ECE now offering two approaches to master's degree
The changes reflect the changing needs and goals of ECE graduate students at The Ohio State University, as well as the changing needs of industry in today’s globalized economy.
“We are focusing more on the needs of students whose career aspirations can more effectively be achieved with a project-based approach to a master’s degree, rather than a program that results in a thesis,” said Lisa Fiorentini, one of two assistant professors of practice managing the new master’s program. “Most of the students who pursue their master’s degrees in electrical and computer engineering at Ohio State currently want to follow a more industry-focused path.”
Students are now able to pursue their master’s degrees via two tracks:
Research track (thesis option): In addition to coursework, ECE’s research track focuses on either an academic or industry-related research project, with students primarily working for tenure-track or tenured faculty members. This approach culminates in students writing a thesis and taking a final exam. Often – although not exclusively – students who expect to pursue a doctoral degree will follow this track.
Project track (non-thesis option): The department’s innovative new project-centered track is designed to prepare students for work in industry and the business world. In this track, students choose to collaborate with industry partners in technology areas that are important to those partners. These students will perform academic projects or take part in an internship, which may be eligible for academic credit. They also will be required to take a project management course, among their other classes. Instead of writing a thesis, students in the industry track will produce a final project report and, in many cases, make a technical presentation. Unlike the academic thesis required in the research track, this report and presentation will be similar to the sort of information that would be presented to an employer in a real-world business environment.
“More of our students want to go to work in industry,” Fiorentini said. “Being able to write a thesis is not a skill needed in industry, but being able to write a report and give a presentation about your projects is a necessary skill.”
Students’ increased focus on preparing for work in industry is a change from their priorities several years ago, when a master’s degree in ECE at Ohio State was more likely to be a precursor to getting a Ph.D. Today, more than 70 percent of Ohio State’s ECE master’s students prefer the non-thesis route.
“These students’ primary objective is to get their degree and get a good job,” said Wladimiro Villarroel, the other assistant professor of practice program manager. “They are less likely to be seeking a Ph.D. or go into research. We need to grow this program to match their expectations.”
Regardless of which track students pursue, they will receive the same MS degree.
“The non-thesis project-centered track allows us to tailor the program to the students’ needs and provide the option of a more practical versus theoretical education,” Villarroel said.
Fiorentini said that when the department began developing this new approach, she and Villarroel started by focusing on preparing students to land jobs after graduation – and hit the ground running in those jobs from day one.
“Ohio State students win if we are capable of providing them a strong education that helps them land jobs,” Fiorentini said. “Industry wins, because we will be graduating students who already have the practical skills needed for their careers. And the ECE department, the college and the university win because our reputation will grow through our success at implementing these changes.”
The new program comes at a time when ECE is seeing a significant increase in applicants. Because the department has kept the number of graduate student admissions relatively stable, the result has been an overall increase in the entering credentials of its graduate students.
“This makes us a very selective program,” Villarroel said. “While we are capitalizing on getting higher quality students, we also are seeing that a smaller percentage of those students are pursuing doctoral degrees. As a result, we must ensure students planning to enter industry with their master’s degrees have enough opportunity to get experience with the practical applications of what they are learning on top of their classroom theory.”
Students on the project-focused track will learn that work in the real world is very different than classroom work. Instead of having everything prescribed, from tests and homework to deadlines, real-world engineering requires independent thinking. And, unlike the classroom, there is not always an answer to every question, Villarroel said.
“Once students graduate and go to work in industry, they will have already seen the kinds of processes and independent thinking needed in the business world,” Villarroel said.