Back to Engineering Graduate School: 10 must-haves

In this article I describe my favorite and must-have items for when I start my semesters in graduate school. A lot of what I list below can also be recommended for undergraduates.

  1. Computer
    Engineers require reliable tools. A computer is at the top of the list, whether you’re writing a technical report at the last minute, sharing gigabytes of files with your group project partners, or downloading a semester’s worth of lecture notes before an exam. These situations commonly arise during the semester and it is wise to find a dependable computer to help you avoid technological pitfalls. Personally, I enjoy having a powerful desktop at home, and a lightweight MacBook Air for the road. I recommend building a powerful desktop yourself. There are numerous video tutorials available on YouTube and written tutorials online. I update my desktop about once every 4 years and my laptop once every 3 years.
  2. Pen and Paper
    My favorite writing instrument is the Pilot Precise V5 Rolling Ball Pen, Extra Fine Point, 0.5 mm. While it will bleed through most poor quality papers, I make sure to purchase the National Brand Computation Notebook. I write on both sides to utilize up to 150 pages of notes for my classes. If my classes are powerpoint slide based, I still like to have the notebook for book notes or diagrams as supplements to my lectures.
  3. Folders and dividers
    An average engineering graduate class will have enough materials to fill up a 2 inch binder. I prefer Avery Heavy-Duty products to store my class materials. I also like to use Avery Big Tab Insertable Plastic Divider sets, which comes with 5 dividers. I typically divide my classes up into the following divider tab categories:
    – Handouts
    – Lectures
    – Homework
    – Exams
    – Work
    where handouts can be a syllabus or paper to read, and work can mean anything that I’ve scribbled or documented but did not submit, including messy homework assignments before I’ve re-written them in LaTeX.
  4. Software and storage
    You must back up your important research data on an external hard drive. I encourage backups of your backups if you have the resources. While hard drives usually seem inexpensive (considering our modern advances), you can get better deals during massive sale events like Black Friday. Very useful software tools for tracking your priorities include Evernote, Calendar, and OneNote.  I’ve also heard good things about OmniFocus and Workflowy. I agree that these tools are very useful but I find that they each have flaws, and a better tool is waiting to be developed.
  5. Mobile companion
    The modern graduate student is only as powerful as their mobile accessories. Apps for your smartphone can download an entire conference floorplan, including booth and activity information. Your Kindle or iPad can be used to read dozens of journal articles. You can know every detail about your life, including your personal finances, your email traffic, and communicate almost instantly with anyone in the world. Owning any combination of these devices is a must, but how you use them optimally is up to you.
  6. Electronics suite
    There is a long list of helpful electronics that you can buy to assist your graduate school efforts. I received a lot of help from Matt Might at his blog. He recommended several products that I tried. I swear by the Outlet To Go Power Strip and the Kensington presentation remote. I highly recommend car charger kits, USB hubs, iPod chargers, earbuds or headphones, ethernet adapter (if necessary), and a chill mat for when you’re at home on your laptop. High powered calculators are still a necessity for graduate students during exams, though they’re not as prominent as they were during undergraduate. Just keep your undergraduate calculator handy.
  7. Health care
    It’s important to stay healthy when in graduate school. I make sure I pack hand sanitizer, ibuprofen, allergy pills (Loratadine), Kleenex, and chewing gum in my bag. You can also boost your immune system by exercising. Try to get a running, biking, or swimming routine going. Also work on your muscle development during the week with a group fitness class at your University, if available. Play a sport or get involved in an intramural league. Take walks around campus when you can as it will keep your brain healthy.
  8. Parking pass
    Transportation departments at campuses across America are not always in the favor of the students. Lots of parking tickets are ruthlessly handed out each semester. My advice is to obey the posted signs and stop complaining. Buy a parking pass if it is financially feasible, or consider an alternative mode of transportation to work. I highly emphasize that there are many programs available to students for green commuting and there may be subsidies for your form of travel (whether biking, bus, or carpool).
  9. Office Mates
    It surprises me how often my friends borrow a stapler, a hole punch, scissors, or all three at the same time. I have a very strong stapler and hole punch, and average scissors for my office. I recommend staplers and hole punches that can power through up to 50 pages at once. This industrial level action may come in handy when your pocket stapler cannot handle a 30 page report.
  10. Memento
    Keep something motivational in your office. Whether it’s a poster of your favorite poem, a die-cast model of your favorite plane, or a picture of you with your hero, you will benefit from being reminded of why you are a graduate student in the first place. Your perspective will frequently change during graduate school. There will be lots of ups and downs. Just remember why you’re here.
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10 Reasons to Attend Engineering Graduate School

Graduate school is not for everyone. This should be clear. It’s 1-3 years for a Master’s, and anywhere between 3-7 for a Ph.D. (based on your abilities and how bad you want it!) Many know immediately whether they do or do not want to attend. But for those who are on the fence for engineering, I offer guidance in the form of 10 reasons. My opinions may skew toward aerospace as that’s my background.

