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PhD in Systems Engineering: Seeing the big picture

By Brendan Conway updated on Monday, January 28, 2013

Some engineers deal with individual machines. Some use their keyboards to create software masterpieces. Still other engineers design vast structures for use during the everyday lives of citizens throughout America.

Systems engineers, though... they have a little bit of all worlds, along with a place all their own.

A PhD in systems engineering will leave a holder equipped with the skills for a comprehensive form of engineering, in which he or she will be responsible for using the principles of engineering to create a system-wide solution to a given problem.

In other words, those bearing a systems engineering certification don't focus on any single part of the problem; they see the entire picture, including the gaps and smudged bits, and it's up to them to use their engineering skills to paint in a fix.

The triumphs and travails of a systems engineering PhD

A PhD in systems engineering is not the most prominent kind of PhD program in engineering, as one might expect. Systems engineers, though very important, are not terribly prevalent throughout the world when compared to some of the more well known disciplines of engineering, like mechanical engineering or electrical engineering.

The result is that programs providing a systems engineering certification are relatively rare. There are some such programs spread throughout the world, including such a program at Loughborough University in England, for example. But compared to the ubiquity of some of the other kinds of engineering programs, programs for a PhD in systems engineering seem downright scarce.

This makes it all the more important to investigate all the options thoroughly, however. When the pool from possible programs is this much smaller, it's vital that you find a program which will not only serve you well, but which is also well-accredited and esteemed.

Some prominent programs for a PhD in systems engineering include the program of Engineering and Applied Science at George Washington University, the Engineering program from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Engineering Systems Division, the Systems Engineering Program at Cornell University, and the Electrical and Systems Engineering program at the University of Pennsylvania.

These schools only make up a small sampling of the possible opportunities and choices available to anyone interested in obtaining a PhD in systems engineering, of course. Any look into obtaining a PhD in systems engineering should get a much deeper search.

System engineering certification: Master's or PhD in systems engineering?

One of the most important elements to investigate in terms of a graduate level systems engineering certification is exactly what kind of degree the student offers: a master's level degree, or a doctoral level degree. This is not always certain; in some cases, the systems engineering certification would come as a Master of Science, while in other cases, it might come as a Doctor of Science. Some programs are even specifically focused on Bachelor of Science degrees, with a concentration in systems engineering.

Thus, not every program focused on systems engineering will actually provide a PhD in systems engineering, further emphasizing that students do significant research on their potential schools before applying.

Ultimately, however, one should also take into account the fact that a full PhD in systems engineering may not be entirely necessary. The advantages of a PhD are great, in terms of academic merit, prestige, and respect, certainly. Furthermore, the skills and education one would obtain in pursuit of a full PhD in systems engineering would obviously be some of the best, and would at the very least match the same skills and education as would be provided in a master's program.

But if you are interested in working in the field of systems engineering, it is important that you actually be sure that you need a full PhD in order to do so. After all, it may be entirely possible for you to work in the field with only a master's, without encountering any kind of difficulty. This would allow you to save a great deal of money, time, and effort.

Domain Centric vs. Engineering Centric PhD in Systems Engineering

The actual subjects which you will study in pursuit of a systems engineering PhD will all likely be extensions of the normal subjects of engineering, into a full, system-wide viewpoint. A systems engineering student is still likely to be focused on one particular aspect or element of engineering, such as chemical engineering or civil engineering, separately from systems engineering.

But systems engineering will give that individual the knowledge and skills necessary to work with engineering projects that involve a number of different disciplines of engineering, to integrate and combine their specialties and knowledge into a comprehensive work.

Determining exactly whether or not a program is systems engineering centric or is domain centric is one of the more important steps in researching and coming to understand systems engineering programs. Engineering centric systems engineering programs will actually treat systems engineering as a discipline separate from others of engineering, thus landing it a position similar to that held by software engineering or even mechanical engineering, among the different engineering topics. Domain centric systems engineering PhD programs are actually a little different, primarily because they treat systems engineering as a secondary topic to be studied in addition to a primary type of engineering.

Systems Engineering Programs
About the Author

Brendan Conway is the Web Content Editor for Peterson's Interactive and is well-versed in the world of higher education and admissions. He is a graduate of Hamilton College, and has been working in admissions advice, test-prep advice, career planning advice, and similar fields for the majority of his career since graduation. Brendan endeavors to provide the most relevant, useful, and interesting information via Peterson's Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ feeds. Brendan enjoys lexicological oddities and voraciously reading in his free time.

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