You can get paid to earn your Ph.D. in engineering

Thousands of people have asked me how they should go about finding an engineering graduate program where they can earn their Ph.D. OK, definitely not thousands of people (or even hundreds), but enough super-talented people to justify my writing this post. Plus this is a topic where my recommendations are actually grounded in experience. I was choosing a Ph.D. program less than a decade ago. Now I see the other side as a professor.

When I’m asked about pursuing an engineering Ph.D., my suggestions inevitably cover the following main points.

Me pretending to give advice
Me pretending to give advice, trying to look ‘natural’
  1. If you’re thinking about pursuing an engineering Ph.D., you can earn one. The research process, which is what you need to learn to earn your Ph.D., is actually quite systematic. Your success is mostly determined by how hard you work; you control your own destiny.
  2. Just because you’re thinking about pursuing an engineering Ph.D., doesn’t mean you should do so right away. If you’re on the fence and haven’t yet worked in the ‘real-world,’ consider getting the job first and then going back for your Ph.D. Your work experience will help you figure out whether you really want or need to do the Ph.D. And work experience can only enhance your qualifications, perspective, and maturity. That said, if you’re sure the Ph.D. is for you, then no need to wait. You can always seek out ‘real-world’ work opportunities as part of your graduate school experience.
  3. You can get paid to earn your Ph.D. in engineering. If you have the qualifications to be considering the Ph.D., the odds are good that you can find an assistantship. Many of these assistantships pay your tuition and a cost of living stipend. Not student loans, a pay check. I didn’t find out about assistantships until several years after finishing my undergraduate degree. Suddenly the Ph.D. became a financial possibility for me.
  4. The stipend amount doesn’t matter. The stipend should make it so you can afford a place to live and food to eat. Beyond that, don’t make the stipend amount a big factor in your graduate school decision. The difference between stipends will be trivial compared to your future salary. Go where you will have the best experience and get the best preparation.
  5. Finding the right program is like joining a club. Clubs include the faculty member(s) with whom you will work closely as well as the students who will be going through the same experience as you. There are bad clubs at good institutions and vice versa. So while you’ll eventually submit all of your application information, just like when you were in high school, it’s not the first step now. Before applying anywhere, contact the clubs. Browse faculty members’ websites to find those doing research that sounds interesting to you. Learn as much as you can about their work and then send a short e-mail that proves you have done so. Attach your resume and ask for a call to discuss opportunities to pursue your Ph.D. in their club. Be persistent. Every contact you make gets you closer to your goal of finding the right club to join.
  6. Personal considerations matter. The rest of your life is more important than advisors and research groups. One of the best undergraduate students I’ve ever worked with recently turned down a paid Ph.D. assistantship from a fantastic program at M.I.T., and instead chose a smaller program near family. Hearing the rationale for his decision, I’m convinced he made the right choice. You’re most likely to be successful where both the program and the surroundings are a good fit.

In my next post, I’ll share some of the clubs working on research similar to mine, the advisors and programs I recommend (if you don’t come to Clemson).

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