Suggestions for Current and Prospective Graduate Students

Prof. Brian L. Evans
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
1 University Station C0803
The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX 78712

04/06/14

I have been compiling this informal document while answering questions that my own graduate students and prospective graduate students have been posing to me. This information is not an official document of UT Austin. The opinions expressed in this document are my own. I try to keep the information updated. Please feel free to send suggestions to me at bevans@ece.utexas.edu.

The article "Advice for Graduate Students", provides a valuable prospective on graduate studies from Professor Stephen C. Stearns, Dept. of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Yale University. I differ with the article on three counts, and all three counts relate to my perspective as a Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. First, I would recommend that graduate ECE students take significant coursework to build breadth in the field and depth for your research. Building a solid foundation will be critical not only for graduate studies in the short term but also for one's career in the long term. Second, I would recommend that graduate ECE students seek significant summer research opportunities to enhance their PhD research, e.g. at a corporate R&D laboratory. Third, the decision to drop out of graduate school should be taken with due diligence and great care. One natural place for graduate ECE students to take a break from graduate studies is right after receiving the MS ECE degree. The longer the break, the less likely the student will return for graduate studies and the harder the transition back to academic studies if the student were to return.


Table of Contents
1.0 MS or Ph.D? That is the question.

2.0 Admission and financial support

3.0 Planning your Coursework 4.0 Other information


1.0 MS or Ph.D.? That is the question

A great reference for deciding whether a Master's degree or Ph.D. degree is right for you and discerning what kind of research group matches you the best is

Robert L. Peters, Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student's Guide to Earning a Master's or a Ph.D., revised ed., Noonday Press, ISBN 0374524777, 1997.

My personal thoughts on MS vs. PhD:

2.0 Admission and financial support

2.1 Corresponding with Professors

Professors, as you might guess, are extremely busy. A professor may receive hundreds of e-mail messages from prospective graduate students each year. It is important for your e-mail to catch the professor's attention.

When you correspond with professors, it is in your best interest to keep the correspondence short (e.g. less than 1000 characters) and customize a letter to each professor. Many professors refuse to answer form letters.

To customize your e-mail message, you might spend one or two sentences on each of the following topics:

Always attach a resume (preferably in PDF format) or provide a Web address for resume. I've compiled suggestions for resumes.

2.2 Should I Stay or Should I Go?

If you are an undergraduate ECE student at a university with a top graduate ECE program, then it might be worthwhile evaluating your own graduate ECE program for possible graduate studies. Top graduate ECE programs neither force their undergraduate students to go somewhere else for graduate study nor coerce them to stay.

UT Austin graduates about 240 BS ECE students each year, and of these, about 60 go to graduate school. Each year, about 20 of the 60 stay for graduate ECE studies at UT Austin. In Spring 2006, 100 of the 570 enrolled graduate ECE students at UT Austin had received a Bachelor's degree from UT Austin.

At UT Austin, the ECE Department has about 65 tenured and tenure-track faculty members. An ECE undergraduate student would meet 15-20 of them through taking undergraduate ECE courses. That leaves about 40 tenured and tenure-track faculty members unexplored for being potential research advisors. In addition, graduate ECE students can consider faculty outside of the ECE department as their research advisors. UT Austin has about 2,600 faculty.

2.3 Application for Graduate ECE Studies

Because admission rates for top graduate programs run 10-15%, it is common for a student to apply to 7-10 graduate ECE programs. The entire application matters. Be sure to include a resume whether it is asked for or not.

An admissions committee will certainly evaluate the applicant's cumulative GPA. Students with upper division grade point averages of 3.0 or higher (on a 4.0 scale) should be able to gain admission into at least one of the 100+ graduate ECE programs in the US. There is no minimum upper division grade point average for admission for graduate ECE studies at UT Austin. Performance in specific courses (described next) really matter.

Application evaluation committees will look carefully at the transcript. In particular, they will be looking at the grades in the courses most related to success in graduate school in general and preparation for the specialization in particular. Courses related to general success including engineering communication (formerly called technical writing), senior design project, upper division electives and mathematics courses. The mathematics courses are important because graduate study is more formal and rigorous

For graduate study applications, the minimum number of recommendation letters is three. I would recommend that all recommendations come from current or former faculty members who have taught you in at least course. They know what is important to emphasize in their letters. Here are faculty members to consider asking for recommendations (in order of significance):

  1. Supervisor of your senior design project
  2. Instructor in a third-year or fourth-year undergraduate course directly related to the specialization to which you are applying
  3. Instructor in a first-year or second-year undergraduate course directly related to the specialization to which you are applying

The statement of purpose is discussed next.

