Masters of Engineering
By Syl Kacapyr
Cornell's prized M.Eng. Degree is a tailor-made, real-world experience.
Every academic degree provides a level of return on its investment, but perhaps no degree offers as much value in just two to three semesters as Cornell’s Master of Engineering degree, or M.Eng. as it’s better known.
Despite being Cornell Engineering’s most popular graduate program with over 900 students enrolled at any given time, the M.Eng. is not as universally common as other degrees, and many misconceptions remain. A quick Internet search will yield message boards filled with fallacies about the degree.
“The only difference between M.S. and M.Eng. is a couple courses,” incorrectly wrote one user on a Reddit thread attempting to distinguish a Master of Science (M.S.) in engineering from an M.Eng. “The M.Eng. is kind of in limbo between undergrad and grad education,” guessed a user on another message board, while a third person replied: “I don't think you'll be allowed to do research-related jobs if you graduate with an M.Eng. Correct me if I'm wrong.”
Correction: While none of those statements are accurate, the truth is it’s difficult to define what an M.Eng. degree entails because each college—and even each department within a college—offers a slightly different experience. Not all M.Eng. degrees are created equal.
Another reason for the confusion surrounding the degree may lie in its history. All undergraduate programs at Cornell Engineering had been five-year bachelor’s programs until initiatives such as the Higher Education Act of 1965 put pressure on the college to offer a four-year program that would qualify students for new federal subsidies such as loans and Pell grants.
So in1966, the first Cornell M.Eng. degrees were awarded. Two semesters, 30 credits, one degree. At the time, it was still viewed by many as a fifth undergraduate year—a way for students to take classes they couldn’t squeeze into their first four years or to continue exploring different areas of study because they didn’t yet know what they wanted to do for a career. That notion has long faded in the 51 years the M.Eng. has been offered at Cornell.
“Now we have really shifted into students deciding to do this to make a big investment in their future, and they come here because they expect to get something different from the M.Eng. degree,” said Matt Ulinski, a senior lecturer and M.Eng. program director for the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.
So what is the M.Eng. degree? For all intents and purposes, the main difference between an M.S. in engineering and an M.Eng. is that the M.S. is intended to be more research-focused and used as a potential stepping stone to a Ph.D. or research position, while the M.Eng. provides more technical and practical skills that enhance a student’s marketability to employers. “For me, it’s a professional degree program, and it’s a path to advanced-level work in industry,” Ulinski put simply.
But to truly understand everything the degree has to offer, one must take a deeper look at any of the M.Eng. programs offered by Cornell in 15 different engineering fields. Whether it’s aerospace engineering, computer science, or operations research, the value proposition remains the same: The M.Eng. is a real-world, industry-focused engineering experience customized to meet a student’s specific goals and interests, all packaged with an invitation to the powerful and vast Cornell alumni network.
At the heart of the M.Eng. experience is the required master’s project in which students work alone or in teams to unpack a technical problem and then create and execute a solution. As a thesis is to an M.S. program, the M.Eng. project can be described as the capstone of the degree. However, at Cornell the M.Eng. project is fundamentally and purposefully different from a master’s thesis. It is intended to prepare students for the professional arena by having them engage in practical project work with real data, deadlines and deliverables.
In aerospace engineering, students have recently worked on building satellites and other space technologies. Electrical engineering students created a wireless motion-sensing system for hip rehabilitation, as well as a portable micro-hydration system aimed at providing inexpensive power to rural India. Meanwhile, in a joint project between systems engineering and operations research, students created a unique new scheduling system for a national railway service.
Depending on the graduate field, the projects range in credits earned and can be industry-sponsored, based on faculty research, or an original challenge designed by a student. “All of our students undertake team-based project work with real client organizations and companies,” said Kathryn Caggiano, senior lecturer and director of M.Eng. studies in the School of Operations Research and Information Engineering. “And we’re talking from manufacturing companies like International Wire Group and Proctor & Gamble, to service-based organizations like the Hospital for Special Surgery and Wall Street banks. Our students have a broad range of technical skills, professional interests and goals, and the project slate we present each year accommodates that mixture as much as possible.”
