A Guy Walks Into an Admissions Office...
January 13, 2011 7:54 AM   Subscribe

I'm a recent college graduate looking to go back to school--in an entirely different field. Did you do graduate work in something totally unrelated to your bachelor's? Please advise.

My undergraduate education was liberal arts-based and I got through it quickly. I now have an unrelated, technically demanding profession. Though I do enjoy my job, I feel unchallenged intellectually and creatively.

Recently I've been considering returning to school to study something completely out of my purview: electrical engineering. I feel like this might be my best course in order to pursue a calling in what fascinates me (namely, building robots). I could stay in my current field, but I believe I can do this. I'm financially and mentally ready to go back to school.

My original intention was to take some basic calculus and physics classes at the local college to prepare myself for transfer to a BS program. However, my former college adviser strongly urged me against this and told me to try for a master's somewhere that would allow me to take these as deficiency courses.

Following his advice, I met with my alma mater's graduate adviser in EE. He said that I was eligible for admission despite not having a previous science/engineering degree, since this is a state school (in CA) and they are more focused on giving students a chance. I would need to make up a lot of work, but he said I would get through their MS program faster than if I went back for a BS. This adviser thought it was fine for me to take some classes at the community college.

The obstacles:
1. I don't necessarily want to go back to that school.
2. One reason I want to go back at all is to push myself the way I never had to the first time around
2a. Because of this, I have a strong desire to attend a more prestigious university, possibly out of state (ex: CMU)
2b. Such schools do not accept graduate students without engineering BSes.
3. The schools I do want to attend will probably not give a crap about their undergraduates

I'm struggling with the decision: should I start anew and go for a bachelor's degree in electrical (or mechanical) engineering? If I did so, I would then be a much more qualified candidate for graduate studies in that field. If I tried for a master's, however, I would walk away with a higher degree and might then be eligible to admission at those elite schools as a PhD candidate (obvs, years from now).

I expect responses telling me to go for the master's, but I'm afraid that would impede my other goal, which is to get that experience I missed of going away to a new city for college. I think I could only get that as an undergrad, being unqualified in most EE programs for an MS.

In addition, the entire world of graduate studies is unfamiliar to me. I am unaware of how people go about getting funded for their postgraduate degrees, and am even further mystified at those who enter a PhD program without first attaining a master's. As a graduate of a teaching-based rather than a research-based institution, I don't understand the arena of funded research, though I'd love to break in and find out more. From what I've gleaned, though, those places not necessarily undergraduate-friendly (see: Caltech).

tl; dr: Did you do an educational 180? I'm looking for advice from people who were in my situation and considering going back to school, especially for science or engineering. Was it worth it for you? Current EE/MechEs: did you have a nontraditional path? Finally, am I crazy for wanting to go for a Bachelor's when I could theoretically get that Master's?

Some previous questions (here, here, and here) were helpful, but I hope you can give me advice more germane to my situation. Thank you so much in advance!
posted by therewolf to Education (16 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Lots of people who go to law school and/or business school don't study either law-related or business-related material in their undergrad careers.

So, the notion of going to grad school for something completely unrelated to your undergrad career is not unprecedented.

That said. Electrical engineering. That is a very heavily math-oriented field. Do you have the mathematical background and skills to compete at the graduate level?
posted by dfriedman at 8:30 AM on January 13, 2011

Some research universities admit people to PhD programs without a masters. In mine they called it an MS/PhD program, and once I finished coursework and passed my comps they gave me the MS. The MS allowed me to teach at another college while I worked on my dissertation.

The undergraduate away from home experience is much more significant for 18 yr olds. You missed that, oh well. Going somewhere new as an older undergrad won't be the same. Go for the MS!
posted by mareli at 8:36 AM on January 13, 2011

I did this. Twice. I have Master's degrees in linguistics and computer science, despite having an undergrad BS is something totally unrelated to either one. And I've worked with robots/robot researchers off and on for a few years now, including some at CMU, Stanford, and Georgia Tech. (I actually have a robotics publication from last year, but I don't really do that any more. Robots were a side thing for me.)

Here's my thoughts off the top of my head:
1) When you say "prestigious university," are you talking about prestigious universities in general, or prestigious robotics programs? Because those are not necessarily the same thing. The ones that have awesome robotics programs, like CMU, are most likely not going to accept you for anything right now. I've watched friends go through the admissions process for that, and the graduate student was someone with a 4.0 graduate GPA, several publications, internships at Google, *and* an in with the faculty. Plus, many of the top programs don't really want MS students, they want PhD candidates.

