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Transitioning into Engineering

Can a Liberal Arts Graduate Earn an Engineering Degree?

Many non-engineers are unaware of the vast job opportunities available to individuals with advanced engineering degrees. The best path to a satisfying career in high technology is an advanced degree in engineering. But what about students who have majored in such subjects as physics, biology, and math, or even history and music? Despite the seeming discrepancy between your undergraduate major and your aspiration for graduate education in engineering, it is possible to find a program that will allow you to earn an MS degree in engineering without a prior Bachelor’s degree. Several such programs exist in the United States, and if you are interested, your goal should be to find one that best matches your particular situation. By building upon prior, non-engineering undergraduate coursework, you can turn a non-engineering background into an asset. Successful students who choose this mid-career pathway can come from such diverse undergraduate backgrounds as math, music, physics, chemistry, biology, education, English, psychology, business, and the fine arts.

Engineering transition programs demand flexibility on the part of your host institution and a willingness to individualize your experience. Such programs will require you to “catch up” by first taking undergraduate courses. Some prior undergraduate coursework and relevant on-the-job experience may count toward this initial preparation phase. Some students – physics undergraduates, for example – may need to take only three or four undergraduate courses before proceeding to a qualified Master’s program. Others, such as social science or business majors, will usually need to take more undergraduate courses before admission to graduate study can occur.

Don’t expect to earn a Bachelor’s degree along the way, because the accreditation criteria for undergraduate engineering programs in the United States require students to complete all coursework, including a senior capstone design project, before a BS degree can be awarded. In planning for a transition program from a non-engineering undergraduate degree to a graduate degree in engineering, your goal, and that of your host institution, should be to take a sufficient number of undergraduate engineering courses to develop a level of technical proficiency in your chosen field. Your catch-up courses will have the sole purpose of preparing you for advanced study at the MS level. After receiving an MS degree, you may be eligible for continued study at the doctoral level, depending on the policies of the specific institution.

In dealing with graduate students and graduate affairs over the years, I’ve become aware of the success stories of several students who have gone from the liberal arts to engineering. One student who had previously earned a BS in chemistry was working as an auto mechanic. He became interested in engineering after a visit to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where he became fascinated by the multidisciplinary nature of applied research. After completing about ten undergraduate courses, he eventually earned both his MS and PhD degrees in Electrical Engineering.

Another student taught math in high school for over a decade. She kept reading about all the wonderful things that were happening in the world of computers and the Internet. She would recommend engineering to her brightest students. “If it’s such a good field,” one asked her, “then why aren’t you doing it yourself?” She found out about a transitional engineering program, and her future was immediately transformed. After earning an MS degree in Computer Engineering, she joined a high-tech company, volunteering as a part-time tutor at her old high school.

Yet another student, a biology undergraduate major, worked in a hospital after graduating. He developed an interest in diagnostic medicine and was able to find a transitional program leading to an MS in Biomedical Engineering.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, don’t hesitate to contact any engineering college in the United States. Ask if they have a program that will allow you to transition from a non-engineering undergraduate degree into one of their graduate degree programs. With some luck and persistence, you’ll find just the right program that matches your needs and career aspirations.

Editorial provided by Mark Horenstein, Associate Dean for Graduate Programs, Boston University.

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