M.E., M.S. or Ph.D.?

From Jonathan Rosen and Kevin Janes, Graduate Admissions Committee, Department of Biomedical Engineering, University of Virginia


The Biomedical Engineering graduate program offers three degrees that serve different objectives and intermediate- to long-term goals.  When applying, it is important to consider your internal motives for pursuing graduate studies.  This is more important than the availability of funding, the estimated timeline to completion, or the perceived number of slots.  Our experience is that student satisfaction is highest when their objectives are strongly aligned with those of their graduate program.

The Master of Engineering (M.E.) in Biomedical Engineering is designed to prepare biomedical engineers for professional careers in developing advanced healthcare technologies.  Over 15 months, this 35-credit graduate program includes extensive direct clinical observations across the full Continuum of Patient Care, an advanced foundational biomedical curriculum and an experiential project-based introduction to innovative technology development.  Biomedical Data Science is a core element of the program and includes training and access to patient data, advanced analytics and modeling and a focus on effective data visualization.  Instruction in Advanced Design Practices is included in collaboration with the UVA School of Architecture.  M.E. students pay tuition and fees and may apply for a Chair’s Community Health Fellowship that can partially offset costs.  Summer internships are not provided or required, but may be available through local biomedical companies.  Professional Career Planning is provided through instruction, networking and individual career advising.  The M.E. program welcomes a diverse group of outstanding students from a variety of engineering and science backgrounds who are passionate about applying their professional skills to improve the standards of patient care.  Since 2019, we have enrolled about 12 M.E. students per year (range: 8–15).

The Master of Science (M.S.) in Biomedical Engineering is a graduate-level education in the fundamentals of the field and the research activity for our program.  M.S. students enroll in core classes plus electives, and the Master’s thesis provides a record of research effort and activity during the M.S. period.  The M.S. timeline is governed by coursework enrollment and fulfillment of requirements, which typically take 18–24 months.  The M.S. student pays tuition and fees, which might be offset by partial teaching or research assistantships if available.  The M.S. can be a good option for applicants from a non-BME field who seek to credential themselves for an industry career in the BME sector.  Alternatively, an applicant may be uncertain about their commitment to research and seek to reevaluate after completing coursework.  The M.S. is also a viable option for applicants who do not feel that their undergraduate record accurately reflects their academic preparedness or readiness for a research degree.  M.S. students do occasionally transition to the Ph.D. program, but the M.S. is not a necessary or implied intermediate step on the path to a Ph.D.  We enroll about three M.S. students each year (range: 1–5).

The Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Biomedical Engineering is a mentored opportunity to become an expert on a specific research topic and train for a career involving independent research.  This means identifying a void in knowledge with your Ph.D. advisor and Ph.D. Committee members, devising a plan to fill the void rigorously and executing that plan all the way through analysis, interpretation and transmission of results to the broader scientific community.  Foundational coursework and electives are tested holistically through a Ph.D. qualifying exam, and terminal progress toward becoming an independent scientist is judged by a candidate’s Ph.D. Dissertation Committee.  The Ph.D. dissertation communicates the gap in knowledge by synthesizing the existing literature, fills the gap with interpretable and actionable results and discusses the broader implications and future directions of the research topic.  The timeline for a Ph.D. depends on research progress and the choice to pursue intervening activities, such as laboratory rotations and professional development programs.  Normally, Ph.D. candidates defend their dissertation in 5–6 years.  Ph.D. stipend, tuition, and fees are paid by research assistantships from the sponsoring laboratory (subject to satisfactory performance) or by predoctoral fellowships secured independently by the student.  A Ph.D. is the option for those who know they want to pursue a research career in academia, industry, or government, although there are additional career paths that Ph.D. graduates can take.  We normally enroll about 16 Ph.D. students each year, but this number fluctuates annually depending on the Department’s ability to sponsor research assistantships (here is a partial list of faculty who are recruiting this year).

Occasionally, we receive applications where we are puzzled by an applicant’s choice of program given their background and interests.  The best place to explain your rationale for M.E., M.S., or Ph.D. is in the written statement of the application.  We look forward to reading about it.

Kevin Janes, PhD, Professor of BME

Jonathan Rosen, PhD, Professor of the Practice