Taking Graduate Experience-Powered Learning to the Next Level
This article originally appeared in the 2020 Engineering @ Northeastern magazine.
It was the magnet that drew Andy (Qingchao) Kong halfway around the world.
With co-op now available to graduate engineering students, Kong could work at an American company as part of his education. Not only would this allow him to apply his academic training to real-world challenges, it would also expand his professional network and help launch his career.
“It has always been a dream of mine to do something meaningful for humanity and I’m willing to do whatever I have to do to achieve that goal,” says Kong, who came to Northeastern from China.
During his co-op at Abiomed—the company that developed the first artificial heart—Kong worked on the design team for the company’s flagship Impella heart pump. His supervisor at the company was Caitlyn Hastie, E’06, who holds 10 patents and has 13 more patents pending, most of them focused on the heart pump she was working on with Kong.
“We were working on real-world engineering problems,” explains Kong. “When you’re at a company like Abiomed, you have to take the fundamentals you learn in textbooks and apply them to a final product. We were making a real impact on the lives of patients so they could return to their families and have a good quality of life.”
Kong earned two master’s degrees at Northeastern—the first in mechanical engineering, ME’14, and the second in bioengineering, ME’16,—and now works full-time at Abiomed.
The biggest and best
Northeastern has been building its worldwide network of co-op partners for more than a century and in 2020 was ranked No. 1 in the nation for co-ops/internships by U.S. News and World Report.
In recent years, the College of Engineering has expanded the program to open opportunities co-op experiences specifically geared to the expertise of graduate students. “Master’s level students can do more advanced work and don’t need as much training because they’re already professionals,” says Maricla Pirozzi, director and lead co-op coordinator for multidisciplinary engineering degrees in targeted areas. Co-op is available for doctoral students too. During this time, they work on a project that is related to their dissertation research.
In keeping with their professional status, graduate engineering co-ops typically earn between $20 to $30 an hour, with those in certain specialties earning more than $40 an hour. Last year, the college placed nearly 1,000 engineering graduate students in co-ops at Microsoft, NASA, Amazon, Draper, iRobot, Hasbro, Tesla, Facebook, and more. “We offer co-ops in companies ranging from Google to two-person start-ups—and everything in between,” says Lorraine Mountain, assistant dean of cooperative education in the College of Engineering.
Employer partners also provide the college with valuable feedback needed to ensure the curriculum is responsive to the rapidly evolving workplace. In recent years, this collaboration has contributed to the creation of a dozen certificate programs, curriculum updates, and new majors in robotics, data analytics engineering, human factors, cyber-physical systems, and data architecture and management.
The experiential PhD
The same educational philosophy gave birth to Northeastern’s Experiential PhD. The program is designed to help doctoral students conduct academic research with practical application to real-world issues through an internship, corporate fellowship, embedded-employee fellowship, and special initiative programs.
To give students the skills to design applicable research questions, they work closely with companies, government agencies, nonprofits, and private research labs. “When a student goes to an outside partner, they are exposed to an authenticity they’re not exposed to in an academic research lab,” says Sara Wadia-Fascettti, vice provost for Northeastern’s PhD Network. “They learn to identify real-life challenges and use that insight to craft the research questions they will ask in their dissertation.”
The goal is to blend basic research (the quest for new knowledge) and translational research (building on existing knowledge to develop new solutions). The result is “use-inspired research” —a concept that lies at the heart of Northeastern’s PhD philosophy.
“I’ve always been interested in the bridge between academics and industry,” says Piotr Kulik, who is working on a radio frequency project funded by Raytheon and conducted at Northeastern’s Kostas Research Institute. Kulik is working toward his PhD in electrical engineering. “I’m trying to solve a research question, in a way that is both academically challenging and of use to industry,” he explains. “Because we are working with industry, the product of our research has to be repeatable, cost-effective, and capable of being potentially mass-produced.”
“I’ve always been interested in the bridge between academics and industry…Because we are working with industry, the product of our research has to be repeatable, cost-effective, and capable of being potentially mass produced.”
The goal of this academic/industry collaboration is to push students beyond their campus comfort zone and equip them with the professional skills, creativity, and cultural agility needed to translate research discoveries into practical solutions. “We are one of the only universities in the world to offer all PhD students experiential learning opportunities outside of their primary research group,” says Wadia-Fascetti. “When we brought co-op to our master’s programs, enrollment went through the roof. We expect the Experiential PhD to do the same thing for the doctoral program.”
Students at both the master’s and doctoral levels can apply to LEADERs (Leadership Education Advancing Discovery through Embedded Research), a certificate program designed to enhance a student’s career impact by providing skills that will help them shape future innovation. The program, developed by Northeastern’s PhD Network and the Gordon Institute of Engineering Leadership, begins with a semester of coursework in organizational systems, project management, teamwork, and leadership. This is followed by eight months leading a project at a partner company. Students use this experience to shape a dissertation question that’s related to their LEADERs project.
Kulik said the program helped him shape a dissertation that will use magnetic and non-magnetic techniques to develop devices to address the radio-frequency congestion problem. “With the growth of 5G and the Internet of Things, there are going to be more devices competing for a piece of the radio-frequency spectrum allocated by the government,” he says. “I’m looking into methodologies to solve this critical communication issue.”
He said LEADERs also exposed him to doctoral students in other disciplines such as healthcare and biotechnology. One student in his class was applying artificial intelligence to psychology, while another was investigating the impact of social media on the environment. “It’s important to learn how people think in different industries,” says Kulik. “We live in a world now where everything is connected, and we are going to be more effective in solving problems if we collaborate.