1.    Grow-up

After four years (at least) of grinding away at some of the hardest problems you thought you could ever encounter, building a cascade of rocket science self-esteem, and emerging (by the skin of your teeth) with a diploma that will hold a special place…somewhere, eventually. Well, the four years spent between high school and college probably taught you many lessons, but don’t think for a minute you know it all. Graduate school raises the stakes. It will teach you valuable skills in time management, communication, engineering methods, etc., and you’ll be able to present these polished skills to your first serious employer.

2.    Dictate your future

Having a master’s degree demonstrates to employers that you have added value because you took on additional responsibility and succeeded at that mission. Having a Ph.D. means you made a significant, unique contribution to human knowledge, and offers extremely rewarding career choices. Having only a bachelor’s degree isn’t that bad, but you’re part of a large group of similarly educated, bright, energetic, new-car-smell engineers who have to make a significant effort to stand out from one another. Unless you’re a networking phenom or you have your own blog…get comfortable dealing with resume stacks, phone interviews, and the brutal competition to earn your entry-level position. For those who already got a job with a bachelor’s, did you get your first choice out the gate?

3.    Set an example

I have several younger siblings and a very large extended family. There are a lot of graduate students from all over the world, from smaller villages to huge cities, and we all remember where we came from. Friends and family back at home remember what we were like as children and they spread our inspirational stories. It is not only our duty as aerospace engineers to achieve the desired objective, performance, and safety of our operations, but to set an example for the next generation of engineers, so that they may be encouraged to follow us.

4.    Broaden your perspective

Many universities encourage a global perspective. Your graduate work considers the work done by others around the world. The people you meet will come from all over, and many of them may work directly with you. A global (diverse) perspective is encouraged because the ability to see a problem from several different angles enhances your problem solving ability. Greater perspective can enhance your creative thinking and flexibility toward solving a problem. Aside from broadening your problem solving ability, graduate school will also give you additional time to meet people from other cultures and hopefully encourage your own personal development in understanding others.

5.    Become a technical authority

Your value is not simply increased by the piece of paper representing your graduate degree, but by the technical knowledge and the advanced problem solving skills you now possess. When you have that knowledge, you are able to speak with authority on topics to guide decisions that will have significant effect on design and production (or at least, that’s how it’s supposed to work). If you obtain your Ph.D., your opinion will have much greater weight in your field, and you may be looked at when challenging questions arise within your area of study. Of course, you better know what you’re talking about!

6.    Stand shoulder to shoulder with giants

Not only are the students and faculty in graduate school the smartest I’ve ever met, they are also making significant contributions to the subjects I care about most. It is a rare opportunity to interact with today’s most brilliant minds outside of the leading companies who can afford to hire them. You will not merely be observing your intelligent peers. You will be on the front lines, exchanging ideas and converging on problem solutions.

7.    Improve your presentation ability

Without good presentation, the audience will not care about your work. During your master’s degree education you may be required to either defend your work as part of your master’s thesis. If you stick around for your Ph.D., you will be offered the opportunity at numerous conferences or poster presentations to explain what you’re doing. Even if you have confidence in your presenting ability, it will be a different challenge to meet the expectations of your audience in technical ability. You will also have great diversity in your audiences. You will be able to use the skills and knowledge gained in these presentations later in your professional or academic career. Here’s a helpful article on how to give a good talk, by Mike Dahlin.

8.    Justifiable investment

This Georgetown study notes that 41% of aerospace engineers (surveyed among the labor force) have a graduate degree. Aside from this glaring statistic, you hardly need a napkin calculation of cost-benefit analysis to understand that graduate school is a justifiable investment. In many cases, the graduate school or a fellowship may pay for your education. You are additionally provided a very modest (but existent) stipend so that you can be a productive worker and not have to worry (much) about the bills. Often, you are getting paid to learn (which is also paid for). Take advantage of this very unique opportunity.

