Paving the Way to a Graduate Degree

In an increasingly global field, recruiting and retaining native-born students proves challenging for U.S. engineering schools. While countries like India and China report increasing student numbers, Today's Engineer Online notes that "U.S. enrollments are flat at best."

On the graduate-education front-engineering and beyond-the enrollment of international students declined nationally following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Yet the Council of Graduate Schools reported in fall 2006 that such declines were on the rebound. In Purdue's School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, we see a healthy enrollment of international graduate students, particularly at the PhD level.

Still, the school faces enrollment challenges. Professor Chee-Mun Ong, ECE graduate coordinator, affirms the increasing difficulty in recruiting American students. One can attribute this in part to the time commitment involved. "Basically, it takes too long," Ong says. Plus, students don't always see the immediate benefits of earning a PhD, unless they plan to pursue academic careers. Therefore, the school sought to establish a streamlined program more adaptive to student needs and less restrictive in requirements.

When ECE began reviewing its graduate programs a few years back, enrollment issues represented an integral part of the discussion, which led to both a revised master's and PhD curriculum. "I'm quite happy that we were able to get these revisions through," says Ong, who remains optimistic about the changes implemented in fall 2006.

Evaluation and Review

To aid students toward their academic goals, the graduate committee sought widespread input. This entailed soliciting concerns and recommendations from the school's eight research areas (each with its own mission and objectives), graduate office staff who interact with students daily, and faculty members who supervise students and see firsthand the obstacles encountered. The committee also examined graduate programs at peer institutions to ensure ECE's programs remain competitive.

Over the years, the school had identified various curriculum concerns, noting several top issues:

  • The duration of both the MS and PhD programs
  • A need for better counseling and a more project-based curriculum for MS-only students
  • A delayed exposure to research at both the MS and PhD levels
  • A PhD retention rate (approximately 65 percent) with room for improvement

"It takes almost four semesters for someone to go through the master's program, so it is quite long," Ong says. And since the school offers limited summer coursework for graduate students, the program can realistically take two calendar years to complete. It takes the average PhD student approximately nine semesters (about five years) to graduate.

Flexibility and Assistance

Flexibility characterizes part of the curriculum changes. "The more you require, the more rigid it becomes," Ong says, noting that students need some flexibility in course choice, such as the selection of advanced-level (300- or 400-level) undergraduate courses, which are essential for students pursuing interdisciplinary studies.

Program-wide efforts also will enhance the curriculum. A trial-and-error advising period will help the school to determine whether or not an advisor and advisee have been properly matched, and an increased dialogue between students and faculty should also be beneficial. "We try to get students into the graduate office and connect them with faculty early," Ong says, noting ECE's desire to help students structure their plans of study as soon as possible.

And while the revamped curricula have already been in place for more than a year, assessing the outcomes will take time. As Ong notes, the school must wait for the first students to complete each revised program before any impact can be measured.

-Matt Schnepf