Student Advising

“Life has but a handful of central conflicts, replayed by each person with the same ferocity and intensity as if they were the first.”
- Zen Buddhist saying

Just like the quotation on life, there are a handful of deeply important, potentially life-changing questions regarding students' academic careers that I hear many times. I've arranged the most common below in the approximate chronological order of career development, from high school senior through first class year. Unfortunately I don't have the answers, but perhaps I can raise some new questions that aren't immediately obvious.


Studying for Engineering Exams

  • Spend about 30-60 minutes quickly reviewing the text. While reviewing, start working each of the example problems. If you see how to set the problem up, don't waste time actually solving it. If you don't, stop and figure it out.
  • Spend your remaining time (the majority of your time) working (NOT looking over the answers!) of similar problems that you find in the
    • collaborative problems
    • homework problems
    • textbook
  • Work a problem from each chapter, even if you feel confident in the material. Work additional problems in areas you identified that you feel weak. Only work problems that have solutions, but do not refer to the solutions unless you get really stuck or to check your answer.
  • Don't fall into the trap of "speed preparing" by reading a problem and then checking the solutions to see how should be worked – this is the most common studying pitfall I have seen and is not effective AT ALL. That will only prepare you to take a test which says "Here is a problem, and here is the solution. Does the solution make sense?"

How To Get Into Graduate School

  • Graduate schools care about more than just grades. They want students who show initiative, who have sought out challenges in independent research (e.g. VMI's URS or SURI program), who have found a summer internship, and who have held leadership positions. You can get into very competitive graduate schools if you have these distinguishing experiences even if you don't have a perfect GPA, but a 4.0 without these will probably earn you the "thin envelope" response to an application.
  • Graduate schools place considerable emphasis on recommendations. Carefully consider whom to ask, and when you do, provide them with facts to help them write a good letter. Give them your resume and include whether you've worked in any independent study projects, helped in any science fairs, open houses, IEEE activities, or honor societies, whether you're involved in any sports, clubs, or community activities, won recognition for anything you've done in any group, tutored, volunteered, or done something unusual in another academic department. Take time to recall the events that distinguish you from the masses.
  • Find out yourself what's important! Visit the school's webpage and download a copy of their application form. You may be surprised at what they value (and what they don't). M.I.T., for instance, won't even look at your GRE Engineering score if you send it to them, but they want a detailed account of engineering projects you have accomplished.

Selecting A Graduate School

There are over 120 schools in the United States alone that offer graduate degrees in Electrical Engineering. One easy way to help you narrow your choices is to first decide what kind of degree you want. Contrary to popular understanding, the degree following a B.S. in engineering may be either of two types of Masters degrees, or you may proceed directly to a Ph.D. Here are some questions that may help:

  • Do you want a Masters degree to work in industry? Perhaps you desire a consulting career with Anderson Consulting; you will then want what's often called an "Industrial Masters". These degree programs are course-heavy (usually 10), research-light, and focused on exposing you to practical skills and tools to let you hit the ground running on graduation. They typically take 12-18 months to complete and may or may not require a short (usually 6 month) thesis experience. Often there is an opportunity for a partial but not full tuition waiver if you agree to work as a teaching assistant. Not all universities offer this program, and those that do call it different things; call the graduate admissions office to find out.
  • Do you think you want a PhD but want to get a Masters first? This will take longer than going straight for the PhD, but will keep your options open should you change your mind. This route will require what some universities call a "Science Masters" or a "Research Masters". These programs are course-light, research-heavy, and will prepare you for a career in engineering research. They typically take 24-30 months, always require a substantial thesis , and nearly always provide free tuition and a monthly stipend in return for teaching undergraduates. Once you begin a research project you may also compete for university or federal fellowships which also provide free tuition and a stipend, or receive research funding from your advisor. During the first few months you will interview with a variety of professors and select one whom you trust and is doing research you find fascinating; that professor will become your advisor. This is much more of a mentor/apprenticeship learning experience than the industrial masters. Universities that do not offer a Ph.D. will not have a science masters program, although universities that do may have only a science masters (e.g. M.I.T.), may have only an industrial masters (e.g. Monmouth), or may have both (e.g. Cornell).
  • Do you know you want a doctorate? Perhaps you dream of returning to VMI as a professor, or want to perform cutting-edge research in an R&D laboratory. You will need a Ph.D. to do these things, and you can earn one a few years faster by not obtaining a Masters degree first. Unlike many non-engineering doctoral programs, you can expect full support during your doctoral program from a mixture of Teaching Assistantships, Research Assistantships, and fellowships, which will provide both tuition and a stipend (typically about 15k/year). Universities structure Ph.D. programs radically differently; some require a relatively heavy course load, some are entirely research-focused, and the average length of time varies from a low of just over three years to a high of nearly eight. Some require a single doctoral qualification examination that's administered 6 months after arrival, some have a series of exams that continue for your first 3 years. The number of hurdles is often linked to prestige of the school. Find out the details with a call to the graduate office before you apply and avoid unpleasant surprises!

