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