Not to knock you, personally, but when you mentioned CMU, I kind of laughed to myself at the thought of someone with a liberal arts degree, no computer science or engineering experience, probably no publications, and no references in the field getting into their robotics lab. Graduate students in existing programs work their asses off for that. I can't imagine it would be different at any of the other good robotics labs.

2) An EE degree is going to be much harder than a liberal arts degree, unless you just have a huge, heretofore unknown aptitude for it. I wouldn't worry about challenging yourself with a harder university. Not only is it a hard degree, you will be approaching it as a total newcomer, which is somewhat harder than you expect. At least harder than I expected, and I did it twice, with the same unpleasant culture shock both times. There's different paper writing formats, different names people throw around, different terminology...and that's even before you get into the wealth of textbook knowledge you don't have.

3) If you wanted to not go to the same university, you could look at the different programs at other California state schools, so you'd get a change of scenery and environment (and resident tuition).

4) I'm not positive about everywhere, but all the good robotics programs I can recall only give good funding to PhD students, not MS. So you'd already be funding yourself through 2-4 years of a possibly unpaid Master's. This would be much cheaper at a resident tuition rate at an in-state university.

5) I would not, despite everything I've said, go back and get another bachelor's. I was thinking about doing that and all of my advisors reacted very negatively, and now I'm glad I listened. I did take a year of make-up undergrad classes they assigned for the CS degree, and that was sufficient to let me keep my head above water. Another bachelor's would have been expensive and boring, plus much of it would not have been that pertinent. Even with a bachelor's degree in EE, unless you've done a crapload of internships and publications, you are still not guaranteed of getting in somewhere great for a MS, both because of the previously mentioned preference for PhDs, and because I think you may be seriously underestimating the competitiveness for these programs. And wouldn't it kind of suck to have gone to all that trouble and expense and end up back at the same state school you could get a Master's at already?

6) If you *really* want to go somewhere prestigious and make a career in the field, I'd do the state MS program, make contacts with professors in your field that will mentor you and introduce you to people in better programs, go to conferences, get lab experience, and publish. Then you can (possibly) transfer to CMU or GT or UTA or somewhere for a PhD.

(Oh, even though you didn't specifically ask, people get their PhDs without getting a Master's because what some places consider a Master's is rolled up in the PhD. Sometimes they get a certificate that is a "Master's in passing" or if they drop out before doing a dissertation they'll get a terminal Master's. The classwork is pretty much the same, the PhD just has more of it, plus much more in depth research.)
posted by wending my way at 8:39 AM on January 13, 2011

Lots and lots of people go from engineering to unrelated fields (I went from a manufacturing/industrial background into urban planning). That's easy. Going the other way is less fun.

I'd think long and hard about your math and programming skills, not to mention your experience with circuit theory and the like. My engineering BS was one long series of increasingly difficult problem sets for the first three years and I really wouldn't want to jump in the deep end of the pool at a big state school. You'll have a terrible time and really won't get much sympathy from the folks with undergrad engineering degrees who will be your compatriots.

I'd suggest a smaller, less prestigious school that'd be willing to work with you to develop a very customized master's program.
posted by pjaust at 8:44 AM on January 13, 2011

I expect responses telling me to go for the master's, but I'm afraid that would impede my other goal, which is to get that experience I missed of going away to a new city for college. I think I could only get that as an undergrad, being unqualified in most EE programs for an MS.

You're not going to get the experience of going away to a new city for college, period. That ship has sailed and you can't go back. That's not necessarily something to feel bad about, but your experience of being an undergraduate again simply cannot be the same experience as someone doing it for the first time.

You've gone through the experience of acclimating to college's demands vs high school. You've learned to navigate the bureaucracy of a university. You've dealt with scheduling your own time, a school day that isn't a rigid 8-4pm structure, teachers who could give a shit whether you show up for class or not etc etc etc.

I worked my way through school as a commuter and then continued taking classes and pursuing other interests along side "traditional" students. Even if you're experiencing some new things the same time as they are you're still not in the same boat as them. They and you will know that and it'll impact your relationships with them.

That's not a reason not to do it - I turned 40 last year and I've loved being a forever student (or a "lifetime learner" in the university vernacular). But it's not the same experience for me as it is for them. It certainly isn't now that I'm close to their parents' ages but it wasn't even when I was 22.

