FAQs About Grad Life

Choosing the graduate school that’s right for you can be a very involved and stressful process. To help students considering Chemical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon, the officers of ChEGSA have compiled a list of frequently-asked questions. It turns out that a lot of us had the same questions when we were making the decision for ourselves.

Why did you choose Carnegie Mellon?

Whether your interests are in fluids, catalysis or surface science, energy, bio, envirochemical engineering, or process systems engineering, you really can’t go wrong at Carnegie Mellon. In fact, in March 2015, Carnegie Mellon’s Chemical Engineering graduate program was ranked #14 by U.S. News & World Report.

But the rankings aren’t all you should think about when choosing a graduate school. Aside from high-quality research (the obvious criterion), the other aspect to consider is the atmosphere. If you attend an open house and you are uncomfortable, or something just feels off for whatever reason, it is probably not a good idea to try to make it work. Remember, this is going to be a five-year commitment. What really won over many of us was that, during recruitment, the current grad students at CMU all appeared to be happy — a lot happier than the students at the other schools we visited — and they also claimed to have social lives. And this isn’t just a show that we put on for prospective students; most of us really do enjoy our lives here. Another major selling point was the off-campus atmosphere, in that our area of Pittsburgh has a lot to offer without the feel of a big city.

Is the program really only five years?

Yes. Well, technically, it’s only 4.75 years. Department policy is to fund you through the end of the spring semester of your fifth year, so students typically graduate before that summer. This means that there is already a planned end date when you start here, and the program is designed around this time frame.

Doesn’t school get boring after a while? I can’t imagine another FIVE years…

Graduate school is a lot different than undergrad. Admittedly, the first semester is all coursework (and TAing if you aren’t an international student), and it’s going to be a little rough. The second semester is typically less courses and a little bit of research. But after this point you’ll be spending most of your time on your research project. It’ll feel more like a job than the life you were used to as an undergrad. Most of us really grow to love the work we’re doing, and those five years will fly by pretty quickly. Hard to believe, but it’s true.

What should I expect in my first year?

There are a few things that you should be expecting:

  • A lot of classes: As mentioned above, you will be getting almost all of your required courses out of the way during your first two semesters, and you will also be expected to TA. This will be a nice exercise in time management.
  • Filling the Coke machines: This probably sounds like a joke, but a lot of funding for ChEGSA comes from two Coke machines in Doherty Hall. First-year students are organized into groups that are each assigned to fill the machines on different days. This is probably not the most fun you will have here, but on the bright side, it may be the perfect opportunity for you to bond with some of your fellow classmates.
  • Selecting your advisor: At the beginning of your first semester, you will attend presentations from each of the faculty members where they will give you an overview of their available research projects. You will then set up one-on-one meetings with the faculty you may be interested in working with. Keep in mind that you are not expected to know exactly what you want to do the second you start here, and it is inevitable that you will not fully understand all of the project topics that are offered to you. This is normal. Just do some reading (the professor will usually send you a couple papers) and ask questions. You should also talk with some graduate students from those respective research groups in order to find out exactly what it’s like, from a student’s perspective, to work with that particular professor. One thing that is extremely important, but not emphasized nearly enough, is finding an advisor who has a personality similar to your own. If your soon-to-be advisor is the type that likes to micromanage his/her students, and you can’t stand when people do this, you are going to be miserable. So be sure that there is at least some sort of a personality match before making your final decision. You will select your top 3 choices, and the department head will make the final call. Most students typically get their first or second choice.
  • Starting your research: In your second semester, you will start getting acquainted with your research topic. This means reading a lot of papers and probably having a lot of discussions with other graduate students in your research group. You will have to balance coursework and the beginning phases of your research project at this point, which can be a little tricky. You will be getting things done, of course, but most of the real work will start over the summer.
  • The qualifying exam: The qualifying exam comes near the end of your first year, typically in late August. This is mostly to see whether you are capable of doing graduate-level research, and whether you can give a talk and answer questions without panicking, crying, passing out, or getting overly anxious or violent. It is a 20-minute presentation followed by 40 minutes of questions. You need to pass the qualifier in order to be officially accepted as a PhD candidate, so (unfortunately) it is actually a daunting task that will be hanging over your head until the end of the summer of your first year. Say goodbye to any possibility of summer fun (kidding, of course). As long as you pace yourself well over the summer, there shouldn’t be much trouble at all. And, yes, it will be stressful; but once it’s over with, you’ll realize that it wasn’t really all that bad.

Is grad school all work and no play?

No, of course not. Who asked this question?

ChEGSA and GSA sponsor a number of events throughout the year, and there are always things to do around the city. For ChEGSA in particular, take a look at our list of hosted events. Our grad students also compete in different intramural sports like softball, soccer, ultimate Frisbee, football, and volleyball. This isn’t to say that grad school won’t be a lot of work (it absolutely will be), but there will be plenty of time to enjoy yourself.

What is there to do in Pittsburgh?

Probably anything you want to do. We have a number of nice restaurants, bars, clubs, and theaters. You can go see the Pirates play at PNC Park or catch a Penguins games over at the CONSOL Energy Center. Are outdoor activities your thing? Well, you can spend some time at one of our parks, or within an hour-and-a-half drive from campus, you can enjoy hiking, camping, or skiing. With your CMU ID card, you’ll be able to gain free admission to several museums and other venues, such as Carnegie Museum of Art, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Carnegie Science Center, The Andy Warhol Museum, and Phipps Conservatory. Our grad students are a pretty diverse group, so there’s a good chance that if you’re looking for something to do, you can find someone with similar interests who can recommend things and maybe even join you.

Where do you live in the city?

Most of us live in Squirrel Hill, Shadyside, or Point Breeze. These neighborhoods are either a short walk or a short bus ride from campus. Squirrel Hill and Shadyside both have a number of great options for shopping and dining (particularly on Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill and on Walnut Street in Shadyside). Point Breeze is a little farther away than the other two, but it is very close to Target, Staples, Giant Eagle, Trader Joe’s, and Bakery Square.

After you have accepted the offer to attend CMU, ChEGSA will provide you with more detailed information that should help you in your housing search.

Is the stipend actually enough to live on?

The cost of living in Pittsburgh is surprisingly reasonable for a city. The base salary for PhD students in our department is around $2,200/month, and your rent should be less than half of this. For example, someone sharing a house with a couple other people might be paying only $400–$650 a month, and someone renting a single-bedroom apartment or studio might be paying somewhere between $750–$1,000 a month. In any case, you will have plenty of money left over to cover utilities, groceries, and nicer things like dining out, seeing movies or plays, going to sporting events, and paying your Comcast bill. There’s also no need to worry about expensive transportation costs because a lot of areas are walkable and CMU students have free access to public transportation. As long as you don’t have a horrible gambling addiction (or something similar), you won’t be living paycheck to paycheck. In fact, you may even be able to put away a decent amount in savings over the course of your 5 years here. And just to sell this a little more: in 2015, Mercer’s global Quality of Living Survey ranked Pittsburgh the ninth most livable city in the US, and Money Magazine ranked Pittsburgh the best big city in the Northeast.