Paul Penfield, Jr., William M. Siebert, John V. Guttag, and Campbell L. Searle, Master of Engineering: A New MIT Degree, Proceedings, 1993 ASEE Annual Conference, Urbana-Champaign, IL, pp. 58-61; June 20-24, 1993.

Session 0532

Master of Engineering: A New MIT Degree

Paul Penfield, Jr., John V. Guttag, Campbell L. Searle, and William M. Siebert

Massachusetts Institute of Technology


The Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT is developing a new professional curriculum for students entering MIT in Fall 1993 or later. The majority of department undergraduates will be given the option of continuing for a fifth year of study and receiving the M.Eng. (Master of Engineering) degree along with a bachelor's degree.

For many years our students have known that, in order to excel at engineering practice, they needed a master's degree. Well over half got one, often right away, and sometimes from MIT. However, until now we have not offered a graduate program aimed at engineering practice. Admission to the MIT EECS department as a graduate student has been competitive, and the basis of the decision has been whether the student can do a doctoral thesis. For those who want to practice engineering, this is the wrong criterion, and the doctoral program is probably the wrong program.

The new M.Eng. curriculum is a structured, seamless, five-year program. Students will be admitted to the fifth year of study with a minimum of formality, on the basis of whether or not they can handle the graduate courses (which will remain as difficult as they are today). They will be informed of their "master's-only" admission at the end of the junior year, when they can still be flexible in arranging their programs.

The new M.Eng. degree is considered to be the one most suitable for an engineering career. A doctor's degree following the M.Eng. is ideal for those going into research or a faculty position. The bachelor's degrees will continue to be suitable for many entry-level engineering positions, for further study in another field, or for graduate school elsewhere.


The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is a private, research-oriented, Ph.D.-granting university specializing in science and engineering, located in greater Boston. The MIT Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) offers master's and doctor's degrees, and undergraduate majors in both electrical engineering (EE) and computer science and engineering (CSE). These are the most popular majors at MIT, with a combined enrollment of about 30% of each class of 1000 undergraduates.

MIT EECS graduates have many possible career paths. A few go into other professions such as medicine or law. Some eventually receive a doctorate and then teach or do research in industry. The majority, however, pursue an engineering career, often moving into management positions for which their engineering education provides an excellent foundation.

Recently we have observed that most of our graduates study for and receive a master's degree, either at MIT or elsewhere, either immediately or within a few years. Industry supports them in doing so. Surely our former students and their employers are telling us something. What they are saying is that a master's degree in engineering is, if not necessary, then at least highly desirable for those who practice engineering and wish to have a successful career.

Most of our undergraduates are capable of earning a master's degree. However, up to now most could not do so at MIT because they could not receive admission to the department as graduate students. Such admission has been limited to a small number of students, judged capable of doctoral study. We have used the same admission criterion for both the master's and doctor's programs. The result is that we have excluded many excellent students who are capable of writing a master's thesis but not necessarily a doctor's thesis. Our new Master of Engineering (M.Eng.) program is designed to let these people continue at MIT through the master's level.

Master of Engineering

The M.Eng. program will be available to students who arrive at MIT starting in September 1993. Admission to the program is based on ability to handle first-year graduate courses and a modest thesis; this criterion differs from that used for admission to the doctoral program. There is a minimum of hassle -- students are simply notified at the end of their junior year whether or not they are invited to stay for the fifth year. About 80% of the students are chosen, mostly on the basis of sophomore and junior grades.

Students who have been offered admission to the M.Eng. program are not obliged to stay. They may, if they wish, leave after the fourth year with an accredited S.B. degree. The new program is an opportunity, not a constraint.

Every student who receives an M.Eng. degree also receives an S.B. degree. A student who chooses courses that represent a specialization in EE receives an accredited S.B. degree in EE. (This is true whether or not the student stays for the fifth year and earns the M.Eng.) A similar thing applies to students who specialize in CSE. On the other hand, a student who selects courses from both disciplines can get an education that suits his or her own needs and is neither EE nor CSE, but rather something in between. The S.B. degree in such a case is designated as EECS. This opportunity has not existed previously; it represents another increase in the students' options. We plan to seek accreditation of this third S.B. degree, perhaps under the experimental arrangement recently introduced by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET).

Any student who wishes to go beyond the M.Eng. degree may, during the senior or graduate year, apply for admission to the department doctoral program.

Curricular Concepts

Normally, undergraduate S.B. programs are structured and classroom-based, whereas graduate S.M. and Ph.D. programs are unstructured and research-based. The new M.Eng. program is structured and classroom-based, with both undergraduate and graduate portions. It is based on a web of courses, seamless across (1) the traditional boundary between EE and CS, and (2) the normal transition from undergraduate to graduate status.

We believe that the intellectual disciplines of EE and CS are, and will remain, inextricably intertwined, and that electrical engineering, computer engineering, and computer science cannot be separated in a rational way. There is simply too much overlap in ideas and concepts, and too many fundamental similarities. It should be noted that this belief is not universally shared within the engineering-education community, and in particular is not reflected in the normal accreditation criteria.

The five-year program with its seamless transition between the fourth and fifth years lets faculty develop, and students take, longer sequences of courses that build upon each other than would be possible in a four-year bachelor's program followed by a one-year master's program. The single longer program also gives M.Eng. students more flexibility -- since they know for sure by the beginning of the senior year if they can continue toward the M.Eng., they can optimize the sequence of courses during the senior and graduate year. As a practical matter most students even know by the end of their sophomore year.