9.    Money

We’re not looking near term, but long-term. When I started out as an engineering student in college, I had money as my lowest priority. Hell, I was proud of that, and couldn’t understand why people would get involved in engineering based on the $ sign alone. But I’ve come to understand that life isn’t cheap, and when it comes time to support a family, I definitely need to be a provider. Those with aerospace graduate degrees get an average earnings boost of 28%.

10. Freedom

You have the freedom to succeed and you have the freedom to fail. While this is always true, it is especially true in graduate school. There is so much flexibility in graduate school that you can choose to grind for days on multiple projects, churning out more results and ideas than you would have ever thought possible, or you can choose to let the hours go by without accomplishment. Depending on your specific field, you may have the ability to set your hours, work location, topic of interest, etc. The bottom line, however, is that you have the freedom to control the flow of your life, and you have the responsibility to ensure that the needs of your school, department, and advisor are met. Here are some productivity tips from Dr. Matt Might, a favorite blogger of mine.

 

Lessons Learned in Graduate School vol. 2

What do people think of you? When should you speak up?

Graduate school is a unique opportunity to take high risks, make mistakes, and become keenly aware of your career mortality. It’s often exciting to make mistakes in graduate school, because the personality types in grad school love to discover the rules and boundaries that make the environment tick. But mistakes that pile up, or are made more than once, can have detrimental effects on a graduate student. This can represent incompetence, lack of attention to detail, and overall ineptitude. Therefore a graduate student must take special care in their means of communication. It’s all about communication in graduate school. Whether it’s communication of your understanding of learning material (through papers, homework assignments, exams), email transactions between department staff, or interpersonal relationships at work or at home, much attention must be made to the quality of that communication.

Sometimes, perception is reality

It is essential to seek feedback (quality advice or criticism) from mentors and managers about performance. Getting feedback is a unique opportunity to learn about how others perceive you. I’ve been told by a supervisor that sometimes “perception is reality.” That was such significant advice. I learned at a young engineer age that whether or not you’re working hard, if you give off the impression of a lack of professionalism, you will be perceived as unprofessional. If you don’t put effort into the details of your punctuality, attitude, or even clothing (these are a few of countless examples), the perception of you will suffer. And that perception of you, regardless of whether or not it’s true, may become an unfortunate reality.

The point? Consider the details involved in all practical components of your work routine. Strive to be the best version of yourself and deliver your best face to the world. Listen for feedback, good or bad, and make slight adjustments. If you are getting complimented, you’re heading in the right direction.

A perfectly good opportunity to stop talking

It is often quoted (sometimes, too often), in some variation or another, that “it is better to be thought a fool and remain silent than to speak and remove all doubt.”  The engineer follows this lesson well in the classroom. However, when we need to speak on significant matters, our meaning can fall apart because we may have trouble communicating. Classrooms should be considered a safe haven for the exchange of thought, but engineers cringe at the first opportunity to speak. Or when they do inevitably shoot, their lone misfire will encourage them to keep quiet next time! What is the experience of the engineer in the classroom? A wrong answer gets demolished (and it could have been close) and the student is often publicly embarrassed by a professor’s bewilderment at the response. When a professor asks a question of the class, they are looking for an exact answer. There is no gray area like in other subjects. It’s unfortunate, and I hope to conduct a classroom one day where everyone feels comfortable to speak freely. Oddly enough, the engineering student keeps very quiet in classrooms, but do they exercise that same level of caution with their other daily communication?

There are plenty of situations in graduate school where a careful choice of words is best. Never speak to offend. Always consider being your nicest to everyone regardless of the situation. Don’t write stuff on the internet that is negative (that may come back to destroy you and you may never even know how). Generally, approach life with such congeniality that it would make your parents (and advisor?) proud. Why? Because rotten things said lead to a rotten perception of you. Regardless if you think you are a master of dry wit or sarcasm, it is a language poorly understood in the professional world. It is not welcome.

This reality needs to be taken seriously. As an example, I’ve considered myself to be a very kind person. I just love working with people and I love seeing young Americans develop into productive members of society. I volunteer for STEM projects far more than I should and I care so much about the development of STEM education. Big deal. If you say something negative in an email or a web post, you’ve done well to alienate yourself. It’s hard to repair the damage done by poorly chosen words. If you’re fuming (because graduate school is a very flexible yet stressful lifestyle), realize that it’s probably a perfect opportunity to stop talking. You’ll be fine. There will be lots of stress, but watch what you say because your words are documented online or in the minds of those around you.

