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Advice Column for ECE MS Students

This is Prof. James C. Hoe’s personal and unofficial recommendations to an ECE Professional MS student. (Note to non-CMU visitors: MS in ECE at CMU is a course-based terminal program.) You may also want to see what I have to say in my undergraduate blog in particular the topic on studying effectively.

This blog is new as of August 2011. I will continue to expand this page as time goes on. This page does not reflect the opinions of anyone else, and there is no guarantee of suitability (as with most things you see on the web). I believe every word I said, but that doesn’t mean you should too. This writing is informal, but please help me make this better by pointing out mistakes.

Choosing Courses

How many courses to take?

My rule of thumb for MS students is no more than 3 technical courses per term and try to do a great job in them. The thing to realize is that many ECE courses have very substantial hands-on project elements that are almost always loaded toward the last few weeks of the semester. Throw in some random events like a partner dropping the course or you catching a cold, what may seem like a breeze in the first month will become the perfect storm come November or April.

What courses to take?

In general, I advise students against the strategy of “I am interested in X, and therefore I am going to take every course CMU has on X.” (To simplify this conversation, I assume you are without any doubt interested in X. You would be surprised how often even this basic assumption fails to play out.) Courses can only provide foundation knowledge; you do not become really good at X from taking courses. In the time you will spend at CMU, certainly you should take courses in your chosen area of specialization, but how valuable is the N+1 course after having taken N courses already? Are you not going to be better off doing a research project? (After all, once properly prepared, doing things on your own is how you become really good at it.) Furthermore, think harder about what other topics you might also be interested in or can supplement your career objectives. It may be counterintuitive, but, to become an expert on X, you are going to need to know a lot more than just X.

The company will hire me only if I take course X.

I am pretty sure you misunderstood. The company wants you to know what is taught in course X; the company doesn't care where you learned it from. (Clearly, if you took course X but learned nothing, the company is not going to hire you just because you took the course.)

If the company won't consider you even though you are truly well versed in the skills and background they need, perhaps you are not presenting yourself correctly on your resume or during interviews. CMU's Career Center is a wonderful resource to help you soup up your resume and to train you with mock interviews.

If you want to work for the company and you are weak on the materials covered in course X, then yes, please take course X.

Fix the problem not the symptom.

Doing a Research Project

When is a good time to start?

I get a lot of queries from incoming MS students about doing a research project. Working on a project is definitely a great way to enhance your MS study and your future job/academic prospects.

In most cases, my advice to first-semester MS students is to not jump into research in the first term. Spend the first semester settling in (taking no more than 3 technical courses). After one term, you will have a better sense for the courses' demands on your time. You will also hopefully have a better sense of what you want to do. Many of the courses have term projects which (if you do a great job) could be expanded into a longer term effort. You will be much more likely to succeed in securing a position when you approach the professors with very specific goals and a little bit of track-record after the first sememster.

Approaching a Professor for Research Projects

As noted above, you will be much more likely to succeed in securing a position if you approach the professors with very specific goals and a little bit of track-record. Do not do the following.

  • Do not send the same generic email to multiple professors. Do not tell an computer architect how you are very interested in nothing in particular or something not computer architecture. You are not going to get a position by saying “I am very good at everything;” “I will do anything;” or “just give me something to work on.” In general, professors are not looking for availability of labor; we are looking for a genuine interest and commitment.
  • Do not contact a professor if you don't already know what he/she does. Visit his/her research website; read a few papers. It helps a lot to be able to say something specific and to offer some ideas of what you would like to do.
  • Do not be unprepared to answer the question, “why do you want to do a research project?” (An honest answer like “I need the units to graduate” will work in some circumstances.)
  • Do not leave out your resume on the initial email (or not have it when you visit). There may not be a second exchange; get your foot in the door.
  • Do not be invisible or do a mediocore job in a course then ask the instructor for a position at the end of the semester.
  • Do not be fixated on a particular project or a particular professor.

As with many other things desirable and scarce in life, persistence, patience and boldness count in getting what you want. Don't be discouraged if you don't hear back or gets turned down. Try, try again. On the other hand, you do have to have something real to offer when you approach a professor. Your own eagerness or desire is not enough; you will not get anywhere if you are not willing to invest the time up front to brush up your resume, to investigate the research opportunities or to do an impressive job in a course.

Teaching Assistantship

Serving as a TA is a great way to reinforce your knowledge and to help offset the cost of going to CMU. At the start of each semester I give a pep talk to the ECE TAs. In short, as with this and any future jobs, (1) know what you are signed up to do; (2) don't promise what you cannot do; (3) do what you promised; and (4) give all those affected as much advanced warning as possible if you are going to come up short on your promise.

Any Questions?

Didn’t find the answers you were looking for? Try emailing me the question directly. How to contact me.