Hot Tips for a Graduate Degree in Engineering

Most M.E. grad students have an undergrad degree in the same field.

Iowa State University's Experimental Multiphase Flow Lab

Iowa State University's Experimental Multiphase Flow Lab

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Smart Choices

Agricultural Engineering. Food shortages plague the world, yet more arable land is needed to grow crops for biofuels. Someone has to solve this conundrum. Nuclear Engineering. Controversial? You bet . But nuclear's coming back after more than 20 years in the shadow cast by Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.

Insider Tip

Most M.E. grad students have an undergrad degree in the same field. Still, a fair number of non-engineering students, often with degrees in physics and math, opt for mechanical engineering at grad school. It can be a tough transition. Robert C. Brown, an M.E. prof at Iowa State with a B.S. in physics and a B.A. in math, suggests that if you're a science or math major heading into thermal systems research, take classes in fluid dynamics and heat transfer; if you're doing mechanical systems research, look for courses in materials, mechanical design, and controls.

Reality Check

Increase in doctoral degrees awarded, past year: 13.8%. Increase in doctoral degrees awarded, past five years: 37% · Top master's engineering discipline: electrical, 5,256 degrees. Second: computer science (within engineering): 5,197. Third: mechanical engineering: 4,637 · Most popular doctoral discipline: mechanical, 1,132 degrees. Second: electrical/computer: 1,112. Third: electrical: 939 · Average starting salary for engineers with master's: $54,208. For engineers with doctorates: $73,752. Average salary with 10 to 14 years' experience: $82,151

Sources: American Society for Engineering Education (2007 report); National Society for Professional Engineers (2008 data)

Getting In

Be Open. Joseph Beaman, mechanical engineering department chairman at the University of Texas-Austin, says too many letters of application read as if they were written by formula. As a result, they're uninspiring. Don't be afraid to show some passion, he says: "The ones that stand out seem heartfelt; they're not templates."

Show Innovation. Beaman suggests undergraduates should enter design competitions or work on research. Robert C. Brown at Iowa State agrees and says even freshmen should seek out lab experience: "It's never too early to look into it."

Do Relevant Work. Brown says that grad schools, like industry, value students with work experience—particularly if the work has some relevance to mechanical engineering. That rules out flipping burgers, pouring drafts, or selling trendy clothes at the mall. If you can't find work in a campus lab or an industry co-op, he suggests construction work—where you have to get your fingernails dirty and build things.