2.4 Statement of Purpose

Applications for graduate ECE study generally require a statement of purpose. A statement of purpose should not exceed one page of 11pt, single-spaced text. In the statement of purpose, do not include information about what you accomplished prior to college. Here is an outline of a good statement of purpose by paragraph:
  1. Introduction. Here are example first sentences: Other reasons for getting a PhD degree include wanting to become a professor and wanting to start a company. For the second sentence, you could say that you're finishing a BSEE degree at university z in Spring 2013 with specializations in x and y. The third sentence could express how the undergraduate specializations are related to the specialization you'd like to pursue in graduate school.
  2. Experiences in undergraduate electives.
  3. Experiences in senior design course and in undergraduate research
  4. Experiences in summer internships
  5. Summary. Why are you applying to this particular graduate program? Which projects interest you? Which faculty would you like to work with and why (give at least three faculty). What do you plan to do with the your graduate degree after graduation?

2.5 Financial Support

Financial support comes in a variety of forms for graduate ECE students: Here are things to do in becoming a teaching assistant (TA) for the first time: If you have already been a TA, then you will still need to apply for a position for each new semester. For more information about teaching assistantships for international students, please see International Teaching Assistant English Certification.

You should plan on funding your first year of graduate studies if you have not received a written offer of financial support prior to enrolling in a graduate program.

If you are a US citizen or permanent resident and have support on a fellowship or research assistantship which pays $16,000 or more per year in stipend or salary, then you may qualify for a two-year College of Engineering Thrust 2000 Supplemental Fellowship. The fellowships are for up to $9,000 per year. The criteria include a high upper division grade point average and high graduate record exam (GRE) scores. To be considered for a fellowship, you must apply to graduate school by January 15th, and your GRE scores must be reported to the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering by this time. Nominations for the Engineering Thrust 2000 Supplemental Fellowship come from the various engineering departments. It is not something for which you can apply.

2.6 Admission for Graduate EE study in Communication Systems

On the application for graduate EE study, you may choose to apply to two curriculum tracks. If you are admitted, then you will be admitted into one curriculum track. Every curriculum track has some overlap with communication systems. Those interested in graduate EE study in communication systems are likely to choose one of the following curriculum tracks:

During the admissions process, we evaluate your entire record, including the quality of your undergraduate institution, grades in junior/senior courses, GRE scores, letters of recommendation, statement of purpose, transcript, work experience (if applicable), and TOEFL scores (if applicable).

For admission to the CommNetS curriculum track, we would prefer that admitted students would be able to take graduate CommNetS courses immediately upon enrolling for graduate study and perform well in them. Taking as many of the following courses as possible would help you do that:

Some applicants have been able to pick up the equivalent knowledge at work (e.g. through short courses and hands-on experience) for some of these courses. It is important to point this out in your statement of purpose.

2.7 International Students

You will need a social security number to be employed at the university. A permanent Social Security number can be obtained from the local Social Security Office. There is a waiting period of 10 business days for a social security card (with the permanent social security number) to be issued. Please arrive a couple weeks before the semester begins to allow enough time to process your paperwork. If you do not arrive far enough ahead of time, then your first paycheck may be delayed for an entire month.

Newly enrolling UT Austin graduate students should see Ms. Melanie Gulick in the ECE Graduate Office (ENS 101) and a counselor in the International Office. After being in the US for at least 10 days, newly enrolling UT Austin international graduate students should go to the Federal Building located near Cameron Road and Interstate 35 to apply for a social security number. There is a city bus that goes from the university campus to the area near the federal building. Please see Ms. Melanie Gulick for more details.

3.0 Planning your Coursework

It is very important to plan out all of your courses for your MS or Ph.D. degree in advance. Some graduate courses are taught every year, and some are taught every other year. Only three graduate courses are offered every Fall and Spring semester: EE382M-7 VLSI I, EE390C Statistical Methods in Engineering, and EE396K-8 VLSI Fabrication Techniques. We rarely offer ECE graduate courses or ECE undergraduate electives in the summer.

Planning ahead will be important in making sure that you are able to fit in all the courses you want to take. For those who are planning to do a Ph.D., the choice of courses to take is strongly related to one's research topic. In order to transfer a graduate course to UT Austin, you would not be able to take a course that is essentially the same and apply both to a graduate degree.

3.1 Course Load and Explanation of Course Numbers

A full-time load for graduate students is nine credit hours in the Fall and Spring semesters, and three credit hours in the Summer term. At UT Austin, the course numbering scheme is unusual. It is cgnl-t where c is the number of credits, g is the grade level, nl is the subject area represented by a number and a letter, and t is the topic number. The grade level (middle digit) means the following: So, EE371R is a three-hour, senior, elective EE class, and EE381K-2 is a three-hour graduate course.

