Graduate Education FAQ
Below you'll find answers to frequently asked questions concerning admission's criteria, financial support, degree options and requirements, and the employment of our graduates.
Should I be interested in EPP for graduate school?
Yes, if . . .
- You are an engineer, scientist or mathematician interested in working in technical areas that affect social and policy issues in the environment, energy, risk, regulation, information technology, internet commerce and security, telecommunications, engineering education, national and international technology development and exchange, or international peace and economic development.
- You recognize that the technical details matter in many policy issues, and you wish to obtain or enhance advanced disciplinary skills in engineering and science.
- You recognize that the technical details are not all that matters, and you wish to learn and apply knowledge and methods in the social and behavioral sciences, economics, political science and law.
- You wish to make a real and lasting contribution to the way we solve, learn and teach about engineering and public policy issues, and in so doing, improve yourself and the world (sounds mushy, but we believe that among world-class competence, employability and idealism, you should strive for all three).
- You would like to do this along with other enthusiastic, friendly and collaborative students, faculty and staff.
If I've decided that I don't like engineering or science or that I really don't want to work on problems of a technical nature, should I apply to EPP?
What if I have little or no background in engineering, science, or math, is EPP the right program for me?
Can I learn more about the EPP graduate programs?
Our principal graduate program leads to the Ph.D. in Engineering & Public Policy. The degree requires a rigorous program of courses and research accomplishment. The courses include a series of core classes on fundamental approaches and methods for engineering and public policy; required classes in statistics and economics; electives in engineering, sciences and mathematics; and electives in the social sciences. Research experience and efforts begin very early in the academic program, leading to a first research paper of journal quality after the third semester (this is the first part of the qualifying exam process), and continuing through the development of subsequent papers and the Ph.D. thesis.
Students can receive an MS in Engineering & Public Policy, either because they leave the program early (though still complete the requirements for an MS), under special prior arrangements, or as part of a 5-year BS-MS program at Carnegie Mellon in Engineering & Public Policy. As such, entering students wishing to obtain a terminal MS degree are almost always advised to apply elsewhere, perhaps including one of the other engineering departments at CMU.
Can I pursue other or joint degrees at CMU as an EPP graduate student?
Yes, some of our students pursue an MS in another department at CMU (most often, one of the other engineering departments) along the way to obtaining their Ph.D. in EPP. Such students must be admitted into the MS program of that department and fulfill all of their degree requirements. This course of action may be appropriate for some students-
those who enter with only a previous BS degree and, wishing to establish better disciplinary skills and credentials in their area of focus, already plan to take all, or most of the courses required for the MS in the other department;inappropriate for many others -
those who already have an engineering or science MS, or those wishing to complete their Ph.D in a more expeditious manner.A number of students have also pursued and received joint Ph.D. degrees with EPP and other departments at CMU. Such students must fulfill all of the Ph.D. requirements of both departments (e.g., complete qualifying exams in both departments, have the appropriate number of thesis committee members from both departments, etc.), usually require a carefully planned program of course work and research, and should not expect to breeze through in three years. There may also be issues related to financial support that need to be factored in when thinking about a joint degree.
What types of research does EPP focus on?
The Ph.D. is about learning how to do independent research, how to create new knowledge. Thus, it is quite different from a BS or an MS. In those degrees, the objective is to learn a certain body of established knowledge, usually by taking courses. 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 rolling up their sleeves and doing it, usually in collaboration with some mentors who have had a lot of previous experience.
In our research we advance the state-of-knowledge and -art in how engineering policy problems are formulated, solved and interpreted for policy insight and development. 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. Our results influence both how others think about and do research on similar or related problems, and how decision makers develop and implement policy in government agencies, corporations and non-government organizations (NGO's) in the US and internationally.
The department is currently involved in several large collaborative efforts. These include: Center for Climate and Energy Decision Making; the RenewElec Project; the Green Design Initiative; the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies; the Carnegie Mellon Electricity Industry Center, the CMU Program in Strategy, Entrepreneurship, & Technological Change; the Center for Atmospheric Particle Studies , a set of activities in online privacy, security, telecommunications, etc.; a set of activities in risk-analysis, risk-ranking, risk-communications; and a set of activities involving energy systems in India. Visit EPP's research page for more information.
