Fridays with Fuhrmann: Accelerating our MS Program

FWF_image_20170113The ECE Department at Michigan Tech has a long and distinguished history in undergraduate education, having prepared over 8000 engineering students for meaningful careers since its inception in 1928. The times are changing, however, and Michigan Tech is changing as well. Some 40% of the engineering students in the United States now are graduate students, seeking MS and PhD degrees. Our programs have been evolving over the past 2-3 decades to respond to this changing demographic and to respond to the needs of the marketplace. Today our graduate programs are just as important in defining who we are and what we do as our undergraduate programs. This is not to say that we are building graduate programs just to respond to outside forces – in today’s world, a thriving academic engineering department is one in which undergraduate education, graduate education, and faculty-led research all co-exist in synergistic harmony.

The nature of our graduate programs is evolving over time as well. There are actually two distinct flavors of graduate study – that leading to the degree Master of Science (MS) and that leading to the degree Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). The PhD is the real research degree, where in effect we train our own replacements in the research community. It is a fairly long and arduous process of discovery – and self-discovery – involving close cooperation and collaboration between a student and his or her faculty advisor. The MS degree, on the other hand, provides students an opportunity to get advanced training and skills beyond what they learned as undergraduates, so that they can take on more technically challenging projects and become more valuable engineers for their employers or potential employers. There can be some research associated with the MS degree, and that possibility still exists at Michigan Tech. However, today the MS degree, under what we call the “coursework option” looks more and more like an advanced undergraduate degree, requiring 30 credits of advanced coursework beyond the baccalaureate.

In the ECE Department at Michigan Tech, we have been making steady progress in a concerted effort to grow our PhD program. We have a goal to graduate 10 PhD candidates each year, on average, and in our last 3-year goal cycle 2011-2014 we met that goal exactly. The growth of the PhD program happens in parallel with, but is not synonymous with, the growth of our faculty-led and externally supported research activity. The MS programs we have in electrical engineering (EE) and computer engineering (CpE) did not receive that much attention from the viewpoint of strategic goals, but we knew it was important to have a comprehensive slate of high-quality graduate courses so that we could meet the coursework needs of MS and PhD students alike. Then an interesting thing happened – our MS enrollment took off, totally out of proportion to our expectations! Our enrollment quadrupled over the past 10 years, doubling from 2005 to 2010 and doubling again from 2010 to 2015. In the Fall 2015 semester we had 200 MS students enrolled in the ECE Department, something that neither we nor anyone else at Michigan Tech would have predicted just a few years ago. Of course, we are delighted and gratified to see this level of interest in our programs, and are doing everything we can to meet the student demand.

One of things we have decided to do in response to this “success disaster” is create a new position of Graduate Academic Advisor. Many of these students are international and are new to Michigan Tech when they arrive. At the undergraduate level, the ECE Department has one and a half academic advisors – one full-time who advises 400 students, and one half-time who advises 200 students, roughly. (Aside: hats off to undergraduate advisors Judy Donahue and Trever Hassell, who do an outstanding job.) Using the logic that our 200 or so MS students also need dedicated professional advising, from someone with an academic engineering background, we proposed that the ECE Department create a position that was half-time advising and half-time teaching of advanced courses in areas where we needed to grow. Our proposal was approved by the university administration last summer. I am delighted to report that a successful search was conducted in the fall, and that we have identified the perfect person for the job – Dr. John Pakkala, currently of Milwaukee but soon to be back in the Upper Peninsula. I will have more to say about John after he joins the department this July.

Another aspect of our MS program that needs some attention is the diversity of the student population, in terms of country of origin and also technical area of interest. Right now we have an interesting situation in which the vast majority of our MS students are international, and are interested in power and energy. We can only guess how this situation came to be, although my guess is that it has a lot to do with the efforts of Prof. Bruce Mork and Prof. Leonard Bohmann over ten years ago to put all of our graduate courses in power and energy online. No doubt that created a lot of visibility and notoriety for that part of the Department. There is of course nothing wrong with having a lot of students from abroad – we love our international students and all that they do to create a rich cultural tapestry here at Michigan Tech. At the same time, however, many of our industry partners have openings for positions that require U.S. citizenship. We would also be meeting the needs of a lot of American students themselves by convincing them that an advanced degree would be in their own best interest, and in the interest of the state of Michigan. Therefore, one of our goals right now is to have the growth of the American side of MS student population mirror the growth of the international population.

A few years ago the university quietly created a program intended to do just that, to increase the number of U.S. students in our MS programs, by creating an incentive for our own undergraduates – primarily U.S. citizens – to stay for an extra year and earn that graduate degree. It is called the Accelerated Master of Science program. The crux of the program is this: while the BS degree requires a minimum of 128 credits, and the MS degree 30 credits, students in the Accelerated MS program may double-count 6 credits to apply toward both degrees simultaneously. This brings the total number of credits for the combined BS/MS package down to 152. It’s not a bad deal, and one to which we hope our undergraduates give serious consideration.

This year, under the leadership of the new Dean of the Graduate School, Pushpalatha Murthy, the Graduate School has decided to make a more concerted effort to promote the Accelerated MS programs across the university. The Graduate School is upping the ante by creating a financial incentive in the form of a one-time tuition award for students in their first semester of the MS part of the program. This award, called the Graduate Award for Academic Excellence, or GAEA, requires a nomination by the academic department, with the sole criterion being academic merit. In the ECE Department we are grateful to the Graduate School for recognizing the importance of the program and are optimistic that over the next few years we will be successful in our efforts to continue growing our MS program, in both size and breadth.

This column may not be the best venue for promoting the Accelerated MS program, since I have no idea how many of the readers are our own undergraduates (probably not many). Nevertheless, it can’t hurt to put it out there. Spread the word: the ECE Department at Michigan Tech has a graduate program that all our stakeholders can be proud of, and we are doing everything we can to make it better.

– Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann
Dave House Professor and Chair
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University