3.2 Coursework Requirements

In order to apply a course toward a graduate EE degree, a grade of A or B should be received in that course. No more than one course with a grade of C or C+ may be applied towards a graduate EE degree.

You may transfer up to six credit hours of graduate coursework taken at another university (provided that the coursework was not applied to a degree) towards an MSEE degree. For the PhD coursework requirements, up to 18 semester credit hours of formal graduate-level coursework (which excludes research problems, conference course, MS report and MS thesis hours) taken at another university may be transferred, even if those hours had been applied toward a graduate degree. However, if you retake the same graduate course at UT Austin that you took at another university, then the course will not generally transfer. UT Austin requires that you take at least 18 hours of coursework on site. The Graduate ECE program requires that you take at least 12 hours of formal coursework, although this requirement might be higher depending on the curriculum track in which you are enrolled.

To satisfy the Ph.D. course requirements, you will need to take

Formal lecture courses do not include research problems, conference courses, graduate research internship, MS report or MS thesis courses.

For the MSEE degree, there are three options: MS thesis, MS report, and MS non-thesis/non-report. The best option is somewhat dependent on your research direction. MSEE students at UT Austin are roughly divided equally among these three options.

For the three MSEE options, the coursework requirements vary:

No more than 6 semester hours of upper-division undergraduate elective coursework may be included on the MS ECE Program of Work. Upper division courses have a middle digit of 2-7 and are generally taken by undergraduates in the third or fourth year of studies.

ECE Master's Program of Work Form

3.3 Choosing Courses and Instructors

Many graduate courses are only taught by one instructor. For some graduate courses, two or three professors alternate teaching it. Examples of graduate courses having multiple instructors alternating to teach them include EE381J Probability and Stochastic Processes (every Fall), EE381K-13 Communication Networks: Analysis and Design (every Spring), EE382M-7 VLSI I (every Fall) and EE382N-1 Computer Architecture (every Fall and Spring). In the Summer, it is rare that any graduate ECE courses would be offered.

Here are a few pointers for choosing courses and instructors:

  1. Read about the Graduate ECE Program, which includes course descriptions.
  2. Check the course evaluations for the instructors for a particular course. You can do this as soon as you have an UT electronic ID. Numeric courses evaluation scores are on a scale of 1-5, with 1 being poor and 5 being excellent.
  3. Check free online sites for more information about UT courses and instructors, including grade distributions and student comments:
  4. Ask other students.
  5. Talk to the faculty members who are scheduled to teach the courses in which you are interested.
  6. Talk to the faculty member who is the academic advisor for the curriculum track in which you are enrolled
  7. Plan out all courses for your degree objective to make sure that you schedule everything correctly, e.g. to take the appropriate the pre-requisites. Scheduling 10 graduate courses distributed properly between major and supporting work will simultaneously satisfy the coursework requirements for both an MS non-thesis/non-report option and the PhD coursework requirements. I have compiled a two-year pattern of graduate ECE course offerings for 2014-2016 and a two-year pattern of undergraduate ECE course offerings for 2014-2016. Some graduate courses are only offered every other year. Develop the plan with your research advisor, or the academic curriculum track advisor if you do not have a research advisor. Taking the right distribution of the 10 graduate-level courses will also satisfy the PhDEE coursework requirements.
The next section contains example courses for several possible graduate ECE degree plans for different specializations, including the instructors who are currently scheduled to teach the courses.

3.4 Specializations

Next, I give several common choices of courses for a particular research interest.

3.4.1 Digital Signal Processing

For this specialization, you would probably be enrolled in the Communications, Networks, and Systems curriculum track as a graduate EE student at UT Austin. This sequence below assumes that you have already had undergraduate courses in probability and random processes, digital signal processing, digital communications, and data structures in C++.

3.4.2 Digital Communication Systems

For this specialization, you would probably be enrolled in the Communications, Networks, and Systems curriculum track as a graduate EE student at UT Austin. This sequence below assumes that you have already had undergraduate courses in probability and random processes, digital signal processing, and digital communications.

3.4.3 Analog/RF/Digital Communication Systems

For this specialization, you would likely be enrolled in one of the following curriculum tracks: Here is a five-semester sequence in the theory, algorithms, design, and implementation of analog/RF/digital communication systems. This sequence assumes that you have already had at least two undergraduate courses in electronics. It is important not to repeat a graduate course at UT Austin that you have taken elsewhere as a graduate course. Instead, build on what you have learned.

