Aug 31, 2022

What is ‘research’ and how it will be part of your thesis masters or doctoral program

Overview: The field of engineering focuses on applying scientific knowledge to benefit humankind.  The following post is written by an engineering faculty member and students will find slightly different definitions of research depending on the person they talk to and the field that the person researches within.  

Post Contributor(s): Marian Kennedy


Photo by James Lee on Unsplash
As an undergraduate, you might have heard others (faculty, grandparents, etc.) refer to you and your peers as ‘scholars’. That is simply their acknowledgement that you are attending a college or university and studying the existing knowledge a field. For example, an undergraduate in a mechanical engineering program will study the fundamental concepts related to dynamics that are already learned by practicing mechanical engineers. When a student chooses to transition from an undergraduate program into a graduate STEM program, they will be expected to continue studying existing knowledge and participate in the development of new knowledge. This process of developing new knowledge is called research and it involves understanding the current knowledge, developing a hypothesis, identifying how to test the hypothesis, gathering data, analyzing that data, and finally disseminating their findings to the rest of the community. You can read more about engineering research


But how is research involved in earning an advanced engineering degree such as a Master of Science of Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree?


While earning either of these degrees, graduate students are asked to identify any gaps in their academic community’s knowledge. That is, determining what is unknown. These students must also propose how to generate that new knowledge through experimentation done at a laboratory bench, in the field or using computation. A thesis-based master’s student will analyze their preliminary data and present their findings to a committee. However, they are not necessarily required to develop new knowledge. To earn a doctoral degree, however, the graduate student must clearly articulate the knowledge that they added to their community.


Devon Haynie wrote an article I really enjoyed. It focused on helping students identify if they should pursue a Masters or Doctoral degree (‘Choose Between a Master's, Ph.D. in Engineering’). A person quoted in this article smartly suggests that a student should first identify what they want to do after their graduation. A student should pursue a PhD if they want to conduct research in " industry or in academia or for a government research lab”. If the student wants to apply current knowledge to problems instead of developing that new knowledge, they should instead focus on a master's degree. While there are two types of master’s degrees, a thesis-based masters is commonly preferred by employers because it shows that the student can tackle an open ended problem.


There are many websites that lay out the benefits of a PhD program, but I particularly appreciated the one from Johns Hopkins University that compared a PhD to a Doctor of Engineering. PhD are typically pursued by early career engineers who want to work in academic, industrial or government research.


While there are many websites that touted a list of the most prestigious PhD programs (such as this: graduate degree in engineering ), you should actually consider the reputation of the faculty member and not just the institution when selecting a graduate program. PhDs are associated with the quality of research produced by their advisor in addition to the rigor of the institution from which they graduated.


Acknowledgements:  This blog post was edited by Kate Epstein of EpsteinWords.  She specializes in editing and coaching for academics, and she can be reached

Aug 3, 2022

8 questions I ask applicants before letting them join my research group

Overview: If you are pursuing a thesis-based masters or a doctorate in a STEM discipline, you will need a faculty research advisor who will oversee your research work and development as a scholar.  In this post you will find questions that I use during the initial interviews to see if a student is the right fit to work with me.  If you are planning to meet with potential advisors, you might use these questions to help you prepare. 


Post Contributor(s): Marian Kennedy



Photo by Lidya Nada on Unsplash
The graduate student/advisor pairing is important.  They will be working together closely for 2 yrs (MS) to 4-5 yrs (PhD) as the student initiates, progresses through and finally finishes their dissertation.  Not only do they need to be interested in the same field, but they need to have compatible personalities and work interests. 


I have only worked with great students, but I have at times failed my students since they could have either enjoyed graduate school more or progressed through research quicker with a different advisor (different style/personality).  A quick Google Scholar search will shows that this is indeed an impactful selection (positive or negative) and many have tried to create frameworks for improving the mentor/advisee relationship. 


For some applicants, the first time to ‘meet’ a potential advisor will be during the trail end of the application process for an interview.  Others will be accepted into a program and then get the chance to meet with potential advisors during their first and second semesters. 


Questions that I like to ask during these meetings include:

·       What class would you retake (content) at 6:00 am?  (Of all the content you went through in your undergraduate program, what topic was so interesting that you would wake up early just to learn more.)

  • Where will you be in 2035?  (Your possible future jobs.)
  • Why graduate school instead of a job?
  • Why are you interested in a PhD and not a MS?
  • What is research?
  • What research have you previously conducted?  (What was your role during this study and what new knowledge did you contribute to your field?)
  • What would you like to get from your advisor?  Expectations for meetings, guidance, etc.?
  • Have you ever failed on a project previously?  What did you do to recover from that experience and still meet your milestones or goals?


Acknowledgements:  This blog post was edited by Kate Epstein of EpsteinWords.  She specializes in editing and coaching for academics, and she can be reached at epsteinwords at

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