Pursue the new challenges and enjoy them, but do it in the context of capturing new things, not trying to fill spaces where you feel like you missed some nebulous experience. You can't go back in that way.
posted by phearlez at 8:49 AM on January 13, 2011

An EE degree would not be "harder" than a liberal arts degrees. Liberal arts degrees take just as much work as any other degrees. It would just require learning a lot of totally new information for you.
posted by Lobster Garden at 9:33 AM on January 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Right now I am in the middle of wending my way's step #6. So far, it is working out nicely. However, before I decided on this path, I did a lot of informational interviewing and emailing with people working in the field that I want to go into (and, later on in the process, graduate students in the departments I was considering). This was a good experience for me because it eased some of my doubts about the potential risks as well as alerting me to pitfalls that I had not known about. I apologize if this is something you have already done, but I thought I would mention it because this process turned out to be very valuable for me, and I probably would not have spent as much time on if I hadn't had a mentor who strongly encouraged it.
posted by mustard seeds at 9:41 AM on January 13, 2011

If OP is the sort of person who has a natural aptitude for the types of skills and materials that are taught in a liberal arts program (which I assumed they were, since they had that degree), an EE degree will probably be harder for them, as it would be for most of the American population who attended public schools that are weak in math and science.

I don't think engineering is necessarily objectively harder, and the job prospects and pay with a liberal arts degree may actually be better, possibly commensurate with its usefulness. But from what OP describes, I am giving it at least a 90% chance that they end up considering their EE degree "harder." Not just "different."
posted by wending my way at 10:29 AM on January 13, 2011

On topic:

I think your best course of action is to contact the programs you are interested in and ask them what background they require. They may even have this information listed on their websites. I doubt they will require an EE BS, but they will definitely require certain classes. You can take these classes locally as a non-degree student, but if you want to get in someplace prestigious, make sure you're taking these classes at a well recognized school.

Slightly off topic:

It's not fair to say that liberal arts degrees are any more or less difficult than engineering or science degrees.

But there is an extra challenge in coming into a quantitative science: the necessary math background. Math is cumulative - typically in liberal arts fields, classes can be taken in parallel, but in math, in the beginning at least, they must be taken in series. And then, only after you have the necessary math can you really understand what you're being taught in your science & engineering classes. So, it may take a couple years to get all the required math classes.
posted by Tooty McTootsalot at 11:28 AM on January 13, 2011

I sorta did this. My undergraduate degree is in international studies. My masters is in finance. I went to a very prestigious private school with a strong analytical approach for my graduate education. Have you taken any necessary entrance exams yet? I know nothing about engineering specifically, but for me I needed the GMAT for most programs I applied to. Once I took it and did extremely well on it, most programs were more than willing to talk to me despite my lack of hard core math as an undergrad because I'd proven an aptitude for it. This was in spite of their published material indicating some math prereqs that I lacked. Is there an engineering equivalent? I imagine most EE programs would want some evidence that you could handle the workload and this might provide it.

As far as the experience of a BS in a new city----depending on how long you've been out of school, regular college students will likely annoy the hell out of you. Go for the masters, in a new city, and you'll meet tons of other students and have a very similar "going away to school" experience, without the kids learning how to drink, and with a crowd closer to your age and experience level.
posted by supercapitalist at 12:08 PM on January 13, 2011

I did something like this too. Religion and psych BAs the first time through college. Wasn't thrilled with the various positions I held related to those fields. Moved West and ended up going to school part time at the undergrad level in geology while I worked full time to pay the bills. Retooled with the basics like calculus, chemistry, physics, and close to the full complement of geology classes for the BS over about three years. Never finished the BS as I was then able to get into a grad school with only a couple deficiencies to make up. A couple years as a full time student in grad school while supported by research & teaching stipends and student loans and I got an MS. Was it worth it? Yeah, but what a grind those years were. Ultimately, you don't need the bachelors degree itself, but you do need a good chunk of material covered at that level. If the alma mater is willing to take you on now as a grad student (and the funding mechanisms make sense for you), then go that route to get the MS. By that time, you'll know if going for the PhD is what you really want to do or not. Good luck.
posted by pappy at 12:12 PM on January 13, 2011

My husband has a Bachelors in International Relations. Fast forward 3 years, and he realized he really didn't want to do anything that had to do with that. He's now in grad school to become a history teacher, and is very very happy. ta da!
posted by assasinatdbeauty at 12:22 PM on January 13, 2011

Why not take some classes in this program through open university? That way you can find out if you like the department. Are you planning on finding work in this field in your area?
posted by shinyshiny at 12:25 PM on January 13, 2011

If you want to do grad-level work in EE you need to have the math and theory down really solid so that you understand it at an intuitive level. However, I think it is possible for someone dedicated and hard working to get to the required level with maybe two years of undergraduate coursework, where the full bachelor's degree takes four. Thus you could have a master's in 4 years instead of a BS and master's in 6. Maybe less, if you can compress the coursework even further, but that's doubtful to me. I expect the reason most people advise you to avoid getting another BS is because of the time and financial commitments you could thus avoid.