3.4.4 Networking Protocols and Design

For this specialization, you will need to be enrolled in either the Communications, Networks, and Systems curriculum track or the Computer Architecture and Embedded Processors curriculum track as a graduate EE student at UT Austin. Here is a five-semester sequence in networking to satisfy the Ph.D.E.E. coursework requirements. This sequence assumes that you have already had an undergraduate course in real analysis and an undergraduate course in operating systems. It is important not to repeat a graduate course at UT Austin that you have taken elsewhere as a graduate course. Instead, build on what you have learned.

3.4.5 Networking Modeling, Analysis, and Design

For this specialization, you will need to be enrolled in the Communications, Networks, and Systems curriculum track as a graduate EE student at UT Austin. Here is a five-semester sequence in networking to satisfy the Ph.D.E.E. coursework requirements. It is important not to repeat a graduate course at UT Austin that you have taken elsewhere as a graduate course. Instead, build on what you have learned.

3.4.6 Digital Image and Video Processing

For this specialization, you would probably be enrolled in the Communications, Networks, and Systems curriculum track as a graduate EE student at UT Austin. This sequence below assumes that you have already had undergraduate courses in probability and random processes, digital signal processing, digital communications, and data structures in C++.

3.4.7 Data Mining and Pattern Recognition

Data mining is a large field that includes linear algebra, signal processing, image processing, probability, random processes, statistics, estimation theory, information theory, optimization, algorithms, and distributed computing.

For this specialization, you would most likely be enrolled in either the Communications, Networks, and Systems curriculum track as a graduate EE student at UT Austin. For those interested in pattern recognition and data mining, especially as applied to image and video processing, here is a set of courses in the area. This plan would satisfy the coursework requirements for a Ph.D.E.E. degree. It is important not to repeat a graduate course at UT Austin that you have taken elsewhere as a graduate course. Instead, build on what you have learned.

3.4.8 Embedded Digital Systems

For this specialization, you would likely be enrolled in one of the following curriculum tracks at UT Austin: For those interested in embedded digital systems motivated by applications signal processing and communications, here is an example set of courses. This plan would satisfy the coursework requirements for a Ph.D.E.E. degree. It is important not to repeat a graduate course at UT Austin that you have taken elsewhere as a graduate course. Instead, build on what you have learned.

3.5 General Suggestions

The first set of coursework suggestions is for incoming students who do not have MSEE degree. The second set is for incoming students who already have an MSEE degree. It is important not to repeat a graduate course at UT Austin that you have taken elsewhere as a graduate course. Instead, build on what you have learned. If you have been out of school for a couple of years or more, then repeating a course is not necessarily a bad idea.

If you are coming to UT Austin with a B.S.E.E. degree, then the following schedule will satisfy your coursework requirements for both the Computer Architecture and Embedded Processors curriculum track and the CommNetS curriculum track, and give you a good background in theory, algorithms, design, and implementation of signal processing systems. At the end of four Fall/Spring semesters, you could have accumulated 30 semester credit hours of formal graduate coursework to fulfill the coursework requirements for the PhDEE degree, and satisfied the PhDEE coursework requirements for either the CommNetS curriculum track or the Computer Architecture and Embedded Processors curriculum track. The fifth or sixth Fall/Spring semester might be a great semester to take the Ph.D. Qualifying Examination. After the qualifying examination, the only remaining requirement would be the successful defense your written Ph.D. dissertation.

When you arrive, be sure to verify your course requirements with your research advisor and the curriculum track academic advisor. If you are enrolled in CommNetS, then you would take at least 4 CommNetS graduate courses, and 2 additional graduate courses. The outside area courses are generally in mathematics or computer science, and you do not have to take the two outside area courses in the same department. One of the "additional ECE courses" and one of the "outside ECE courses" may be undergraduate courses. Check the details with your curriculum track academic advisor. If you are unsure, then check with the Graduate Advisor, Prof. Frank Register.

These six courses may complete the Ph.D.E.E. course requirements for the Computer Engineering Area, depending on what you are able to have transferred from your MSEE degree. What remains is taking up to two courses outside the department, and up to three more computer engineering courses.

3.6 Entering Students who do not have an Electrical Engineering degree

If you do not have an Electrical Engineering degree, then you will need to take a series of "cross-over" courses to convert your degree into an Electrical Engineering degree. For questions about what extra courseload is required, talk to the graduate office or the graduate advisor (Prof. Frank Register).