Are students limited to a narrow set of research topics in the above areas, or can I influence the choice of my topic and its overall direction?
Much, indeed 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 in the list provided above. However, the list is always evolving, as are the particular projects within and between the major research domains. Often this evolution is sparked by a new faculty hire, often by the interests of our students. 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 students are supported on existing research projects (these projects are often new, 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 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(s)?
New students are initially assigned one or more faculty advisors. These advisors help students choose and keep track of academic research progress. Usually one or both of these advisors are actively involved in the research domain of the incoming student and eventually become their thesis advisor. Most often, these faculty are the principal (or, co-principal) investigators on the research project that supports the student in their first and subsequent years in the department. Usually the incoming student will have already met and discussed the project with these faculty during the application and interview process. As such, there is a mutual agreement and understanding that develops between the department and the incoming student as to who their advisor or advisors will be. Students with their own support, or the support of a more open-ended fellowship, may have more flexibility in choosing their advisors. However, for these students as well, we attempt to make a good initial assignment of advisors to allow their research plans to materialize as soon as possible.
In either case, the initial advisor assignments are not set in stone. Students may change their advisors, either due to a change in research interests or a mutual recognition that the approach and interests of the student and faculty member are not compatible. This is usually done in consultation with, and the approval of, the faculty involved and some combination of the Department Head and the Associate Department Head. The most common time for a change in advisors to occur is following the qualifying exams, after the student's third semester. However, changes, if needed, can also occur before or after that time.
At EPP we have evolved to a system where many of our graduate students have more than one research advisor, typically two or three. This has occurred because most of our research projects are now team efforts, involving multiple faculty and students in research centers or interdisciplinary projects. It has also occurred because students, in the process of developing their qualifying exam research paper, must interact with and satisfy the demands and interests of the full faculty of the department. Students and faculty now recognize that exposure to a broad range of insights and perspectives is essential for the student to successfully navigate the qualifying exam process. Students thus seek out the input and participation of a number of faculty members, and our faculty are happy to help and have their advice considered. Occasionally a student will work in the more traditional single-advisor mode. However, this approach is becoming less common in EPP, and students and faculty seem to agree that the active participation of multiple advisors both benefits the quality of the research and protects and enhances the quality of the student's educational experience.
What do you look for in an applicant? How important are grades, the quality of undergraduate or previous graduate programs, recommendations, work experience, the candidate's statement of interest, and the interview? What are the minimum GRE scores?
In making admission decisions, we look for a balanced record of previous preparation and accomplishment, and indications of high potential for future growth and development. We look for a good degree of overlap between what you say you want and what we believe we can provide. We do not look for the same measures of accomplishment and potential in each student. We value a diversity of skills, backgrounds and outlooks in our department. We say this not only because we are required by Federal law and University policy to act this way, but because our experience with current and previous students has shown it to be true - a diverse group of students, faculty and staff leads to a more creative, innovative and productive place to work, teach and learn. We want a good balance of women, men, minorities, and US and foreign nationals with different backgrounds and interests because this improves the quality of our department. So, if you are looking for a place where everyone looks and talks just like you and GRE scores are the sole basis for admission decisions, please apply elsewhere.
We do attempt to learn as much about applicants as possible to aid in our decision. Your previous schooling provides some indication of whether or not you are adequately prepared to succeed and thrive in the very rigorous academic environment that is EPP and Carnegie Mellon. Your grades indicate your ability and willingness to work hard and benefit from courses and related learning opportunities. Beyond grades we look for indications of breadth of interests, policy interest or experience, good motivation, and good verbal skills. Recommendations provide insight into research skill, work habits, creativity, and interpersonal skills, especially if we know the people writing them. Pertinent work and other "real world" experience is very valuable, and many of our recent students bring the maturity, insight and motivation gained from applying their knowledge and skills in the real world.
Do my recommendations all need to be from professors? Must they be from Engineering or Science Professors?
How should I approach the Statement of Interest?
How should I approach the GRE?
Is the GRE required?
