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MIT blogger Rona W. '21

grad school vs. undergrad by Rona W. '23

should you MEng?

This past September, I started my master’s of engineering. At MIT, the computer science MEng is often seen as an extension of undergrad, but I wanted to compare the two experiences, with the caveat that I’m early in my grad school journey.

There are a few major differences between grad school and undergrad.

I live in an apartment now. Grad housing was a nightmare—the day the portal opened, the website crashed almost immediately and almost every option disappeared. So I don’t live in a grad dorm.

Instead, I live in an apartment with a roommate who works full-time at a Real Job. This is a drastic social shift from my time in undergrad, where I was in an independent living group (sort of like a sorority or fraternity house, but not Greek affiliated). I’m so lucky that my current roommate is a close friend with amazing taste in decor and books, and I’m really happy here. There is simply a big difference between living with one person and living with thirty. Plus, being in an actual apartment means adulting tasks like purchasing my own furniture, paying utilities bills, etc.

I’m only taking one class. At MIT, MEngs are capped at twenty-four units a semester, which usually means two courses. In comparison, undergraduates usually take four or five classes. Taking only one class works very well for me—I like focusing on fewer things at any given time, and in undergrad, I found it difficult to context-switch between so many obligations.

I’m a teaching assistant. To get funding, most MEngs have to TA or RA (research assistant), although some self-fund and some have an outside fellowship. In particular, we have the 6-A program, which allows you to intern at a company in exchange for that company funding your degree.

I TA an introductory computer science course. TA obligations vary from class to class, but mine include hosting office hours, leading recitation, writing exams, attending staff meeting, etc. It takes up about twenty hours each week.

I get funding. Many master’s programs are not free, so sometimes there is a misconception about how the MEng funding works, but as stated above, most MEngs are funded. This funding pays for tuition, health insurance, and a stipend (which, in the 2023-2024 school year, is about $4000/month before taxes—the exact numbers are available online). This makes it more financially feasible for students to pursue the degree.

Social life is different. This is also a symptom of growing up, not just being in a master’s program. As many other twentysomethings can probably attest to, adult socializing is much less spontaneous. Since I don’t live in a dorm, I can’t randomly hit up someone on my floor to go get boba. Plus, many of my closest friends from MIT don’t live in Boston/Cambridge anymore, as they’re in graduate school or working elsewhere.

Do I miss the proximity of undergrad? Of course. But I also think being older has provided clarity for my relationships. Like, who do I actually still keep in touch with? If I no longer have the shared context of MIT with somebody, do we still have anything in common? Everything feels more grounded, less capricious.

Sometimes, younger students ask me if they should pursue the MEng, and my answer is: it depends.

In my year (class of 2023), many students decided to MEng instead of directly going into industry because the tech job market was difficult and they struggled to land a job. Totally understandable. I also know people who decided to MEng because they felt that their undergraduate experience was cut short by COVID-19, and this was a good way to stay on campus an extra year.

I also often hear the sentiment that the MEng is a great way to pursue research if you’re unsure about a PhD, or if you want more experience before applying to a PhD. Note this might not hold true at other schools. As far as I know, while the MIT MEng is comparable to programs at Stanford/Harvard that also allow undergraduate students to receive master’s degrees in computer science, the MEng requires everyone to write a thesis, which usually means working in a lab and gaining real research experience.

For me, I always intended to MEng, because I added computer science as my second major pretty late. (Math was my first major.) To graduate in a timely manner, I had to take four computer science classes every semester for three semesters straight, and I mostly only had space to take required courses, although I did get some flexibility among computer science electives.

I wanted the opportunity to learn more computer science, especially within my specific interests. In particular, I wanted to take Performance Engineering, a notoriously time-intensive course that I wasn’t eligible for, due to pre-reqs, until this fall.

A common critique of the MEng program is that it allows students to “hide out” for an extra year, delaying adult life. I think this is a personal decision that requires self-reflection. Some of my friends have said they didn’t MEng because they knew they would be doing so to avoid adult responsibilities, and that’s totally fair. It isn’t for everyone.

In terms of career prospects, there are certain positions, such as ML Engineer, that are usually not available to people who only hold a bachelor’s degree. However, my personal belief is that simply having a master’s degree on your resume won’t significantly improve your chances of landing these jobs—you’re competing against PhDs, and not all master’s degrees are equal. It’s important to have research or industry experience on top of an advanced degree if you’re targeting a specific role like that.

When I was interning at Microsoft, I asked one of the more senior employees if I should pursue an MEng. He said, “Well, if you started right after undergrad, you would be at a junior rank, and if you took another year for a master’s degree, you would start at one rank higher, but if you had spent that year working at this company, you would’ve gotten promoted to that rank anyway, so it doesn’t make a difference in terms of your position. And you also lost a year’s worth of salary.” He also acknowledged that there are reasons beyond title and compensation to pursue a master’s degree, but the point here was that it wouldn’t help me materially as a software engineer, at least at Microsoft. (Also please note that Microsoft is a huge company and this is simply what one employee said, so it may differ depending on the exact team and role.)

Personally, I’m really happy with my decision to do this. I’ve enjoyed learning more computer science, teaching undergrads, spending another year on campus. It doesn’t feel like an extension of undergrad, but another chapter of my life.

First posted on Substack here.