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Advice on Studying EECS post-PhD

  1. Aug 21, 2009 #1
    Dear friends,

    I am writing to ask for your advice. I have an undergraduate and master's degree in economics, and a PhD (candidacy) in industrial engineering.

    As part of some research I have been doing on campus, I have discovered my true calling: to build hardware and software to help promote democracy and improve the lives of people in minority communities and developing countries.

    I've tried doing my own research projects in this area but have encountered the following difficulties: 1) I don't speak the language of HW and SW engineers, so it was difficult to translate the specs from laymen's terms to product requirements; 2) when there were bottlenecks, I couldn't understand what they were or meant because I was not proficient in the technical lingo; 3) the projects always got delayed and entailed larger sums of money than originally anticipated -- this was only a problem because I couldn't understand why and thus it was difficult to explain to investors why the cash burn rate was so high and why the research was behind schedule.

    I have two failed projects under my belt so far, which I have taken as opportunities to learn about project management. But it seems to me that the biggest lesson here -- aside from carefully investing other people's cash -- is to get electrical engineering training, so I can: i) build a basic prototype of my vision; ii) know the technical lingo, so I can align HW and SW engineers on the tech specs; 3) handle bottlenecks more effectively as they come in a more hand-on way; and 4) be better at translating product requirements to investors in laymen's terms, so they invest and remain happy with the progress of their investment.

    As a result, I have decided to study electrical engineering, in embedded systems, I think. The question is what is the best way to do so after having obtained a PhD.

    First, there is the issue of prerequisites. As an economist by training, I only possess the minimal math required for economics and industrial engineering. I've never taken physics, biology or chemistry, other than in high school. I assume I will need to take these prerequisites -- at least, math, physics, and chemistry -- to study electrical engineering.

    Second, do I do a Master's degree, and if so, in what concentration? My interest is in HW and SW engineering and in communications like mixed signals or DSP. Would this be a concentration in embedded systems, or should I be considering other concentrations as well?

    Finally, if I do not get a Master's degree, should I just do another Bachelor's in Electrical Engineering?

    I haven't ruled out academia, and in fact, I remain very interested in pursuing a career in research, hopefully at a place like the MIT Media Lab.

    My EECS friends tell me that I am very creative, come up with interesting and novel ideas easily, and I want to be able to do research and build experimental devices simultaneously.

    In any case, I've found it difficult to figure out how to do this career change by myself, so I would appreciate any suggestions, help, and advice that you may have to share so as to figure out the best path to pursue.

    Thanks for your help and advice.

  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 22, 2009 #2
    I guess I'll answer anyways...
    Thank you! This sets you apart from most MBA morons. It is not about the controlling or employee incentives if projects fail that were impossible to realize, or where questions were asked the wrong way.

    Blah blah blah, the lingo carries a message you know...
    These courses are being taught to see if you are worthy of studying an engineering degree, they are not really necessary, but if you fail them you would probably not be a good engineer.

    First: to put things straight, there is not a lot of respect for the economy guys in the engineering studies. They are usually considered not to be smart enough for real math and to have little grasp of designing reality. The minimum requisites for engineering embedded systems would be some knowledge of programming in a language like "C" and some minimum knowledge of electronics, "what is an op amp, a transistor, a capacitor..." It should be possible to learn these things in a bachelor course of electrical engineering. If you manage to get a masters in electrical engineering without some kind of science bachelor like physics, mechanical engineering, or mathematics, then your college doesn't show a lot of effort in that department, or you are exceptionally smart.
  4. Aug 22, 2009 #3


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    Welcome to the PF, changeseeker. It's a great place.

    I'll try to offer some thoughts. But first two questions: what is the relationship between economica and Industrial Engineering, and how in the world can you get a degree in Industrial engineering with minimal/no math and physics coursework? I admit that I have zero knowledge of IE, but still...

    It does sound like a BSEE will help you a lot in your goals, and in what you are capable of accomplishing in life. I'd recommend starting out with two things first, as preludes to your decision. First, get a copy of "The Art of Electronics" by Horowitz and Hill, available at your local tech bookstore or via Amazon.com. It's a fun and intuitive read, used for some undergrad EE courses, and very practical. If you are turned on by reading it, and understand most of it, then that's a good indicator.