3.7 Supporting Coursework for the M.S. and Ph.D. Degrees

In order to obtain a Master's degree, you must complete 30 credit hours. The MS Thesis counts six credit hours and the MS Report counts three credit hours. The remaining credit hours (24 for MS Thesis, 27 for MS Report and 30 for non-Thesis/non-Report option) must be fulfilled by formal courses. Formal courses do not include independent study courses and seminars.

For the formal courses, at least 18 credit hours must be in major work (in your curriculum track) and at least 6 credit hours in supporting work (not in your curriculum track). Supporting work could be in another department. For the Master's degree, you can apply up to six credit hours of formal undergraduate upper-division elective courses.

Supporting coursework is meant to give students breadth of knowledge to complement the depth of knowledge in their major work. Supporting coursework should be complementary to your primary curriculum track of study without duplicating the courses you have taken in your primary curriculum track of study. This supporting work rule applies to the sum total of ALL of the graduate courses you have ever taken, including those taken at schools other than UT.

Please see the Academic Advisor for your curriculum track for more information about supporting coursework.

3.8 Beneficial Courses to Take Outside of Electrical and Computer Engineering

There are many excellent courses in mathematics and computer science that are relevant to research in electrical and computer engineering. Some of the useful undergraduate courses are:

Some of the useful graduate courses are:

The italicized courses are highly related to much of the signal and image processing research I do.

3.9 Working with Me

If you are interested in working with me, I suggest that you apply to either the Communications, Networks, and Systems (CommNetS) curriculum track or the Computer Architecture and Embedded Processors curriculum track or the in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. If you were admitted in the Computer Architecture and Embedded Processors curriculum track, then I would recommend that you take your ECE supporting work in CommNetS. If you were admitted in the CommNetS curriculum track, then I would recommend that you take your ECE supporting work in Computer Architecture and Embedded Processors. In either case, I recommend that you take as many signal/image processing and embedded systems courses as you can, and that you take your outside department supporting work in mathematics, computer science, and computational psychology. The department regularly offers more then ten undergraduate and more than twenty graduate courses in signal and image processing.

4.0 Other information

4.1 Robotics and Controls

If you are interested in research robotics and controls as a graduate electrical engineering student, then here is a list of the faculty in the Dept. of ECE who work in systems and controls: Here are the faculty who work in robotics/mechatronics: Prof. Tesar is the director of the Robotics Research Group.

The student IEEE chapter has three active robot teams:

4.2 Part-Time Degree

In the conventional graduate EE program as of November of 2001, 165 of the 548 graduate students (about 30%) were attending on a part-time basis. This path takes 5-6 years to complete an MS degree. The alternate path is an option 3 program, which takes about two years but very few courses are offered in this format. Hence, while working full-time, you have three choices to obtain an MSEE degree:
  1. MSEE degree through the conventional program (option 1). The best route is to do an MSEE degree with a report option. You would take nine formal lecture-style courses, plus do an MS report and register for an MS report course. The MS report is a description of an implementation, and does not have to represent new original research. In Fall and Spring semesters, we offer a wide variety of graduate courses in the evening, esp. in the circuit design, computer engineering, and communications curriculum tracks. We offer few if any graduate ECE courses in Summer. By taking one course per Fall/Spring semester, you could finish in nine semesters (i.e., four years and one semester). Although ECE doesn't offer any graduate ECE courses or undergraduate ECE electives in the summer, there are graduate courses and undergraduate electives in mathematics and computer science taught each summer. By taking one course in each Fall, Spring and Summer semester, you could finish in three years. Admissions for part-time enrollment for the MSEE degree is handled with the applications for full-time enrollment.

  2. MSEE degree through the Software Engineering Program (option 3). This option meets one Friday/Saturday each month all year long. You would take two formal courses each Fall/Spring semester, and one course each summer. The key drawback is that only four or five courses are offered each Fall/Spring semester in this format. The good news is that the courses and instructors are the generally same as the ones in the conventional MSEE program. At the end of the two full years, you would have completed an MS degree in Software Engineering with an MS report option.
A part-time Ph.D. is possible but extremely difficult to manage. According to National Science Foundation statistics, it takes about 5.5 years of full-time graduate study in engineering after the BS degree to finish the PhD degree. Let's assume that a full-time graduate student devotes 60 hours per week to coursework and research, and a part-time graduate student devotes 20 hours per week. It would then take the part-time graduate student 16.5 years to finish a PhD degree after the BS degree. A lot can happen in one's life over 16.5 years. The more aligned the person's full-time employment is with his/her research, the faster the finish.


Last updated 04/06/14. Mail comments about this page to bevans@ece.utexas.edu.