Getting a Great Letter of Recommendation

For every publicly-announced scholarship or job there will be many tens, if not hundreds of applications. Think of a stack of resume's that are over an inch thick. Even if you have the right background, if you do the same thing every other applicant does (carefully complete the paperwork, put thought and multiple drafts into your essay, and ask professors with positive opinions of you to fill out a reference form) you have only have a small statistical chance at best. To have any reasonable chance, you have to do something different. But what else can you do besides ask your professors for a recommendation?

You won't get a great letter of recommendation by giving your professor the recommendation form and hoping for the best. The most common result will be the professor will check the boxes, handwrite something like

"Joe is an excellent student in my class. His classmates always seek him for homework advice. He shows great leadership, and works extremely hard. His insights on homework are very good and shows he makes connections to other subjects well. He would make an excellent (officer/graduate student/employee) and I give him my highest recommendation."

Sounds like a good one? It's not. It's bad. It's the kind that will be weeded out first on the selection committee, just behind the applicant whose mailing address is a federal prison, and it will be the kind you'll receive if you hand out a recommendation form and say "please fill this out". This recomendation is typical of what every other applicant is getting. It shows the professor who wrote it didn't care to do more than do a search-and-replace on the Generic Recommendation.docx file they all have to change the name. If the job or scholarship is competitive, you've just lost your chance.

How should you do it? Give your professor an set of bulleted examples that illustrate examples of what the review committee wants to see. Specifically:

  1. Decide two or three personal characteristics the reviewing committee wants in their ideal applicant. Sometimes they state it outright; sometimes you must read between the lines. Example: A military scholarship that sends an electrical engineering candidate to a language school probably has reviewers that want to see students with strong skills in leadership (it's the military!), interpersonal relations (you'll be essentially serving in an ambassador role), a desire to learn about foreign cultures, and obviously, the innate talent to pick up foreign languages quickly. Since they're looking for electrical engineers, they probably also want to see how you can relate your creative/analytic talents in engineering to a particular purpose that requires foreign language skill (perhaps you're interested in Military Intelligence and want to analyze foreign military weapons). A graduate school will want to see different talents, and those will vary among schools and degree programs (an M.S. program will want focus on immediate industry application; a Ph.D. program will want independent drive, for instance). Whittle them down to two or three characteristics.
  2. For each characteristic give the professor two or three bulleted examples that he has observed of you demonstrating these examples.  A good example is: "Independence: when Joe was working on an independent research project with me he ran into trouble gathering data on a Friday afternoon. I had left, but the data needed to be collected and analyzed by Monday. Joe noticed the data looked like it was being corrupted by high frequency noise, so he built a RC filter by himself. That cleaned up the signal enough to be able to analyze it for the Monday due date." It is good because it is a specific example, does not use empty superlatives, and describes a situation the professor has observed.

    A bad example is: "Independence: Because Joe's mother died when he was twelve, Joe has always shown an exceptional amount of independence as he had to care for his 8 year old younger sister." While it certainly does illustrate that Joe has had to be independent, it does not describe a situation the professor would be familiar with. This belongs instead in the personal essay section. Further, it has words like "always shown" and "exceptional" which are either exaggerations ("always") or empty qualifiers ("exceptional"). Let the story tell if it is exceptional or not.

    More bad examples:You DO NOT want to restate things that are already in your resume ("Joe's choice to join military ROTC training shows he has leadership skills"). Even worse, do not simply state what you want the reviewer to believe ("Joe is a very good leader"), a sure shortcut to the trashpile. Instead, give plenty of examples that you have demonstrated in your professor's class that are not mentioned in your resume.

What if I can't come up with several bullets to illustrate a characteristic? Choose a different characteristic.

What if I can't come up with any examples for any characteristics that my professor has observed? Choose a different professor.

Won't this take a lot of time to write for each professor? Absolutely! This is why so few students do it, and why it's actually fairly easy for a reviewer to take 100 applications and quickly cull them down to 3 or 4 that actually stand a chance. Think of it this way: if it takes an additional 4 hours per professor, and you have 3 references that you need for a $12,000 scholarship, it's a $1,000 an hour investment in time you are taking to do it right. It's hard to find a campus job that pays that well.