From the Dean: December 2021

Dear Purdue Engineering Community,

Our College graduated 879 new Boilermakers at the 2021 Winter Commencement last weekend, including 485 bachelor's degrees, 291 master’s, and 103 PhDs. As each walked on stage in Elliott Hall, I congratulated our freshly minted alumni whose accomplishments are reflections of their hard work as well as the diligence of our faculty and staff who mentor, advise, and provide instruction and research opportunities. With the AAE students seated toward the back of the auditorium, the tradition of flying paper airplanes toward the stage was more challenging. One plane did land on the stage, and I have put it in my office as a demonstration of our students’ mastery of aerodynamics.

I hope to focus this monthly message during the holiday season on celebrating our colleagues’ research.

As we resume the printed publication of Purdue Engineering’s research magazine this month: we reflect upon the Pinnacle of Excellence at Scale in the discovery and translation of knowledge at our College. Rankings and metrics are only partial reflections of the quality and impact of our faculty, graduate students, and research staff. Research excellence comes in different forms, from large-scale experimental projects to single-author theoretical advances. We celebrate all of them as long as they are the very best in their own fields.

This issue of Frontiers magazine zooms in on one particular type of research success: large national centers funded at $10 million or more and led by, or with significant contributions from, Purdue Engineering faculty. It is truly impressive that our faculty have successfully competed, in these extremely selective processes, for 12 new national research centers in the past four years. Along with several centers in their second five-year cycle and other research projects on a multi-million dollar scale, our College’s research leadership in the country has enjoyed very positive first and second derivatives in its trajectory.

Among the diverse topics important to the nation and to humanity, these Purdue-led centers often reflect a key pillar of our strategic plan in Spring 2018: to become the best in the world at the interface between the virtual and physical sides of engineering, between what we code and what we touch, between bytes and atoms. With Purdue Engineering Initiatives in Autonomous and Connected Systems, in Cislunar Space, and in Engineering-Medicine, along with Purdue’s Next Moves in National Security Technologies and in Digital Agriculture, we anticipate many more significant wins in the coming years.

Winning any one of these competitive centers is a culmination of many colleagues’ Herculean effort. The lead faculty must devote to a multi-institutional team over months, if not years, of focused preparation. Very capable staff help land the centers and run their operations. And the PhD students and postdocs must first demonstrate their world-leading results before they enjoy the benefits of studying at the lead university of national centers. Excellence at this level and with such scale must be backed with resources and policies to support the amazing talents.

As our season’s greetings in 2021, and as another small step in the long-term strategy based on your input, we are announcing a trio of actions this month to support the people behind the research success.

— Faculty: Research professors play different roles in our research enterprise, whether as part of externally funded research centers or as independent researchers. The Engineering Area Promotion Committee (EAPC) recently developed and approved the new College-specific criteria for promotion of research faculty to reflect the diverse roles they play, and not be restricted to only one style. Candidates for promotion from Assistant to Associate Research Professor should demonstrate “…significant record of research contributions and research impact, for example, as part of a team or independently.” For promotion from Associate to full Research Professor, candidates should demonstrate “…significant record of research contributions, research leadership, and research impact, for example, as part of a team or independently.”

— Staff: “Cloud service” of shared managing directors: Resuming an idea generated by faculty prior to COVID-19, the College will recruit managing directors who can help multiple new research centers on fractional basis. Leveraging the benefit of scale through “statistical multiplexing,” we hope to help tackle this challenge: many research teams find it difficult to hire part-time managing directors. The first position was approved by HR a week ago and now posted. Associate Dean Wayne Chen has formed a committee to review the applications next week.

— Students: Recognizing that the wide spread of stipend levels in the College has two long-standing problems: the low-end is too low relative to the total cost of living and the median level is not competitive relative to the other top-5 (or even top-20) peer graduate programs in the U.S., we took PhD stipend as a key priority since summer 2021. After many iterations of working intensely with the graduate programs in all the schools, the College's Task Force, chaired by Associate Dean Dana Weinstein, has converged on the first steps toward elevating both the median stipend and the minimum floor for our PhD students, who are essential in our research and learning missions. Specifically:

For research assistantships (RA), the College and its schools will start budgeting new RA stipend rates in new research proposals submitted after February 2022. These new stipend rates will be competitive with top programs in the respective discipline and will increase our median stipends for future RAs. In the interim, for current RAs, we will also increase the minimum RA stipends over the next two years.

For teaching assistantships (TA), the minimum annual stipend floor will increase to $27,000, either in one step starting FY 2022-23, or over two years, depending on the school. The College and its schools will be contributing substantial recurring costs to ensure our graduate students are compensated in ways that reflect their contributions to Purdue Engineering.

Of course, the College-wide minimum merely provides a floor: some schools have already chosen or will choose to implement a higher minimum. And we hope the actual stipend levels will be much higher than any minimum, indeed as high as necessary so that we do not lose student talents to other top PhD programs because of stipend.

Happy Holidays!


Mung Chiang
John A. Edwardson Dean of the College of Engineering
Roscoe H. George Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Purdue University