Answers to Questions Frequently Asked by Prospective Graduate Applicants
1. Which graduate degrees are offered by the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering?
Our department offers both Master's degrees and Doctoral (PhD) degrees.
For the PhD, we offer a PhD in Civil Engineering and a PhD in Environmental Engineering. The PhD in Civil Engineering allows you to select a concentration area: Environmental engineering (ENV), Geotechnical (GTL), Materials (MTL), Structures (STR), Transportation (TPT), or Water Resources (WRS).
For the Master's degree, we offer both thesis-based degree programs and coursework-only degree programs. The thesis-based programs are the Master of Science in Civil Engineering (MSCE) and Master of Science in Environmental Engineering (MSEV). The coursework-only degree programs are the Master of Civil Engineering (MCE) and Master of Environmental Engineering (MEVE). The MSCE and MCE degrees allow you to specify a concentration area. Concentration areas for the MSCE and MCE are: engineering for international development (EFD), Geotechnical (GTL), Materials (MTL), Structures (STR), Transportation (TPT), and Water Resources (WRS). See Degree Programs.
2. I am interested in a PhD but I do not have a Master's degree yet. Should I apply to the Master's program or should I apply directly to the PhD program?
Our department does admit qualified students directly to the PhD program even
if they have not yet earned a master's degree.
If you are quite certain that you wish to pursue a PhD, and you are properly qualified for admission to the PhD program, then it is probably better to apply directly to the PhD program. It might shorten your overall time to completion of the PhD, and it might make you eligible for certain kinds of financial aid (e.g., graduate assistantships) that are awarded preferentially to doctoral students. Many students who are admitted directly to the PhD program are able to complete a Master's degree as they work towards the PhD, but this is not required.
If you are not sure that you wish to pursue a PhD, it is better to apply to the thesis-based Master's degree program (MSCE, MSEV, or MSES). That way, you can earn a degree while gaining valuable experience and learning if a research career is the right path for you.
Also, some students who wish to pursue a PhD might not yet have the necessary qualifications; for instance, perhaps your undergraduate grades are strong enough to qualify you for admission to the Master's program but not the PhD program. In such a case, completing the MS degree is an opportunity not only to gain valuable experience, but also to bolster your qualifications and to prove your ability to conduct high-quality research.
3. I wish to pursue a Master's degree. Which is better, a thesis-based degree or a coursework-only degree?
Neither option is "better" than the other per se; the choice depends on your goals.
It is almost always faster to complete a coursework-only Master's degree. Although both types of Master's degree require the same number of credit hours (30), completing a thesis is usually more time-consuming than completing the "equivalent" units of coursework. Therefore, if your objective is to graduate as quickly as possible, the coursework-only Master's degree is probably right for you.
The thesis-based Master's degree is a better option if you are considering a PhD or a career in research. It is also an excellent opportunity to work closely with a professor on a cutting-edge research project; if that sounds appealing to you, then the thesis-based degree might be a better fit. Also, sometimes (not always) a research grant is available to fund your thesis research, in which case you may be eligible for a stipend and/or tuition payments. Generally speaking, your chances of getting financial aid from the Department are better if you are pursuing a thesis versus pursuing a coursework-only option.
4. If I apply to USF, will I be accepted?
Many students send a resume or a summary of their credentials and ask for an evaluation
of their chances of acceptance. Unfortunately, it is almost never possible to provide
this information to the prospective applicant, except through the formal application
process. Whether your application is accepted depends on your credentials, but it
also depends on the strength of the overall applicant pool during the semester that
you apply, it depends on which professors might be seeking new students at that time,
and it depends on the availability of financial aid to support incoming students.
These things are all very difficult to predict until we have evaluated both your complete
application and the entire applicant pool. Therefore, the only way to really know
if you will be accepted is to apply for admission!
There is some general information that might be useful to you. First, some preferred credentials can be found in Admission Requirements and the Application Process. Second, admission is competitive. USF is a prominent research university, and our Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering is recognized worldwide. We receive applications from many very strong students every semester. Therefore, a number of applications must be declined every semester. Third, the best applicant will be one who has excellent undergraduate grades and excellent test scores and excellent letters of recommendation and a compelling and well-written statement of purpose and a previous record of publishing research in peer-reviewed, English-language research journals. Realistically speaking, very few applicants meet all of these criteria. However, if you are weak in one or two of these areas, then you should be strong in the other areas, so that your overall application will still be competitive.
