Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Graduate Student Spotlight!

Hi I'm Alexis and I'm currently a PhD student in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. This past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the annual SWE Conference in Orlando on behalf of Penn Engineering Graduate Studies. While I was there, I got a lot of questions about graduate school, both in terms of student life and academics. In this blog post, I'll discuss some of the topics that came up during those conversations with prospective graduate students at the conference.

1. What's special about being a grad student at Penn? Many things! I won't even go into the breadth of academic resources available to you - that will vary by individual department and can be very specific, but in general there's a high caliber of professors and students, and terrific research going on. For me, being in the city of Philadelphia is one of the most important things - the campus is located in the University City neighborhood of West Philadelphia, and most graduate students live either in West Philadelphia or Center City. Philadelphia is affordable enough that you can have a decent apartment and be able to pay for it with a graduate student stipend...with money left over to enjoy the restaurants, nightlife, and culture that the city has to offer. Additionally, Penn's different graduate student organizations help make the city even more accessible by offering discounted tickets to certain events or by hosting events in some great locations. For example, I recently got theater tickets to one of the hottest traveling Broadway musicals (Jersey Boys) for about 60% off, and last year I went to a dinner hosted by one of America's Iron Chefs (Jose Garces) at his West Philadelphia restaurant Distrito. On a more regular basis, these groups will organize parties, outings to Phillies games, and activities such as ice skating or

2. Master's degree vs PhD? A lot of people have this question. I actually did both - first I completed my master's degree part-time at Penn, then I subsequently left my job to pursue a PhD. A master's degree is great for cases where you feel like you didn't have enough time in undergrad to pursue a particular topic in more depth, or if you want to gain strength in a subject complementary to your undergraduate degree. It's similar to undergrad in that you mostly take classes, and depending on the program, you might have a thesis as well. It's a great opportunity to immerse yourself in a subject for a short period of time (typically 1-2 years), and can also help qualify you for certain jobs which might require a master's degree. However, a master's degree can be expensive and it typically does not come with financial aid, so money can be a big potential drawback. On the other hand, a PhD typically will be fully funded (full tuition scholarship plus a living stipend, but it is a long-term commitment (about 5 years in the case of my program). For a PhD, you have the opportunity to take some classes, but most of your time will be spent conducting your research, writing and presenting about your research, and teaching/TAing classes. A PhD is required if you want an academic career and very useful for industry research jobs. If you're considering a PhD, my biggest piece of advice is to become involved in undergraduate research - it gives you a chance to see how you like it, and it shows your commitment on graduate school and fellowship applications. Personally, I was interested in a master's degree but decided it wasn't really worth the cost in my case. I joined a great company which had tuition assistance as a benefit, so I was able to complete my master's degree with my company covering all of my tuition. Note this was difficult from a time management perspective, but it worked out. Then at work I ended up moving to a job in research that I loved from a scientific perspective, but I felt liked I needed a PhD to get the work opportunities that I wanted. I went back to graduate school for my PhD full-time so that I could gain that credential and ultimately attain a great research job after graduation.

3. Bioengineering or...(chemical, mechanical, electrical, materials science)? Bioengineering and the associated bio-related disciplines are really exciting, and I typically hear this question a lot! I'm in chemical engineering, and a lot of my friends are in labs that consist of a mix of chemical engineers and bioengineers (and sometimes other types of engineers and scientists too). My lab consists of mostly chemical engineers, with a couple of bioengineers and the occasional non-engineer mixed in, conducting research in areas such as gene therapy, blood flow and clotting, and drug discovery. In general, the primary considerations would be (a) what do you want to do afterwards, (b) what is the structure and the requirements of the programs you are considering, (c) what is your educational background, and (d) what are you most interested in? For evaluating (a), think about the career opportunities that you are hoping for and who those organizations would typically hire. Look at where students from that program have gone after graduation (this information is often, although not always, available on the professor's lab websites in an "alumni" section). For evaluating (b), look at such things as course requirements, the type of qualifying exam (for a PhD program), the adviser selection process, teaching/TAing requirements, and typical time to graduate. For evaluating (c), it's more of a question of meeting minimum requirements in that area, and the department will generally say what they require on the website. For evaluating (d), it's a matter of looking through the required and elective courses, and what research you can become involved in. Some professors might take only students from particular program, while others will have a more diverse set of students. This could have a significant role in your decision for what program to apply to, but in some cases (like mine) every professor I was interested in had both chemical engineers and bioengineers working for them, so you really need to do your research to figure out what is best for you.

Thanks for reading, and if you're currently applying to or considering graduate school in engineering, good luck!

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