Other experiential options
In addition to a four-to-eight-month co-op, the College of Engineering offers a variety of other ways for students to gain professional work experience. This includes a corporate-sponsored project at one of Northeastern’s research centers or working with a faculty member who has won a research contract from a corporation or government agency. For example, one engineering doctoral student is now working at Intel in California on a project sponsored by the Department of Defense, while another is working on a project sponsored by the Oak Ridge National Laboratories.
In some cases, the flow of this university/industry collaboration is reversed. In this scenario, a company identifies a promising employee and has them earn their PhD through Northeastern while continuing to work for the company. “It’s like we’re extending our university into the company,” says Wadia-Fascetti. In this case, the student has two PhD advisors, one from Northeastern and one from the company. “The impact on a student’s career is dramatic because their research has an application to the real world,” says Wadia-Fascetti.
See Related Story of Xuezhu Cai, who is earning her PhD in bioengineering and participating in the Experiential PhD program.
All of these options contribute to Northeastern’s commitment to a personalized education.
Global co-ops in industry and for research—including those associated with Northeastern’s Global University System—help graduate engineering students improve their cultural agility while broadening their professional network. They also allow international students the choice to work in their home country.
“Our international program has grown quickly because Northeastern provides so much support,” said Sally Conant, global co-op coordinator. “Most colleges have an internship office, but it’s just that—an office. We have a team of advisors specifically for co-op, and each student has one of these advisors assigned throughout the co-op process.”
In the spirit of personalization, the college has a flexible graduate curriculum that allows students to take electives throughout the degree program. “They can plan their coursework and choose technical electives based on what sparked their interest during co-op,” says Mountain.
Because Northeastern is an R1 research university, engineering students can participate in a research co-op in several federally funded research centers in the College of Engineering or across the university. They also have access to an extensive partner network of research labs, medical institutions, and universities.
“We are the leader in experiential learning because we weave it throughout every aspect of education—from project-based coursework and research, to student groups and co-op,” says Mountain. “We’re different from many other universities trying to break into this area because it is so thoroughly embedded in our educational model.”
The graduate programs provide an added benefit for international students, many of whom come to school in the U.S. hoping to begin a career with an American company. Co-op allows international students to gain valuable job experience and exposure to American culture without all the complications of obtaining an H-1B visa.
But not all international students want to work in the U.S. Some want to do their co-op at home to save money or to position themselves for a top-flight job after graduation. Multinational companies like Apple in China or Schneider Electric in India want students who have been educated in the U.S. because they can speak English fluently and understand American culture.
While earning his MS in Engineering Management, Vatsal Prakash completed a co-op at Schneider Electric in New Delhi. As a part of the marketing team, he worked on programmable logic controllers (PLCs), which are specialized computers that can automate an entire industrial process. “The good thing about this was that I spent most of my time working in the lab,” says Prakash. “The lab is Schneider’s LEVEL 2 technical support team for all of the Southeast Asia region. It was fun because I was surrounded by engineers who were friendly, super smart, and helped me learn. I made a lot of friends and it was pretty relaxed.”
Prakash said he found the position through NUCareers. “Applying to companies through the university was much faster compared to finding a company on LinkedIn or Indeed. The process is very direct. My global co-op coordinator, Sally Conant, helped me with sending my applications.”
A boon for employers
One reason the graduate co-op program is so strong is that employers benefit as much as the students. “Try before you buy,” says Wadia-Fascetti to describe the pipeline of tested job candidates that co-op provides.
And because graduate co-op lasts up to eight months compared to the standard three-month internship, students are with the company long enough to have a significant impact. “We like to work with Northeastern because it takes two months to get a student up to speed,” says Hastie, who built the co-op program at Abiomed. “With co-op students, you have them doing significant work for four-to-six months instead of just one.” Hastie’s first contact with Abiomed was on co-op as an engineering student at Northeastern.
Vaishali Tripathi, who earned her MS in Information Systems, completed a six-month co-op at Amazon, culminating in a full-time job offer upon her graduation in spring 2020. She developed an operational excellence tool from scratch that automates the processing of vendor agreements. “Hundreds of these agreements failed to bill for a variety of reasons and needed special attention from the technical team to look into them, figure out the root cause, and come up with the appropriate fixes,” says Tripathi.
The system is now entirely self-service. The agreement lists are added to the website and from there, all of the communication and updates are automated. “The tech team doesn’t have to even take a look into it anymore!” says Tripathi. Each manual agreement previously took 10 minutes, but now Tripathi’s tool can process 100 agreements in 30 seconds. What took the tech team three days to accomplish is now done automatically in just 30 seconds—with 100 percent customer satisfaction.
Hiring international students can also benefit employers because, on average, they’re likely to stay longer. “I ask employers about the lifecycle of a typical new employee, and they usually tell me two years,” says Pirozzi. “International students are likely to stay much longer because their H-1B visa can last up to six years and they can’t change jobs without reapplying for their work visa.”
To ensure that students get the most out of the vast array of experiential opportunities, the college provides extensive support services, including a mandatory co-op preparatory class—covering everything from resume writing and interviewing to networking and communication skills in the workplace. While valuable to prepare for the co-op experience, the program offers much more—students gain skills they can carry with them for a lifetime.
Each student is also assigned a co-op advisor who specializes in their field of engineering and follows them throughout their graduate education. “Our knowledge of the companies and the fields they operate in runs much deeper than at most graduate engineering programs,” says Pirozzi. “Our co-op advisors know the field like the back of their hands.”
Another benefit to students is the College of Engineering’s partnership with Northeastern’s Employer Engagement and Career Design organization. Students can take advantage of additional career programming, workshops, and networking opportunities, including those targeted to graduate students.
“Our vision at Northeastern has been to build a network of learners, alums, and employers to form an ecosystem for lifelong learning, career design, and partnerships,” says Mountain. “The results can be seen in our students’ success.”