5. My GRE scores (and/or TOEFL scores) are not as strong as I would like. Do I still have a chance of being admitted?
Yes. Test scores are one piece of information that we consider when evaluating your application, but they are not the only piece. However, if your test scores are low, then other aspects of your application should be particularly strong, so that overall your application will still be competitive. If your test scores are low and your undergraduate grades are not strong and your letters of recommendation are only average, then you are not likely to be competitive in the overall applicant pool. Preferred GRE scores are listed in the tab Admission Requirements; scores listed are guidelines but are not strict minima. In addition, USF accepts Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) or Professional Engineers (PE) certification in lieu of the GRE for MCE, MSCE, MEVE and MSEV program applicants. Applicants must obtain verification from the PE board where the certificate was obtained.
6. Once I apply, what is the process by which my application is evaluated?
USF has a department that handles graduate applications. They will make sure that you have submitted your on-line application, your transcripts, your test scores, and your application fee. They will also check that international applicants meet the University's minimum score for the TOEFL or IELTS. After all those items have been submitted and verified, your application will be routed to our Department for evaluation. Then, the departmental Graduate Program Director will oversee the evaluation of applications, with input from the relevant departmental faculty as needed (e.g., if you applied for a degree with a concentration in Water Resources, then the Water Resources faculty will likely be asked for their input on your application). Whether your application is accepted depends not only on your credentials, but also on the strength of the overall pool of applicants, the availability of funding or financial aid, and the availability of departmental faculty to supervise new research students. There is no "formula" that is used to evaluate applications; each application is evaluated individually on a case-by-case basis, but still in the context of the overall pool of applicants and the Department's openings at the time.
7. I cannot attend USF without financial support. What financial support is available, and how do I apply?
Some students are able to fund their graduate education through their own means
– for instance, with a fellowship, through personal savings, through loans, and/or
through a program offered by their employer. However, for many students, these options
are not available, and financial support is critical for their ability to attend USF.
The good news is that all applicants are automatically considered for graduate assistant
positions. The bad news is that the financial support available is not sufficient
to fund all the students who are seeking support. Therefore, financial support cannot
be offered to all applicants.
There are three main types of financial support available through USF: teaching assistantships (TAs), research assistantships (RAs), and scholarships/fellowships.
Teaching assistantships are appointed by the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering based on the teaching needs of the Department and the background of the students. Research assistantships are offered by individual professors who have obtained research grants and wish to employ a graduate student to assist with the completion of the research. In most cases, the research conducted by the student during a research assistantship will also be the basis for his/her Master's thesis or doctoral dissertation. Professors with research grants will seek applicants whose credentials best meet the needs of the research grant.
Scholarships and fellowships are available through a number of organizations and institutions, including USF's Office of Graduate Studies and the College of Engineering. Applicants are strongly encouraged to investigate if they may qualify for available fellowships, and to apply for any fellowships for which they are eligible. A partial listing of scholarships and fellowships are under the tab Graduate Fellowships.
8. I really want to work under the supervision of Professor XYZ. Is Professor XYZ accepting new research students this semester?
You should feel free to contact Professor XYZ directly and explain your interest
in his/her research program. At that time, you may inquire if he/she is accepting
new research students. However, you are cautioned to contact only those professors
in whose research you have a genuine interest. Some applicants contact every professor
in the Department, in the hopes that somebody will offer them an RA position. This
is a bad idea because it demonstrates that you are not truly interested in the research
of any specific professor; hence you will actually be less likely to obtain a position
in a research group. Instead, a good strategy is to identify a small number of professors
whose work is most interesting to you, read some of their research papers, think about
what research directions are most exciting to you, and then contact Professor XYZ
to explain your interest and inquire about open positions. (If you have a fellowship
or your own source of financial support, mention it; Professor XYZ might be more likely
to accept you if he/she does not have to come up with 100% of the funding for your
If you are really lucky, then you will happen to apply at exactly the time that Professor XYZ has just obtained a new research grant and is actively seeking a new graduate student to work as a research assistant. If you are not quite that lucky, but Professor XYZ thinks that you are an outstanding candidate, then he/she might ask the Department to fund you as a TA for two semesters. That gives you and Professor XYZ a little time to identify a funding source to support you after the TA appointment ends.