Do I have to take the TOEFL or IELTS exam?
If you are an international student or if English is not your native language, and you have not previously received a FOUR-year degree in a U.S. University, then yes you must take the TOEFL, (or IELTS). We like TOEFL scores above 94. We may also call you to evaluate your English further.
Can I arrange an interview or a visit to the department?
We are usually not willing to arrange an interview with our faculty, or an extensive visit for you here until we have had a chance to review your full application and determined that your admission is likely or at least reasonably possible. If a faculty member is interested in interviewing you, they will reach out to you directly. If, however, you happen to be in Pittsburgh for other reasons and would like an introductory visit, please let us know.
After we have had a chance to review all of our applications, our admissions committee may invite a number of admitted students to come to campus for a visit day. This visit to our campus is usually the last, but critically important step towards an admitted student deciding if they want to enroll. We may pay for part of your expenses depending on availability of funding, though we will ask you to travel in an economical manner.
During our visit days, you will meet with faculty, staff and current students. The meetings with faculty are informative and important; the meetings with students are essential in helping you to evaluate whether you will be comfortable enrolling here. That's where you will hear the "real story." The email links to our current and former students are provided for this same purpose. During your visit, be yourself, ask lots of questions, and enjoy the visit.
If I am not admitted, may I reapply in subsequent years?
If I am admitted, but subsequently decide I am not yet ready to enter graduate school, may my admissions offer be deferred?
How do I apply?
Please see the information on the Apply page.
Can I seek financial support from Carnegie Mellon?
Where does the money for financial support of tuition and stipend come from?
As indicated above, most graduate students in the department are supported as research assistants on projects for government agencies, foundations or private industry. The budgets for these projects include funds for graduate student tuition and stipends, as well as other project costs, such as a fraction of the salaries for participating faculty, and administrative support, computing, travel for meetings and conferences, supplies and overhead. For a summary of the current research activities in the department, see the section of the web page on Research.
Students with fellowship support, for example, from the National Science Foundation, the US Department of Energy, or a private foundation, usually have some or all of their tuition paid directly by the fellowship granting organization, with stipend also generally funneled through the University to the student. Particular arrangements for tuition and stipend payment for students with their own outside support, e.g., from their government or company, are made on a case by case basis. The department also has funds to support a small number of students per year, though we generally like to restrict these funds to tuition or partial tuition support for new students, or to provide carry over (tuition and/or stipend) for more senior students when there has been an interruption or delay in outside funding.
For how long will my financial support be guaranteed?
Student Consumer Information
What are the requirements for international students?
There are a number of special considerations and requirements for foreign nationals, including:
- Requirement of the GRE, no exceptions.
- Your TOEFL Score must be 94 or above.
- Your language skills should be above average. We may call you and hold a conversation with you to determine how well you are able to converse.
- Requirement that you provide documentation of available financial resources for support, in cases where we have not provided full support for tuition and stipend.
Students requiring more detailed information or explanation should contact EPP graduate admissions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How can I succeed in EPP?
Once you are admitted and begin your progam, we expect you to do well. Most graduate students receive A's or B's in most of their courses. EPP graduate students are expected to maintain a B average and are allowed to count at most two courses with a grade of C towards graduation. Students meet with their advisors each semester to discuss and choose courses consistent with program requirements and their individual disciplinary and research objectives. A curriculum progress sheet is maintained to ensure appropriate coverage, planning and progress towards meeting course requirements. Assuming good performance in courses, the major milestones along the path through the EPP graduate program include the qualifying exams, the thesis proposal, and the completion of the thesis and the thesis defense. These are major and important hurdles, and our standards are high. However, we are committed to working hard with you to give you the skills, encouragement and support necessary to meet and exceed them.
We expect our students to be entrepreneurial and take charge of their own education. While we pay a lot of attention to our students, we try very hard not to be paternalistic. Don't expect to be led thoroughly by the hand. That's not the way the real world works, and we wouldn't be preparing you well if that's what we did. Expect to go out on your own to explore the various resources available at Carnegie Mellon and elsewhere, and put them together to meet your own educational needs. The faculty are always ready to help if asked (and sometimes, if they think you need it, without being asked), but we really want you to take charge of your own education as quickly as you can.