Caitlin Parrucci '15, M.Eng. '16 was able to walk into her M.Eng. experience with a project challenge already in mind. The mechanical engineer with a passion for horses had conceived of a device for monitoring equine water intake that could provide important health alerts to owners. She used her M.Eng. to advance the technology, combining her engineering skills with opportunities to beta test the device at Cornell’s Oxley Equestrian Center. While most M.Eng. students seek industry employment, the entrepreneurial-minded Parrucci founded her own company, Stablesense.
The key is pushing students to solve problems for which answers don’t already exist, according to Newton de Faria, professor of practice and director of the biomedical engineering M.Eng. program. “I don’t want you to just design something, I want you to design something that’s innovating. And for healthcare, it has to be innovation with purpose, meaning with need,” said de Faria.
The biomedical engineering M.Eng. focuses on unmet needs in the medical industry through a “preceptorship,”—a semester-long engagement with a hospital or clinic in which students experience the day-to-day challenges of physicians and surgeons. Students then view their newfound perspective through an engineering lens to develop a basic design of an original device that could improve the quality of care provided within their respective clinics.
And it’s not just the M.Eng. projects that give students the hands-on experience company recruiters are looking for. Many graduate fields offer unique courses and opportunities to give students a first-hand look at life inside an industry.
The Robert F. Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering has teamed up with Shell Oil Company to offer M.Eng. students the opportunity to spend four days at their offshore operations simulator training facility in Robert, Louisiana. The course requires students to draft a test run protocol and operate an oil and gas process system, all while interacting with experienced Shell operators.
“During the training process, we applied all the chemical engineering knowledge we learned to make assumptions, build the model and solve it,” said Jianqui Wang ’17 M.Eng. “It provided us with a perfect example of how we can apply engineering to practice.”
The operations research M.Eng. includes a week-long professional development program run in August, prior to the start of the academic year, called M.Eng. Connect. “We think it’s incredibly important to prepare our students for success beyond the classroom setting,” said Caggiano, who added that such professional skills add to a student’s marketability by helping them be better prepared and more self-aware as prospective employees.
“Many students who come to Cornell for an M.Eng. say their primary goal is to get a job. And what I tell my students coming in is that their getting a job is not my primary goal. My primary goal is for you to walk out of here being somebody I’d like to hire.” Caggiano explained. “That’s more than just having a laundry list of technical skills on a resume. That means knowing how to anticipate and solve problems. We want our students to cultivate not just tangible, listable skills, but also those skills which perhaps are less tangible but ultimately far more valuable to their careers.”
“We want our students to become change agents,” added de Faria. “Our objective here is not to just place a student anywhere. We want our students to be drivers in the field.”
A Tailor-Made Degree
Cornell Engineering offers M.Eng. degrees in 15 different graduate engineering fields: aerospace, biological and environmental, biomedical, chemical, civil and environmental, computer science, electrical and computer, management, mechanics, physics, geological sciences, materials science, mechanical, operations research and information, and systems.
Most of those fields can be broken down further into specialized concentrations. For instance, the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering offers six different concentration areas for its M.Eng., including geotechnical engineering, transportation systems and water resource systems. The school also offers an entirely separate M.Eng. in engineering management that is geared toward students who want to stay in a technological environment, but focus on managerial roles. The degree emphasizes skills not offered in traditional engineering programs, such as finance, accounting and organizational behavior.
“The best part about the M.Eng. program is that it’s really interdisciplinary,” said mechanical engineer Esther Koo ’15, M.Eng. ’16. “You can take classes in different departments and different majors and actually combine them. And for me, personally, that works out really well because I want to go into the medical device industry which combines mechanical engineering, electrical, systems, and also biological and biomedical as well.”
“We offer an enormous amount of flexibility for students to pick a path,” said Ulinski. That flexibility includes projects, courses and even location. Cornell Engineering is now offering more opportunities for students to immerse themselves in New York City’s thriving financial and technology sectors. The School of Operations Research and Information Engineering offers a financial engineering concentration within its M.Eng. degree, allowing students to spend a third and optional fourth semester at the Cornell Financial Engineering Manhattan satellite campus, located in the heart of the city’s financial district. Just steps away from the New York Stock Exchange, students take on projects encompassing a wide range of financial markets, including high-frequency trading, fixed income and equity derivatives, risk management and asset allocation.
