering.
Prepare a relevant resume
You will need a professional resume at some point in the application process. It should be in the format desired by the school, include the necessary content, be one page in length (usually), and be organized so that it quickly informs the reader of your most recent work, educational background, and volunteer accomplishments. You should describe, using active verbs, any engineering experiences you had during internships and full-time jobs, highlighting promotions, if applicable. Engineering resumes usually include a brief list of technical/software skills, as well.
Again, to maximize your chances of acceptance, make sure you have the kind of experience (and resume) that your target programs are most interested in.
Snag first-rate letters of recommendation
Most schools require two to three letters of recommendation. The purpose of these recommendations is to provide the admissions committee with third-party perspectives on your candidacy. The letters should complement the other elements of your application while also adding to the reader’s knowledge of you.
To earn great letters of recommendation, you first have to develop excellent relationships with your professors and supervisors. In both cases, you need to have done outstanding work under their supervision. Then you need to ask potential recommenders whether they are willing and able to write strong letters of recommendation for you. If they hesitate, ask someone else.
Whom should you ask?
Most graduate schools request letter from at least one former professor, if not two, who can attest to your ability to succeed in a graduate program, including your depth of knowledge of technical skills, research you have conducted, and/or products you have developed.
You will usually need another letter from a work supervisor who can discuss examples of your work accomplishments, as well as how you collaborate with team members, clients, and supervisors. If they can describe your leadership roles or how you handle conflict situations and discuss areas of weakness that they believe you will strengthen with time and further education, it will make for a more effective letter.
When choosing recommenders for your master’s in engineering application, it is vital that they have the following:
- The background and perspective that your target schools require (If a school wants academic recommendations, you need to talk to professors. If it wants professional recommendations, ask supervisors at work or from your internships.)
- The ability (that is, the time) and willingness to write the letters
- The inclination to write a strong, positive letter on your behalf
When should you ask your recommenders?
As you know, professors and employers do not have much free time. It is your responsibility to request their assistance with sufficient time for them to submit the letters. I recommend that you make your request at least six weeks in advance of your target schools’ deadlines. Once you have agreements from three recommendation writers, it is important to provide them with the information they need to write a detailed letter.
How can you assist your recommenders in writing good letters of recommendation?
You should consider giving them any or all of the following:
- A copy of your resume
- A copy of your master’s of engineering SOP
- A paragraph or two about the school’s program
- A bullet point list of what you would like them to highlight in their letter
- The deadline for submission, with the appropriate website address
It is important to send your recommenders reminders as the deadline gets closer; otherwise, their good intentions to help you could get lost amid their daily grind. Some of your contacts might ask you to draft the letter yourself and send it to them to review and sign it. This is not acceptable to schools. If this happens, inform the writer that you will instead provide all the information needed to make writing the letter as painless as possible.
For an application to be reviewed by your target schools, all information requested by them must be in the admissions committee’s hands by the deadline, including all your letters of recommendation. So stay organized!
Reveal appealing personal qualities
Through your essays, resume, and letters of recommendation, admissions committees will ascertain your personal qualities. Programs want to know that you have the following:
- Analytical skills
- The ability to work well in a team setting
- A desire to learn
- Leadership, communication, and management skills
Let’s take a closer look at each of these.
All engineering assignments require the ability to problem solve. Even when an assignment seems straightforward, unexpected situations can arise, and the engineer needs to analytically approach the problem. You might estimate that a work project will take 20 weeks to complete, but then you are told by the client that it must be accomplished in just eight weeks. This means you must develop a plan that lays out every step within that eight-week time frame and decide who will be assigned to complete which tasks. You must be creative in how you approach the problem to ensure that no time is wasted and mistakes are avoided.
