Three Minutes with Assoc. Dean Athina Markopoulou

Electrical engineering and computer science professor Athina Markopoulou is the new associate dean for Graduate and Professional Studies in the Samueli School of Engineering. She shared briefly about her goals in her new role, as well as graduate degrees that the UCI School of Engineering offers and how students can find the right program for their professional goals.

What are your goals for the UCI Samueli School of Engineering graduate programs?

I have three sets of goals corresponding to the time periods a student engages with our school: before the student joins UCI, during the student’s graduate or professional studies, and after the student graduates. Goals related to the “before” and “after” include continuing to build the school’s outreach, reputation, engagement, job placement record and alumni base. The “during” part includes providing students education, development and experience, funding guarantees they need throughout their doctoral studies, and positioning them to secure the jobs they desire after graduation.

What is the key difference between a master’s degree and a Ph.D.?

The first obvious difference is the duration of studies – M.Eng is a year, M.S. takes one to two years, while a Ph.D. typically takes around four to five years to complete. All three degrees involve coursework, but there is a difference in the focus and final deliverables. In the Ph.D. program, the student is trained in conducting research on a focused, specialized topic, producing publications throughout the studies, culminating eventually in the Ph.D. thesis. The thesis is optional in the M.S. and the M.Eng program has a capstone project. These differences are true in general, across U.S. institutions, not unique to UCI.

What are some of the differentiating factors between the M.S. and M.Eng degrees at UCI?

As I mentioned above, the M.S./Ph.D. track puts a strong emphasis on research, while the M.Eng is more focused on leadership skills and experiential learning. In the M.S. program, students have the option to end with a research thesis, while M.Eng students finish their degree with an industry-led capstone project. Additionally, the M.S. degree offers more specific topics for students to specialize in, allowing students to go deeper into their chosen field of study, while the M.Eng degree offers more general tracks, allowing students to widen their knowledge base.

What factors should be considered when deciding between an M.S., a Ph.D. or an M.Eng?

A student should consider the type of intellectual work that best fits them and their long-term personal and professional goals. Do they want to work in academia, research and development, industry, or be an entrepreneur? Do they want to become research, technical or business leaders, or even educators? Each of our three programs has aspects that equip students with skills that support these aspirations.

Some other considerations are practical. One of those is cost: a Ph.D. should be fully funded, while the master’s programs are typically not. That being said, M.Eng and M.S. students are earning competitive salaries when they enter industry after completing the program, so the return on investment is immediate. Students who have completed their M.S. degree are extremely well-placed to continue their graduate studies in a Ph.D. program. Students who complete their M.Eng are also well-positioned to become technical and/or business leaders. Time is also a consideration – like I said earlier, doing a Ph.D. takes much longer than an M.S. or M.Eng and has a much narrower research focus. The M.Eng program, in particular, is both shorter and gives students direct exposure to industry through networking, entrepreneurship and leadership training, competitions and other opportunities.

What makes UCI’s M.Eng program unique?

Students at UCI have abundant access to training in essential skills – things like business strategies, communication and teamwork. M.Eng students receive support from the Career Center, which includes specific one-on-one attention and support to get jobs and to learn how to approach things like salary negotiations. Many of our students are international, and the essential skills training we offer is especially helpful for them, as these skills aren’t often taught in engineering programs outside of the U.S. The UCI Beall Applied Innovation is another asset, particularly relevant to M. Eng enrollees, as it connects UCI students and faculty to the local industry and entrepreneurial ecosystem.