FAQ - Degree Programs-Civil and Environmental Engineering - Carnegie Mellon University

Frequently Asked Questions about Degree Programs


Questions Related to the M.S. Degree Program

How long does it take to complete an M.S. degree?

The completion time for a course-based M.S. degree is typically two semesters of full-time study (with 48 units of courses typically taken per semester). Those having to do make-up work or doing a thesis will typically take one additional semester. 

Can I do a research-oriented M.S. degree that involves writing an M.S. thesis?

This is possible, but does not happen frequently, and happens only if you are invited by a faculty member to undertake a research project, which is usually done in the offer letter. It also requires that you are able to spend an extra semester of full-time study to produce results and write the M.S. thesis. There is rarely financial support for research based M.S. programs. Please note that it is the faculty member who will advise your M.S. research who initiates this process. If you are admitted to the M.S. program and there is no mention of a research program, then you are being admitted to the course-based M.S. program and expected to take 96 units of coursework to complete the degree program.

What courses should I take if I plan to get my PE License?

Students interested in undertaking a career as a licensed, professional engineer (PE) should consider including a set of three graduate courses in their program of study:

12-706 Civil Systems Planning, Pricing and Finance
12-711 Project Management for Construction
12-750 Infrastructure Management 

These courses include topics recommended by the American Society of Civil Engineers as part of the Civil Engineering Body of Knowledge for the 21st Century. The courses cover topics on leadership, project management, asset management, construction, business fundamentals, public policy and administration fundamentals which are beyond the scope of a typical undergraduate civil engineering program. The remainder of graduate coursework should be selected so as to provide depth in a specialized technical area. M.S. students who do so are also encouraged to petition for use of the approved optional degree title "Civil Engineering." For more information, see the ASCE website: ASCE-Raisethebar.

Students interested in applying for a PE License are encouraged to refer to the NCEES website. Valuable information about the new NCEES Engineering Education Standard for credentials evaluations of foreign engineering degree programs, and U.S. based non-ABET accredited programs in engineering is available at this site.

Do I get to choose my faculty advisor?

M.S. students enrolled in our course-based M.S. will be assigned an advisor whose interests match their own. We will make every effort to assign the faculty advisor that was requested in the enrollment decision notification form; however, this cannot be guaranteed. Your faculty advisor will meet with you to assist you in planning your program. S/he will not supervise your research or independent study project unless you separately arrange for that. 

Can I do an independent study project or participate in a research project as a course-based M.S. student?

Many students are interested in a research experience during their M.S. program.  First, students should avail themselves of the graduate project courses courses available, which provide an excellent project-based design experience. If you are interested in a specific topic, you should discuss this with the faculty member whose research is most related to that topic. The faculty member may be willing to supervise an independent study for 6 or 12 units of your 96 unit program. During such a study you might conduct library research, participate in a laboratory or field project, or work with a Ph.D. student.  You will be expected to generate a final written report for your project. Selection to participate in an independent study project is at the sole discretion of the faculty supervisor.  



Questions Related to M.S. Thesis and Ph.D. Programs

How does getting a Ph.D. Degree differ from Getting a B.S. or M.S. Degree?

The degree program leading to a degree of Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) helps students to learn about the process and skills needed to do independent research so as to create new knowledge. Thus, it is quite different from programs leading to a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) or a Master of Science (M.S.) degree. In those degree programs, the objective is to learn a certain body of established knowledge, usually by taking a certain number of units of coursework. While courses can also be helpful in learning how to structure research questions and do research, they are really only one of several means to an end. The way people really learn to do research is by actually doing research, usually in collaboration with some mentors who have had significant previous experience. In our research here at Carnegie Mellon University, we strive to advance the state-of-knowledge and art in how engineering problems are formulated, solved and interpreted and used. We are highly interdisciplinary, often approaching problems with teams of faculty and students bringing different skills, insights and methods from different disciplines. We present our results at conferences, publish in the best journals, and communicate our results to decision makers and the public through various government and private committees, councils and advisory boards.

Are students limited to a narrow set of research topics, or can I influence the choice of my topic and its overall direction?

Most of the research in the department is faculty-initiated. The faculty write research proposals, start centers and conduct research in their areas of interest and focus; the interests of our current faculty are generally covered on the CEE Website. However, the list is always evolving. Often this evolution is sparked by a new faculty hire, new major proposals being funded, and new research initiatives sponsored by an external funding agency. We encourage our students to think independently and creatively about their research -- this is part of the Ph.D. training process. Nevertheless, our students must work within the limits of available resources, both intellectual and financial, to accomplish their goals.

Most Ph.D. students are supported on externally funded research projects (these projects are often new initiatives, but they are typically based on proposals written prior to the student's arrival). Students working on these projects usually have to help fulfill the general objectives specified in the project proposal or grant agreement. Their own opportunity to expand or adjust the focus of the proposed research may only come once some significant portion of the initial project objectives are met. However, some students come with their own support or fellowships. Others may apply for fellowships or work with faculty to write new research proposals, perhaps in a newly emerging research area. Again, such independence and entrepreneurial effort is encouraged. It does, however, demand initiative and hard work on the part of the student. Also, the student must interest and motivate some set of the faculty to participate in advising their research.

Strong advising and research supervision are essential to a good educational program, and we work hard to see that our students benefit from the knowledge and guidance of committed faculty advisors.

Do I get to choose my faculty advisor?

M.S. students doing an M.S. Thesis and Ph.D. students will be assigned to an advisor whose interests match their own and Ph.D. students will be assigned to the advisor with whom they will be doing research. Although we will make every effort to assign the faculty advisor that was requested in the enrollment decision notification form there are no guarantees due to faculty advisor load.

What is the doctoral qualifying process like?

The qualifying examinations consist of a take home written examination followed by an oral examination and a thesis proposal. The written examination is tailored to the individual programs and interests of particular students. The examination is intended to insure that students are ready to take on their doctoral research, so they serve a diagnostic role. In some cases, students may be asked to take courses in areas which they may need and are not sufficiently prepared. The pass rate on the written and oral examination is high because we try to be careful in the admissions process. For more information, see the detailed Ph.D. requirements.