Unfortunately, my advice to this point does not allow you to go very far as a communicator. Knowing when to speak up and how to use your words effectively is an art and science. You only get better at art or science by practicing (making mistakes). There are a lot of considerations that must be made quickly before speaking such that you can have maximum impact with your words. An efficient communicator will say more with less. Experiment with your communication and speak up often, and learn from the reactions of your peers, mentors, and others. Loosen up in the classroom. It’s a painful process, but a good communicator will have a much easier time developing a strong career.

Small steps to self-improvement

Graduate school is making me a better person. I needed more time to mature and develop into who I’ve envisioned. I love the idea of self-refinement, but there are certain environments that facilitate that growth best. I’ve found that graduate school is an opportunity to see my boundaries. I see what happens when my stress takes me to my limits. I can be a mess. But it could have been worse. I could have made a huge mistake, said something inappropriate (even inadvertently) and lost a million dollar contract in the field. My mistakes could have been more costly. Graduate school has given me the opportunity to learn from those mistakes, develop a philosophy for how I’ll handle high stress situations in the future, and come back even stronger. It continues to have a powerful impact on my life and how I conduct myself professionally.

Wrap-up

Remember to put your best face on every day. At times it may be a significant struggle, but you’re in control of more than you think.

Lessons Learned in Graduate School vol. 1

I finished my first semester of graduate school in the Department of Aerospace Engineering in May of 2011 (I started in January) at the University of Maryland College Park and I can summarize it in several bullet points.

  • Graduate school coursework is much more demanding than undergraduate. This is obvious to many, but it must be stressed that you cannot let your guard down in any class because it will hit you square between the eyes. Do every problem with intensity. Give yourself time to check and double check your work.
  • Being a graduate research assistant places special emphasis on getting your hands dirty early…and if you don’t, you suffer the consequences of being labeled a simpleton. It will take a very long period of hard work to shake this label. I’m still wiggling.
  • Working with other graduate students is a privilege that many students will take for granted. Once we graduate, we’re going to be leaders in our respective fields.
  • Developing a good relationship with your advisor, mentors, and instructors is essential to your development. Almost everyone you interact with wants to help you become a better performing student. It’s in the best interest of the school to make you better.

My experience at UMD has been compelling. When I arrived in Maryland, I called Bowie my home. It’s about 13 miles from my campus, so it wasn’t a wise decision to live in Bowie. But it looked reasonable on Google Maps.

  • LIVE CLOSE TO YOUR SCHOOL

I didn’t have any friends when I arrived. I didn’t know anyone in the College Park area. I had no money (and not much has changed) and I had no furniture. I shipped most of my clothes and books from Arizona across the country. I had no bed for two weeks and slept on a couch, sometimes on the floor with cushions.

  • COME PREPARED

I ate bread, McDonald’s hamburgers, and macaroni and cheese every day until my first paycheck (a month after my arrival thanks to prerequisite paperwork). I did buy a jar of peanut butter after my first week. There wasn’t anything productive about being miserable. It was cold. Snow was on the ground and there was more waiting to fall from the sky. I’ve never been in temperatures like this, I thought, as I was metaphorically buried deeper and deeper each day. But I wasn’t depressed. I was still happy that this change in scenery had happened.

  • A LITTLE MONEY TO GET YOU STARTED RIGHT

I don’t know what it is about minority engineering students, but we’re poor. Our families rarely have financial infrastructure and while we may end up getting very generous research assistantships, it’s not really enough after taxes. And the family can’t help out. In fact, I’ve actually had to help my family out this year. It can get tough.

  • EXERCISE

While graduate students are hard workers who appear to never leave their offices, they’re usually pretty fit. Taking some time to exercise is the best physical activity you can perform to boost your metabolism and mental health. A little will go a long way, but a good, steady amount (3x a week) will give you the energy to take on every day and all it throws at you. I ran between classes every day for a semester. I worked my way up to a really good pace and ran a 5k. I ran instead of studying before one of my finals. I was very relaxed and did well. Exercise is essential.

  • MAKE FRIENDS

Make friends as fast as you can. There will be a lot of people who care about the same things that you do. Enjoy their company and work with them toward a common goal.

  • EVERYONE IS SMART

When you’re in graduate school, everyone around you is smart. They’re as smart as you or smarter in a different way. The difference is working hard. The hardest workers will look like the smartest.

I’ve made a lot of observations after 1 semester (and a summer of research) and I did not list them all here. I owe a lot of thanks to students I’ve had conversations with that have motivated me to work harder. I look forward to next semester (which will surely be challenging). I look forward to reflecting in 5 months.