Some professors do not like to accept new students unless they know that there is a sustainable source of funding to support the student. Other professors might be more willing to accept a new student with the hope that funding will become available within a semester or two. If you are offered a position in a research group, it is a good idea to ask Professor XYZ how you will be funded, and how secure that source of funding will be in the future.
9. My undergraduate degree is in a field other than engineering. Can I pursue a graduate degree in Civil Engineering or Environmental Engineering?
Yes. At the level of the Master's degree, you must complete a number of undergraduate engineering pre-requisite courses that will make you eligible to pursue professional licensure. This will also make you eligible to apply for the MCE, MSCE, MEVE, or MSEV degree offered by the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. You should complete some of the undergraduate pre-requisite courses before applying for admission -- enough to demonstrate that you have the proper background, preparation, and capabilities in math, science, and engineering. Then, if you are admitted to our graduate program, you may complete the remainder of the undergraduate pre-requisites concurrently with your graduate curriculum. Here is the list of undergraduate pre-requisites.
At the doctoral level, qualified applicants may be admitted to the PhD program in Civil Engineering or Environmental Engineering without a degree in engineering, assuming that their background and expertise is appropriate for the research to be undertaken. However, students without an engineering Bachelor's or Master's degree from an ABET-accredited program may not be eligible to pursue professional licensure upon graduating, unless they complete the undergraduate engineering pre-requisites discussed above. Some doctoral students complete these undergraduate courses during the course of their doctoral study, in order to pursue licensure.
10. I am an international student and I need to improve my English capabilities to qualify for admission. What should I do?
USF has a program designed specifically for this purpose. It is called the Graduate Pathway program, which is offered through INTO USF. As part of the INTO USF Graduate Pathway program, you will take English classes while simultaneously taking a small number of classes from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. At the end of 1 or 2 semesters (depending on which program you select), if you have successfully completed the program and obtained the necessary grades, you will be admitted to the graduate program in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.
11. I have a job and I do not want to quit my job to attend graduate school full-time. Can I pursue my graduate degree part-time?
For a Master's degree, especially a coursework-only master's degree, this is
relatively common. Just be sure not to take too many classes in any semester. Some
students try to work full time and take a full course-load simultaneously. This almost
always leads to disaster. Most students can handle only one standard 3-unit course
per semester (maybe two) if working full-time or close to full time.
It can be difficult to pursue a thesis-based Master's degree and simultaneously maintain a full employment schedule, because research projects sometimes require periods of intense effort. This generally requires some support and flexibility from your employer. Sometimes it is possible to select a thesis topic that is closely related to a student's employment duties, which makes things much easier for the student.
It is not recommended that you pursue a PhD while maintaining outside employment. This is successful only in rare instances.
12. I applied to USF, but I was not admitted. I still want to attend USF. What can I do to make my application stronger?
There is no single answer to this question, because each application is different.
However, there are at least two strategies that do apply to many of our unsuccessful
First, if your test scores (TOEFL and/or GRE) do not meet our preferred qualifications, you can re-take the test. However, be aware that re-taking the test does not necessarily mean that your scores will improve. Re-taking the test is probably only a good strategy if you believe that, for some reason, your initial scores were not a good reflection of your current capabilities.
Second, if you live in the Tampa Bay area, you can consider taking a small number of classes as a non-degree-seeking student. If you perform sufficiently well, it will demonstrate that you have the ability to be successful in our graduate program. Also, you can ask one (or more) of your USF professors to provide a letter of recommendation when you re-apply for admission. A strong performance in our classes, coupled with a strong letter of recommendation from our faculty, will probably make you very competitive for admission to our graduate program. If you pursue this strategy and then you are subsequently admitted, up to 12 of the credits you earned as a non-degree-seeking student can count towards your graduate degree. However, please consider the following:
- Taking classes as a non-degree-seeking student does not guarantee your future admission, particularly if your performance in class is not strong. Therefore, there is some risk that you will spend money on USF tuition and will still not be admitted to the graduate program.
- If you enroll in classes as a non-degree-seeking student, it is recommended that you enroll in classes in the same subject area to which you plan to apply. For instance, if you are interested in pursuing a degree with a concentration area of Transportation, then you should enroll in Transportation courses as a non-degree-seeking student.
- If you enroll as a non-degree-seeking student, try to get to know the professors that teach the courses, so that one or more of them will be able to write a letter of recommendation on your behalf when you re-apply.