The new program is expected to encourage many changes in the content of existing courses, as the faculty come to appreciate the various ways in which the new structure changes the role of their courses in the new program.


Like all MIT undergraduate curricula, the M.Eng. program includes the General Institute Requirements: two semesters each of physics and mathematics; one semester each of chemistry and biology; eight semesters of humanities; and one laboratory course. After the freshman year, students are allowed to declare a major.

The EECS part of the M.Eng. curriculum includes:

The EECS foundation is a "common core" of four courses, required of all students, each with a laboratory component:

Most of the remaining courses are chosen by the student from seven Engineering Concentration (EC) lists. These are lists of courses in the following technical areas:

Each list includes an introductory course that usually serves as a prerequisite for other listed courses. Students choose nine courses from these lists. To ensure an exposure to depth in some technical area, three of these courses must be from a single list. To ensure nonsuperficial breadth, two more courses must be chosen from each of two other lists. The remaining two courses are unrestricted; they may be chosen for additional breadth, more depth, or some combination. Each EC list includes both undergraduate and graduate courses.

To ensure mastery of advanced material, four of the courses chosen by the student must be at the graduate level. These courses may, but need not, be selected from the EC lists.

To ensure knowledge of design principles and participation in actual design activities, students are required to accumulate 48 design points. Appropriate numbers of points are awarded for completion of courses with design content -- for example, the common core carries 16 design points. A typical laboratory course has 12 design points. A student whose thesis has design content may earn up to 24 design points. Design points are also awarded for design-intensive projects of various types. With the possible exception of those who write theoretical theses, most students automatically accumulate enough design points. This design-point system is expected to motivate faculty to put more design experience into courses.

The final M.Eng. requirement is a thesis, for which the level of effort is about half time for one semester (the equivalent of two courses). This effort is modest in comparison with recent master's theses in our department. There has been a tendency, over the past twenty years, for master's theses to get longer and longer. Many lead to archival publications. The M.Eng. thesis is best thought of as an expanded version of a bachelor's thesis, rather than a reduced version of the research-oriented S.M. thesis of recent years.

The basic structure of the new M.Eng. curriculum is now in place, but one important deficiency still remains. There is still not enough material designed to give students perspective, judgment, economics, ethical principles, or appreciation of the significance of engineering projects along with the technical details. Since such nontechnical material is important in preparing tomorrow's leaders, we are investigating various ways of including it in a student's experience.

Financial Aspects

The MIT central administration approved the new program after a demonstration that the tuition expected from the additional students would more than cover the additional resources required.

We estimated that of the 300 sophomores who decide to major in EECS, 200 would stay for the M.Eng. degree. The other 100 would consist of those who were not invited to stay for the fifth year, along with those who elected, for any of several reasons, to leave after four years. (Attrition is not a significant factor at MIT.) Because the master's program length is being reduced, for all master's students, the actual increase in students on campus at any one time is only 75.

The added teaching effort required for the M.Eng. program is of three types. First, there are 8% more course takings by the additional students. Second, we have to develop and staff two new courses. Third, the overall thesis supervision was estimated to be up 3%. As a result, we require three additional faculty and 12 more Teaching Assistants. The net result is a budget increase of 5%, which is about half of the expected increase in tuition income. The reason the finances work well is that the added activity is largely classroom teaching.

A remaining question is how students will pay for the fifth year. Because the program is just starting, we do not have actual results yet. Our estimates at this time are that 12 students will fill the additional teaching assistantships mentioned above; many students will enroll in our cooperative program, which has industrial support; ten students will use their own funds; ten will hold external fellowships; and the remainder will take out loans, which they can easily repay because their extra degree gives them added earning power. To help students take out loans, we plan to make grants to cover the interest while the students are still in the program.


This new program has been under discussion since 1985. In Fall 1989 a department committee was appointed to formulate plans.

Department consensus was sought in Fall 1991. The plans, still somewhat incomplete, were discussed in a well attended department meeting. Following that meeting each faculty member was requested to write a letter to the department head stating whether he or she was in favor of the idea, and what shortcomings were perceived. Of the over 80 letters received, only one recommended against going ahead. Many pointed out defects, some serious.

The Spring of 1992 was spent refining the plans to meet the objections brought up by the faculty. By the summer the plans were in essentially final form, with all the objections addressed.

It was recognized that some important paradigms of engineering education would be changed, and we therefore sought not only consensus within the department, but also approval and understanding from the rest of MIT. It happened that there was a vehicle for doing this: the MIT faculty Rules and Regulations required changes to allow the new degree. We used the required faculty vote as an opportunity to inform the MIT community what we were up to, and why.

Students who arrive at MIT starting in September 1993 will follow the new curricula. Those who were at MIT earlier may, if they wish, follow the old procedures, although they will be encouraged to consider the new curriculum. There is a planned phase-in period during which an increasing number of students will be admitted to the fifth year. The two new courses are scheduled to be offered for the first time in 1994. By 1997 we should be in full swing.


The authors gratefully acknowledge the encouragement and assistance of the entire faculty of the department. We also are grateful for the enthusiastic support of Joel Moses, Dean of Engineering, and Mark Wrighton, Provost.

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