Higher Education > Advanced Advice

Choosing the Right Grad School

The first step in continuing your education doesn't have to be the most difficult

By Dr. John Gilligan

You have made the monumental decision to attend graduate school in engineering or computer science. You know that you are in the driver's seat since departments are in dire need of graduate students to conduct research with faculty. You know that with your graduate degree you will be one step ahead of colleagues and that many more doors will be open to you throughout your career. Now what? Which school to attend?

The first step in the selection process is determining a career objective. What do you envision doing ten years in the future? If you want to teach at a national research university or conduct research at a top industry lab, you will need to pursue a Ph.D. at a highly regarded, Research I university. If your goal is to lead a development group at a small- to medium-sized company, then a master's degree from a good, focused university will be suitable. Keep in mind that a Ph.D. will take five to six years to complete while a master's will take one to two years.

Next, think about the area that you wish to pursue and narrow down the possibilities. For example, if you are interested in heat transfer, narrow it down to heat transfer in the combustion process of rocket motors or diesel engines, etc. If your interest is in computer science, focus on hardware or software or, more specifically, software for network security systems. Most schools do not excel in all technical areas so the more knowledgeable you are about what you want to study, the more satisfied you will be with a particular graduate department and degree program.

Once you have established your area of interest, you can begin looking at individual departments. Ask trusted and knowledgeable faculty to make recommendations based on your interests and objectives. Ask if the recommended departments have new or updated facilities and top faculty in your interest areas. You can verify the information using departmental brochures and Web sites.

When you evaluate the departments, look at the individual degree requirements that are presented. Some require a thesis for a master's degree, others do not. Some are liberal in individual course requirements while others may have a more rigid set of required core courses. You may have to request detailed information. Also look at the associations the departments have with industry or government laboratories. These factors and your requirements of locality and lifestyle will help you create a list of departments for consideration. The Web site for the American Society for Engineering Education provides information and data on universities and individual departments, including research areas, research expenditures, numbers of faculty and degrees produced.

Quality rankings of individual departments can be found in the 1995 National Research Council study. However, always look at the individual department ranking criteria closely and realize that your specific research area is only a subset of a department. In other words, even though a department as a whole may be ranked high, the faculty may have little expertise in your area of interest.

After you have narrowed your list of potential schools to the top three or four, you can begin the application process. Apply to your top schools with the objective of being admitted with financial support. It is advisable, and sometimes required, that you take the GRE General Test. You will also want to apply for competitive fellowships supported by government departments such as the NSF, DOE, EPA and DOD. These are difficult to obtain, but they offer support for study at any institution.

Include good references on your applications, including faculty who are familiar with your academic performance. Make it easy for individuals serving as your references by providing the proper forms and information and allowing them at least two weeks to write the reference. Once you have applied, the schools interested in your application will invite you to visit the campus (at their expense).

The visit is crucial to fully evaluating an institution and its faculty. Be prepared for some surprises. Trust your gut feelings after these visits, not the rankings. Be sure to start the entire evaluation, application and visiting process at least one year in advance of enrollment because it will take some time to do a thorough job.

Finally, choose the school that best suits your academic and career needs. Remember to allow your top selections to make their best offer of financial support before making your final decision. You may be surprised to find that some schools will match offers from other universities.

Best wishes on your search for the right graduate school for you.

Dr. John Gilligan is professor of nuclear engineering and associate dean of research and graduate programs for the College of Engineering at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C.

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Higher Education > Advanced Advice