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Saluting our Schools

Carnegie Mellon promotes PhDs for minority students

"If minorities want to be at the table where decisions are made, they have to have a PhD," says Dr C. Fred Higgs. Full financial support is typical for doctoral students

Dr C. Fred Higgs: 'We fund fellowships explicitly for PhD students.''Got PhD?" Borrowing from the popular milk ad campaign, Carnegie Mellon University's College of Engineering (CMU, Pittsburgh, PA) is promoting the doctoral degree to minority students.

"We go out and look for students for our PhD program," says Dr C. Fred Higgs, III, associate professor of mechanical engineering and recipient of the 2010 ASME Newkirk Award. "Any student who is on track to graduate with anything over a 3.0 should consider pursuing a PhD."

Higgs adds that it doesn't mean you'll be in school forever and it's not prohibitively expensive. "We fund fellowships explicitly for PhD students," he says.

Dr Shawn Blanton: 'Every minority student who earns a PhD is significant.'The doctoral degree opens doors, not only to teaching in academia, but in business and government as well. It's the ultimate credential for research and consulting, for starting an innovative engineering business and for competing in a global economy.

Engineering innovation calls for a PhD to lead it, says Higgs. "If minorities want to be at the table where decisions are made, they have to have a PhD."

Full financial support is typical for doctoral students in engineering, covering tuition and paying a livable stipend. "Students are in shock when we tell them that the PhD is free," says Higgs.

Specialized majors, joint programs and multidisciplinary research
CMU offers PhDs in biomedical, chemical, civil and environmental, electrical and computer, and mechanical engineering; engineering and public policy; and materials science and engineering.

The college's traditional departments, including the Information Networking Institute, offer masters degrees. In addition, students can pursue graduate degrees in interdisciplinary programs including air quality engineering; colloids, polymers and surfaces; engineering and technology innovation management; energy science, technology and policy; product development; and information technology with specialties in mobility, security and software management.

Joint programs are available with the School of Architecture, the School of Business and the School of Design.

The Institute for Complex Engineered Systems is an on-campus center for multidisciplinary research into areas like wearable computers, advanced infrastructure monitoring, bioengineering technologies, nano-enabled sensor and energy technologies, the impact of nanomaterials on the environment and human health, microsystems, multiscale modeling for engineered materials, and context-aware computing.

In addition to Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon has a campus in the Silicon Valley and offers graduate programs in Portugal, Japan and Chile.

Minority PhD candidates are targeted
Higgs was awarded the 2010 Burt L. Newkirk Award, which goes to an ASME member who has made a notable contribution to tribology before the age of forty.

Tribology is the science and technology associated with surfaces in contact and relative motion with each other. It covers all the fundamentals associated with friction, lubrication and wear. It embraces technological aspects of bearings, brakes, clutches, gears, etc.

Higgs and colleague Dr Shawn Blanton, professor of electrical and computer engineering, work together to promote education to fill the pipeline with qualified minority students and enroll those already available at CMU's college of engineering (known on campus as CIT, Carnegie Institute of Technology).

"Top schools are fighting for prospective PhD students" as hard as they fight for top athletes, Higgs says. "Data shows that pre-college STEM recruitment is working. After that, we have to get college students thinking about the PhD."

Higgs uses Blanton as an example. He was a promising student who grew up in a Detroit suburb and attended Calvin College, a small Christian college in Grand Rapids, MI. Blanton then went to Arizona, where he earned his masters at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Blanton's next step would likely have been to return to Michigan to work at one of the "big three" automotive manufacturers. Instead, he went on to earn his PhD at UMich in Ann Arbor because a professor suggested he go back to Michigan for a doctorate. "He could easily have been a missed talent," says Higgs.

CIT finds minority PhD candidates at career fairs
Hardhats take the place of mortarboards for engineering grads at CMU. Several years ago, Carnegie Mellon realized that the graduate program was competing with corporations for talented students. NSBE's career fair, which attracts 10,000 students, was connecting them with good jobs and steering them away from the advanced degrees CMU was promoting at its grad fairs.

So Blanton convinced the dean of engineering to take a booth at the NSBE career fair. Today, CMU's booth competes with corporate recruiting booths. That's where they launched their "Got PhD?" campaign.

"We want students to think about getting a PhD the same way they think about going to work for an oil company," says Higgs.

"We can point to a lot of bodies on our campus and others as a direct result of our recruiting," adds Blanton.

Because people of color are so rare at the top levels of academia, every minority student who earns a PhD is significant. Many universities have few or no minorities on their faculties.

CIT is making strides. Of the college's 1653 undergraduates, 475 are women and 220 are minorities. At the masters level, 143 of the 622 students are women and only sixteen are minorities. Of the 681 doctoral students, 181 are women and twenty-five are minorities.

Student networks are tapped
Each grad student provides a connection to an undergraduate school, another important network. These personal connections influence decisions to apply and a single student can act as a magnet to attracting other students.

"It opens up a relationship pipeline," explains Higgs. "Minority-serving institutions won't send students to places they don't trust."

Higgs believes that students are misled if they think that a PhD will make them overqualified for jobs. He offers an hour-long video, "The PhD, the whole PhD and nothing but the PhD," wearing his "Got PhD?" button, to explain the advantages of a PhD in a STEM field.

As attractive as the corporate offer is to a student who may be first in the family to graduate from college, Blanton and Higgs hope to persuade high-achieving students to wait and earn a PhD first.

"That student who goes to work for the oil or computer company, for more money than he or she ever heard of and a company car, might have been a future Nobel laureate that we don't have access to," says Higgs.


Carnegie Mellon University

Carnegie Mellon University

Main campus: Pittsburgh, MA
Engineering enrollment: 2,956 (1,653 undergrad
and 1303 graduate)
PhD degrees offered: Biomedical, ChE, CE and enviroE, electrical and computer, engineering and public policy, materials science and engineering, and ME
Ways to matriculate: Full time and part-time

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