Operations research is also one of three M.Eng. fields now offering a degree at Cornell Tech, the university’s exciting new applied-sciences campus that will be moving from its temporary location inside Google’s Chelsea headquarters to its permanent home on Roosevelt Island later this summer. The computer science and the electrical and computer engineering fields also offer M.Eng. degrees at Cornell Tech. All three programs provide a unique avenue for students to focus on entrepreneurship as they engross themselves in New York’s startup culture and learn from some of the most successful and talented tech experts the world has to offer.
“Whatever people a couple buildings from here or upstairs at Google are working with, that’s what we’re working with here,” said Bill Marino ’16 M.Eng. as a computer science M.Eng. student. He is now the co-founder and CEO of Uru, a startup company applying machine learning and computer vision to marketing.
And while students tailor their academic experience to their individual interests and goals, many graduate fields offer one-on-one advising and mentoring as part of that custom education. “I really try to work with the students individually to figure out what they want to do, and to get them to focus on how to get there as opposed to where they think they’re supposed to be,” said Ulinski.
“I think that is something that differentiates Cornell from a lot of other schools,” added Caggiano. “We know who our students are. We really do sit down and take the time to ask them questions and understand what their goals are.”
Caggiano says it’s the students with a vision for themselves and who recognize the value of what the M.Eng. has to offer who are the most successful. That’s why she concedes the degree is not for everyone. But for those ready to make the most of their two or three semesters, it can be a transformative experience. “I’ve admitted students into my program who did not have the strongest undergraduate GPAs, but who did have the maturity, professional focus and motivation to succeed. All have done spectacularly well as M.Eng.s because they really understood and took the time to benefit from all of the resources and opportunities the M.Eng. program offers.”
For many, projects and courses define the M.Eng. experience, but an often overlooked, yet highly valuable, aspect of the degree are the people and the connections it offers.
Students who are accepted into an M.Eng. program at Cornell are instantly tapping into the university’s large and powerful alumni base. “That’s also what differentiates Cornell from other schools,” said de Faria. “We’re not only giving students all the components of a great academic program, but they’re getting the Cornell environment itself. The ability to network, the diversity, the access, the alumni network.”
Many Cornellians working in industry return to campus to recruit or volunteer to work with students in their career search process. “After ten years in this role, I have a whole network of M.Eng. alums I can reach out to and connect to incoming and current students,” said Caggiano. “It happens all the time. A student will come to me with a question and I’ll say ‘I know somebody who graduated three years ago who was in your exact same shoes. Let me put you in touch with them and you can get their perspective.’”
And networking opportunities extend beyond alumni. Earning an M.Eng. from Cornell also means having access to the countless programs and prestigious visitors that frequent campus. In December 2016 alone, operations research held a colloquium with a Stanford University expert on big data algorithms, mechanical engineering invited NASA’s second-highest ranking official to tour labs and speak to students, electrical engineering hosted the vice president of graphics processing company NVIDIA, and systems engineering arranged a seminar with a design and environmental analysis expert.
M.Eng. programs are working more closely than ever with the Cornell Engineering Career Center to help students make connections with companies and recruiters. Ulinski says the added value from other Cornell services comes as the college recently took lead ownership of the M.Eng. degree from the Graduate School, which traditionally administered most graduate degrees at Cornell. “That gave us the impetus to really study the program thoroughly, and all the things we’re now implementing, from career services being more involved to professional directors being involved, is making Cornell’s M.Eng. programs truly forward-looking,” said Ulinski.
Part of that effort to involve more full-time, professional directors included hiring de Faria in 2015. While M.Eng. directors like Ulinski and Caggiano have business and industry backgrounds, not all engineering fields have dedicated, experienced directors whose main focus is running the graduate program. Biomedical engineering had delegated that responsibility to a rotating faculty member until de Faria was hired, bringing with him a full-time focus on the M.Eng. degree as well as two decades’ worth of industry experience at National Instruments that have already yielded valuable insights and company-sponsored projects for students.
De Faria was lured to Cornell, in part, through a new “professor of practice” title that was implemented by the college in 2015. The associate director of the chemical engineering M.Eng. program, Al Center, was recently given the professor of practice title and brings with him decades of experience in the petroleum industry. And Cornell Engineering is looking to hire more.
“This trend is recognition of the fact that the M.Eng. program, like many other professional degree programs, demands full-time effort to really develop and elevate and create value for our students,” said Caggiano.
Added Ulinski: “We’re responding to the needs of this new generation of engineers and we’re elevating the program accordingly.”