    Second, I'd recommend that you put together a few electronics kits, to gain some EE skills, and to see if that is also of interest to you. Pick a couple fun kits in subjects that interest you. A google search or a trip to Radio Shack / Frys will show you lots of fun kits to play with.

    I think your overall goals are laudable, and I obviously share your interest in EE. EE is a very big lever -- put the fulcrum in the right place and push hard. You will make a difference.
  5. Aug 22, 2009 #4
    Thank you very much for your helpful responses. Navigating this world from the outside is very difficult.

    I totally agree...

    Got it. So it's kind of like a rite of passage, like passing your comprehensive exams, or defending your proposal or dissertation in doctoral studies.

    The well the joke I always here is that economists are frustrated physicists with a superiority complex over other social scientists because they can do math. As a recovering economist :smile: , I certainly have a belief that the only ones who truly understand the economy are sociologists and psychologists because they study people's economic behavior. Economists, for the most part, look down on people who do empirical work, and when their theoretical models don't work, they say they would if people would only behave more rationally. But I digress...

    So I need programming knowledge... How much is enough? Like the first sequence of programming in university computer science (i.e., java, C++)? Since I do ethnographic research of human-computer interaction in my PhD studies, I know a little bit of programming, so that may not be so hard to pick up. [I also learned Fortran and Pascal in a furtive effort to become a computer scientist in undergrad.]

    So I should I do enough of the bachelors to pick up the prerequisites and then apply to a masters, or do you think I would need to go all the way on a second bachelors?

    I've contacted some schools, and they say it may be possible to do remedial bachelor's work, and if I do well, transfer to the Masters. Should I be skeptical then?

    Thanks so much for your help and advice, and I am sorry for the follow-up barrage of questions!
  6. Aug 22, 2009 #5
    Yes, I have discovered that. I know this is off topic, but is there a history to the forums? It is a wonderful resource I wish I would have had when I was considering whether to major in physics or engineering in my undergraduate studies. I've been lurking on other threads, and even answering some questions, as I have a substantial business background and figured I could give some interesting career advice to younger folks.

    Thank you. I truly appreciate it.

    I'll address your questions in order:
    • 1. "What is the relationship between economics and Industrial Engineering?"

      The definition of industrial engineering has been expanding in recent years, so much so that many are renaming themselves -- management science. Management science is a hodge podge primarily of traditional industrial engineering and operations research. As far as I know, the field goes as back as Frederick Taylor, who believed that you could optimize worker behavior by giving the right amount of incentives (time motion studies). That's were hourly rates were born. The wars were a boon to the field as well. The question was how to stock our soldiers and move them and their supplies efficiently from point A to point B. As you can imagine, this was also very important for manufacturing, so companies like GM and Ford were born out of these concepts. These things are based on ideas of supply chain management, queuing theories, etc. There is also traditional economics focused on systems engineering -- what is the optimal global carbon tax system? There is decision science: In a world of unlimited alternatives, how do you optimize and come up with the right decision? Then there are simulations via stochastic systems of human behavior in complex systems, usually based on fairly simple assumptions. Since a lot of the curriculum is based on optimization and management, economics is the strong representative discipline. But nowadays, the representative disciplines are expanding. Depending on your specialization, you could study chemistry, physics, mathematics, statistics, materials, mechanics, computer science, and electrical engineering. Some places have expanded to include industrial psychology and sociology, particularly given these two disciplines' strength in the area of management and organizations.
    • 2. "How in the world can you get a degree in Industrial engineering with minimal/no math and physics coursework?"