The ability to work well in a team setting
Most engineering problems are not solved by a single person acting alone but by a team or even by using a multi team approach. In graduate school and on the job, you will be expected to work well in teams. This means having the ability to listen well to others and really hear what they are saying, without prematurely judging the content. It is important to ask questions to clarify statements to ensure that you understand the intent or meaning of another’s contribution. It also means that sometimes, you will follow the lead of others, and at other times, that you will take the lead. It is important that you can be a leader, but equally important that you can follow directions and follow through on details. For more advice, see Four Ways to Display Teamwork in Application Essays.
A desire to learn
Some new engineers believe they must prove that they are confident and know their subject matter. Yet to understand and solve a problem you are assigned, it is often important to ask questions and acknowledge a lack of knowledge or insight. Having curiosity and the willingness to make inquiries of your peers and superiors will often yield critical information. It also shows that you have the desire to learn and that you are not afraid to ask questions. Most bosses will appreciate that quality, and so will your team members.
Leadership, communication, and management skills
Companies hire engineers from top schools with the expectation that they will become leaders in the organization in the future. Good leaders know how to communicate well with their teams. They understand that communication is a two-way street and know not only that employees need to be heard but also that by participating in the process, they become more invested in the outcome. Leaders know when to ask questions of others, when to listen and provide feedback, and when decisions must be made to move forward.
In large companies, projects could involve multiple teams that include chemical engineers, computer scientists, electrical engineers, and mechanical engineers working in different divisions. A leader must ensure that all teams communicate with each other to ensure a quality product or process that is completed by the deadline.
One of my former clients was assigned two colleagues to help him complete a project when the timeline was changed and the deadline made earlier. My client was the youngest and least experienced of the three, but he was the project lead. One colleague was known to have an attitude, and the other was not sufficiently focused on the task at hand because of family issues. My client had to figure out how to lead this team without exacerbating these tensions. At the start, there were conflicts, which led to missed internal deadlines. With more open and honest communication, he worked through the issues and successfully delivered the work within the requested time frame. He ended up getting a promotion.
This is the kind of teamwork, leadership, savvy, and impact that graduate engineering programs look for.
Demonstrating your personal attributes in your application essays and letters of recommendation
As you write your essay(s), make sure you are telling your story in such a way that the admissions committee is informed of your personal attributes. When providing information to the individuals who will write your letters of recommendation, you might suggest they also include an assessment of your personal qualities, especially as compared with those of your peers and as desired by graduate engineering programs.
Create an application schedule…and stick to it
Developing a competitive application for graduate programs in engineering takes strategic thinking, thoughtful organization, thorough execution, and of course, time. It is important to start early, allowing yourself sufficient time to take (and perhaps retake) standardized tests, write a revealing and informative essay, send academic transcripts, refine your resume, line up recommenders and provide them with the appropriate information for them to submit outstanding letters on time, and lastly, put it all together.
How you arrange your schedule is a personal preference and depends on your study, work, travel, and family considerations. But no matter the timetable, it is vital that you thoroughly reflect on and think through each of the application components to ensure that you are submitting your most competitive application. One of the reasons applicants hire consultants is to do just that. Many applicants find it helpful to talk through their bio with an objective listener who can help strategize which information or experiences to include in an SOP and even provide an outline for the essay, as well as give feedback on and edit an SOP draft.
Putting it all together
You’re almost there! You know what skills you need to have, what traits you need to present, which people you need to reach out to, and each component you need to prepare for the admissions board. Now it’s time to connect with the pros to ensure that you take all these ingredients and put them together successfully to create a compelling, slam-dunk graduate engineering application. We’re here to help with any or all of the steps mentioned here!
Check out our Master’s Application Package and work one-on-one with an expert admissions coach to help you determine your career goals, research the best programs for you, align your strengths with those of your target programs, secure the best recommenders possible, and then submit a winning application that will get you ACCEPTED! Learn more here.
All You Need To Know When Applying To Graduate Engineering Programs
How should you approach an application to a graduate engineering program? Dr. Karin Ash, an admissions consultant and career coach for aspiring engineers, and former director of the career management center at Cornell’s Johnson School, career coach at Cornell’s College of Engineering, and director of Cornell Career Services, shares everything you need to know.
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