The qualifying exams occur at the end of a student's third semester. They include a "Part A" research paper and a "Part B" take home exam. The Part A paper is developed, written and submitted by the student, followed by an oral presentation and subsequent question and answer session with the faculty. Questions can relate directly to the analysis presented in the paper or to more general disciplinary knowledge and skills. The Part B exam is taken and written over a 5-day period and involves a problem in which students must analyze and evaluate a realistic (and generally current) problem with engineering, science, social science and policy content. All students receive the same problem. The written exam reports are graded blindly by the faculty (this means that the faculty do not know which student wrote which report until the grading is completed).
The following outcomes are possible for the qualifying exams:
- Both the Part A and Part B exams are passed at the Ph.D. level. The student has completed their qualifying exams and may now move on to their thesis proposal;
- One of the exams is passed at the Ph.D. level and the other is passed at the MS level, or both the Part A and Part B exams are passed at the MS level. The student may not move on to their thesis proposal until both the Part A and Part B exams have been passed at the Ph.D. level. Students have the right (and are usually encouraged) to take the exams for a second time, usually in the following year, to meet this requirement. Students may also elect to leave the program with an MS degree in Engineering & Public Policy, so long as the course requirements for the MS have also been completed.
- One or both of the exams is failed. Students have the chance to take the failed exam a second time, however, the student can neither move on to the thesis defense nor receive an MS degree unless the second exam is passed at the corresponding level. Students in this situation are at times advised to leave the program.
The thesis proposal is written and presented to the thesis committee as soon as reasonable progress is made in defining the planned scope and contribution of the research. It is a proposal, and should be completed well before the student plans their defense, in order to allow adequate input, guidance and feedback from the committee. The thesis committee is chaired by the student's advisor(s), includes at least two faculty members from EPP, and at least one faculty member or scholar from another department or institution. Approval of the thesis proposal by the thesis committee constitutes the final formal step in the advancement of the student to Ph.D. candidacy.
The thesis represents the written presentation of the student's Ph.D. research. It is expected to provide a substantive new contribution to the knowledge and understanding of engineering and public policy. The candidate makes a public, oral presentation and defense of the thesis. The thesis committee must approve of the oral and written thesis following the defense. The thesis is signed and approved by the student's advisor, the department head, and the dean of the college of engineering. Examples of recent thesis titles can be found on the EPP Alumni page.
Traditionally the thesis has been written as a single, well-unified document, from which subsequent journal articles or related publications are gleaned or derived. However, some of our theses consist of a series of related peer-reviewed journal articles or conference proceeding papers with appropriate introductory, linking and concluding text to provide context and coherency, and technical appendices as appropriate for more detailed presentation of data, models or methods. This model, with a thesis consisting of typically two to four published, accepted or submitted high-quality journal articles, has the advantage of providing additional peer review for the work beyond the student's advisors and committee, and ensuring wider dissemination of the research results. It also allows those students seeking a career in academia, or other sectors where the publication record is important, to get off to a fast start in this endeavor.
How long will it take me to complete my Ph.D.?
The average time to completion for our students receiving their Ph.D.'s since 1990 has been 4.5 years. A few of these students have finished their theses under ABD (All But Dissertation) status after accepting their first post-graduate position, so that the actual time to effective completion of Ph.D. residency here at EPP is somewhat less. (Note that we strongly prefer students to complete their thesis prior to leaving for their post-graduate position, since they otherwise run the risk of slipping into an unofficial, though permanent ABD status.)
Students tend to finish somewhat quicker when:
- They enter the program having already obtained their MS degree;
- They are able to "hit the ground running" soon after arrival with their Part A qualifier research, and the qualifier topic area continues as the main, or closely-related area of focus for their subsequent thesis research.
- They pursue a joint or concurrent degree in other departments;
- They leave the program for a while on an extended internship or fellowship at another academic or non-academic organization;
- They must spend significant time or leave for personal or family matters.
Shorter is not necessarily better, especially when other educational, professional, personal or family priorities are considered. We value these also and respect these choices.