I was asked to answer a question on Quora about grad school and preparing for a career in photovoltaics and device engineering—presumably because I’m going to grad school and preparing for a career in photovoltaics and device engineering—and I thought the question and answer might be helpful for those considering going to grad school in engineering.
Here’s the question and context:
How do I choose a graduate program and prepare for a career in solid-state device engineering?
I have a B. Sc. in Electrical Engineering and I would like to work with photovoltaics / solid state device physics. My undergraduate degree is not quite enough to let me work in that field outright. So I’m looking to do a graduate degree.
I applied for a 2-year M. Sc. in Physics program and I was assessed for 2 years’ worth of bridging subjects, for a total of 4 years of study. I think that 4 years is quite a long time. The good thing is that I’ve been talking to a professor who does condensed matter physics and photovoltaics and he’s willing to let me join his group.
On the other hand, I have an option to do a 2-year M. Sc. in EE in the field of Microelectronics or Power Electronics. Which one will be a good way to bridge into photovoltaics?
At this university, the Physics department is the more prolific publisher of research output, both locally and internationally. Not that I’m super rich (or else I wouldn’t be asking this question), let’s take the issue of finances out of the equation. Let’s focus on the time investment (I’m 25) and academic learning benefits.
Time-wise, I’m inclined towards EE; but personally, Physics is more appealing to me. Short term, I’d like to know (with an M. Sc. in Physics) if I can compete with microelectronics engineers for solid state device engineering jobs. Long term, I’d like to do a PhD (for which I’ll need publications to get into a program) in photovoltaics. My professional outlook right after finishing my M. Sc. is that I’ll need to work for a while first before I can proceed to do my PhD. An industry job is preferable since it usually pays more. On the subject of publications, I will have achieved that during my stint in the M. Sc. program.
Conversely, I think that doing the Microelectronics track would let me focus with just the necessary training for solid state device physics and do away with the unnecessary physics topics. I would also have a wider range of career choices, not just in photovoltaics.
What are your thought processes when faced with a dilemma like this? What other factors do you consider?
And here’s my answer:
Simple answer: Go with EE.
Let me explain.
Consider these questions:
“Do I want to go to grad school?”
For you, the answer is clearly “Yes.” But if it’s not 100% clear, stop now and think hard.
“Masters or PhD?”
It sounds like you want to pursue a masters degree now and a PhD eventually. Keep that in mind.
“Do I want to go into industry or academia?”
When you’re deciding whether and where to go to grad school, pondering the industry vs. academia fork in the road will guide your decision and give you a lot of insight into your own ambitions. If you want to go the academic route, I strongly suggest pursuing a PhD as soon as possible—jointly with or immediately after your MSc. But from your question, it sounds like you’re preparing for an industry career in device engineering rather than academic research.
“Where do I want to be in 10 years?”
Suppose in a decade from now you want to be doing innovative engineering work in the photovoltaics or microelectronics industry.
“How do I get there?”
- How many years of industry experience do I need before I can reach my goal? As many as possible. It can take the better part of a year to get acclimated and truly integrated in a new work environment, be it company or school, and it’s hard to innovate before you know the existing system and the current state of the art.
- What academic background do I need? At least a couple terms of related engineering coursework beyond the BSc level. Preferably the experience with cutting-edge research that accompanies PhD-level work in any science or engineering discipline.
- How long will it take to get a PhD? Around four years (after the MSc).
- How long will it take to get a MSc? Two to four years, in your case.
Simple math gives you 10 – 4 – (2 to 4) = AMAP (as many as possible).
Simple math tells you to choose the 2-year masters program in EE.
“Am I committed to getting a PhD?”
If there’s a chance that you might stop after the masters and forgo a PhD—and that’s quite likely if you enter a 4-year MS-only program—go for a masters in engineering, not physics. A masters degree alone in physics is often considered to be impractical at best and useless at worst. Although physical intuition is extremely valuable, you’ll end up taking a lot of required classes that would be useful for academic research but not-so-useful for engineering in industry. The key realization is that if your ultimate goal is to work in engineering, you should work in engineering environments (e.g.,, academic or industry research labs) as much as possible. Sure, classes are invaluable preparation, but extra classes often yield diminishing returns while extra engineering experience yields increasing returns, at least at these time scales. Given a fixed amount of time in grad school, then, minimize the length of your MSc program in favor of the PhD.
This line of reasoning suggests that if you’re committed to following through with the PhD, it might be logical to pursue a MSc in physics first. But in your case, however committed you may be, that still may not be true. Those two extra years of “bridging subjects”—and tuition payments—are a deal-breaker.
***Caveat: If you can stretch that MSc in physics into a PhD with the same group (i.e., overlap the 4 years of MSc classes with the ~4 extra years for the PhD, for a total of ~6-7 years)—AND you’re committed to working in photovoltaics—go for it and don’t look back.
“Did I choose the right field?”
If you’re going to do research and work in photovoltaics eventually anyway, does it matter? The only difference this makes in a grad student’s life is where you turn in your forms and where you get your free food. And in practice, there’s very little difference between solid-state physics and EE semiconductor device physics. In either case, you can and will take classes in quantum physics, statistical mechanics, and solid-state, and as long as you find a research advisor working in photovoltaics or a related area, you’ll get the experience you need to be successful in the field. Research groups in solid-state devices are often highly interdisciplinary anyway: My group in the MIT EECS department has students and researchers from EE, physics, materials science, chemical engineering, chemistry, and mechanical engineering.
“Which area will best prepare me for a career in photovoltaics: Microelectronics or Power Electronics?”
Microelectronics. Like photovoltaics, micro/nanoelectronics is deeply rooted in semiconductor device physics, and you’ll find that many processing technologies and techniques are shared between the two fields. That said, if you want to work on developing utility-scale photovoltaic systems, taking some power electronics classes would be very useful.
***Here are a couple other things to keep in mind as you decide your future:
1) I don’t believe that you need to work in industry after your MSc before you can start on your PhD.
- I went straight into a MS/PhD program in EE immediately after graduating from undergrad. Many grad programs in EE and other engineering disciplines have combined MSc/PhD programs—less so in physics—so pursuing both at once would save you a round of applications and up to a year of total time to graduation. But if getting admitted to PhD programs directly is a concern, consider applying to a MSc program that offers the possibility of continuing on for the PhD (e.g., by taking qualifying exams or petitioning). At many schools, it’s easier to stay in than to get in.
- If you don’t apply to grad school while you’re still in school, it will be difficult to get the required recommendation letters from professors—note that letters from professors are the most important part of your application and carry much more weight than letters from engineers or managers in industry. Besides, you can often do internships if you want industry experience.
- Many engineers in industry have told me that it’s very difficult to go back to school (for a PhD) after working for a while—you get used to a certain lifestyle (e.g., predictable work schedule, weekends off, no classes, a solid paycheck) that you won’t be able to maintain as a grad student. And once you get married and have a kid or two running around the house, it will become even more difficult to go back to school.
2) I think it’s incredibly valuable for anyone involved in science and engineering—both in industry and in academia—to be exposed to the microelectronics industry and Moore’s Law (the self-fulfilling prophecy driving transistor density in integrated circuits to double every two years). The former touches nearly every aspect of our lives today, and the latter represents a historical upper limit on the time derivative of innovation—pure exponential growth for 4 decades. And although very few (if any) other sectors have growth potential anywhere near that afforded by transistor scaling, I can think of no industry that would not benefit from the relentless driving force of a Moore-esque imperative.