If however this is not an issue for you -- you could do a BS in EE at a good school and have a really good time. There are a lot of opportunities for students who know what they want to get out of a degree, such as competition-centered clubs (where you can build robots), research assistantships for professors, and so on. You could really throw yourself into it, and be well-positioned for a new career, even without the need for graduate study afterward, though it would be an option.

Be cautious about romanticizing it though. The cultural experience of living in a dorm and going to frat parties and having the "college" experience is going to be less available to you because of your age. I wish this wasn't true but it is; the kids are like 18 in first year, and to the average 18 year old you are "old" in your mid-20's and from a different generation altogether in your 30's. There will be a gap between you and them. Not insurmountable, but there nonetheless.
posted by PercussivePaul at 12:57 PM on January 13, 2011

If I'm reading correctly, it looks like you are basing your decision on what two advisors from your alma mater said. In my experience, advisors frequently don't know what they are talking about when it comes to schools other than their own. I tend not to trust advisors in general and do a lot of my own research when it comes to choosing coursework/ schools. If I were you, I'd spend some quality time on the internet looking up what your various options are. Figure out what schools have programs you're interested in and which ones you might possibly have a shot at getting into, and what exactly you'd have to do in order to get in. All this information is out there, you just have to dig it up. Wouldn't you rather read it yourself than trust an advisor? This is how I managed to go from art undergraduate to medical student (with a stop in graduate school along the way.) Any advisor with half a brain would have told me I had no chance whatsoever. But based on the information I'd dug up online, I felt that I had a shot at admission if I pursued it the right way.

Point of the story is, yes, people can do an academic 180. But as a non-traditional student, a lot of advisors (hell, lots of people in general) will have bad advice for you. Choose your sources of information wisely. When I was thinking about medical school, I didn't set up an appointment with my advisor at my old school. I figured there was only a very slim chance of them knowing how to help me. Instead I made an appointment with an admissions person at a nearby medical school and said, here's my story, what the heck should I do? He gave me advice, I followed it exactly. And 3 years later I got an acceptance to that school (as well as a couple better ones, and I'm a student at one of them now.) So it sounds kind of cheesy but don't let anyone tell you what you can't do. If you really can't, you'll figure it out on your own eventually.But I'd be surprised if you couldn't get into a program if you set your mind to it.

Just keep in mind that if you're going to try to do it (which I so think you should) then you need to commit to it and make sure you really mean it when you say this:

2. One reason I want to go back at all is to push myself the way I never had to the first time around

That's exactly how I felt. You have to embrace that feeling otherwise, once you're in, the excitement will wear off and you will get discouraged very quickly. I went from being the best in my previous area of study, to being at the absolute bottom of the class in my graduate program in a new field. Ooooh boy did that suck and make me feel like a dumb-ass loser. It kinda felt like drowning, but somehow I managed to tread water and finally start swimming by the end. But I was working twice as hard as my classmates, just to pass, because I didn't have the background they did. I was constantly having to look up vocabulary and concepts that everyone else seemed to have down already. It was pretty rough for a while but I got through it by reminding myself over and over that I was chasing my dream and it was worth it and I could do it. I'm doing great now- I've caught up to the level of my classmates, and it no longer matters what my undergrad degree was in, other than it's kind of a cool story to tell!

Oh and as far as the wanna-be-in-a-prestigious-program thing. Yeah, I had that too for a while, but that's the main drawback of being a nontraditional student. There were some schools I was not competitive at due to my background, and it was disappointing, but I got over it. The school I'm at now is a great fit. I definitely think you could go somewhere other than your alma mater, but don't get too hung up on big-name schools. Your focus at the moment should be on the goal of simply getting into a program you like that isn't your old school. Oops . . . I tried to keep this short but it didn't really work. Still, I could go on all day about this, so feel free to message me if you want to hear more about what my experience was like doing "the 180."
posted by GastrocNemesis at 5:24 PM on January 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you everyone for your responses. I have a better idea of what I should be doing and will come back to update. For the record, what I meant by a "college experience" was not so much sneaking alcohol into dorms as studying in the library, commiserating with fellow students, and adapting to a new city, which in retrospect could just as easily be achieved as a grad student. Coming from a commuter school, this was hard for me to understand. Hi Perspective, nice to see you.
posted by therewolf at 10:38 PM on January 14, 2011

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