      Well, depending on your area of specialization, you need more or less prerequisites. For my bachelor's in economics, I was required to take up to Calc III. Today, prospective undergrad economists are required to take up to differential equations. But that was not the case when I did my undergrad. I took the placement exam at my university, and I was placed in Calc III. I had never taken precalc or calc in high school, so I was surprised. I questioned the results, but they insisted I needed to take the course in the level I had placed in. In high school, I had loved math. People would say: "You love science... You always get A's." But when I would think about it, I would think the only unifying thread was math. I loved solving chemistry problems. I loved solving physics problems. And those were all mathematical. I hated biology, except the brain stuff (again, mathematical). So I set out to become an engineer in undergrad. Then I was the outlier in Calc III all the time, and by that, I mean always at the bottom. I eked out a C+ despite studying non stop every week. It sucked the time away from my physics course, so obviously I did poorly there too, B-. And it sucked the time away from chemistry, which I dropped. And that ended the bid to become an engineer. You see, I was stuck on the idea of doing a joint MBA/JD because I came from a very poor family, and in many poor families around the US, we grow up thinking that our only options are doctor, lawyer, or company manager. Then I took an economics class and noticed something interesting. I liked doing the mathematical proofs, I was doing well in the calculus, and I was acing a lot of the classes. So you could say, I decided to learn math by necessity. When I was required to have linear algebra for graduate economics/stats, I took it at a community college and aced it. I was accepted to a Masters in economics. When I applied to a PhD program in industrial engineering, my economics scores reflected I had good math ability and the A in linear algebra was enough. Besides, I applied for a specialization that was focused on human behavior -- human-computer interaction -- and I had aced my optimization and econometrics (statistics) courses in my Masters, which were required for my area of industrial engineering. So you could say I learned the math needed to perform well in economics and no more, along with the proofs, because I always wanted to be able to come up with the equations on my own from the proofs, and I loved putting QED at the end of the proofs. Great satisfaction in solving them; great anger in not being able to do so... :approve:

    That's the best advice I have gotten thus far. I will buy the book.

    I didn't even know such a thing existed... I know I've written a lot about myself in this email, so I hope I don't bore you with yet another story. When I was in high school, a friend and I were the best in science in the school, so much so that our science teacher asked for incremental funding to put us in university courses because we used to fall asleep in class. You see, we were so bored because we would study the book on our own and know it by the time half the class was over. Of course, being of poor backgrounds, our school was not very good by most US public school standards, but way better than our local public school.

    To make a long story short, my friend's hobby was to build racing cars and rockets. Mine was to recreate the history of the Western world by designing my own rivers, lakes, mountains, etc., as well as dress up the figurines with the clothes and military equipment of the era. For the science fair one year, we built a flying saucer that did not work at all. We had each opposite end of the disk have the same polarity so the disk would have a tendency to spin since positive attracts negative, etc. Then we put a motor in the middle to accelerate the spin thinking this would elevate it. Instead, we destroyed our school's laboratory, caused a fire, and that was the end of our attempt to participate in the science fair as our principal suspended us.

    This is all to say that when you mention these kits, I remember destroying my high school laboratory, so I hope I don't end up repeating the experience! :biggrin:

    I love puns, and this is a great one. I will reuse, if you give me copyright permission.

    Thanks again for all your advice.
  7. Aug 22, 2009 #6
    PS What is the keyword to search for when searching for these kits on Google?
  8. Aug 23, 2009 #7


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  9. Aug 23, 2009 #8
    Thanks! :-)

    I already ordered the book. Should I read the book sequentially? Should I buy electronic kits related to the topics I am reading as I am reading the book?

    Last questions -- I promise :-)
  10. Aug 23, 2009 #9


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    Staff: Mentor

    Yes, I'd recommend reading it cover to cover, straight thru. It's organized pretty logically and in the normal EE study order.

    On the kits, I'd recommend getting a couple that interest you soon, regardless of where you are in your reading. The kits usually come with some tutorial info of their own, and that's useful all by itself. After the first couple of kits, and as you get farther into H&H, consider getting a microcontroller (uC) Eval Board or kit, like one of the PIC uCs from Microchip, or one of the Basic Stamp uCs. That will introduce you to the more practical world of embedded computing, and let you step up your projects to the next level. After that comes CPLD/FPGA projects, then...
  11. Aug 23, 2009 #10
    Great! Thank you so much! :-)

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