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The Inside Scoop on Duke’s Master of Engineering Management (MEM) [Episode 564]

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Content provided by Linda Abraham. All podcast content including episodes, graphics, and podcast descriptions are uploaded and provided directly by Linda Abraham or their podcast platform partner. If you believe someone is using your copyrighted work without your permission, you can follow the process outlined here https://player.fm/legal.

Show Summary

Are you an engineer who wants to use your technical skills and move into an entrepreneurial or managerial role? Well, Duke’s Master of Engineering Management or MEM may be just the ticket for you, and it provides two options, on campus and online. The program has been around for over 25 years and aims to prepare engineers with business knowledge. Luis Morales, Executive Director of the program, shares more of what the program offers and how applicants can successfully present themselves.

Show Notes

Welcome to the 564th episode of Admissions Straight Talk. Thanks for joining me. Before we dive into today’s interview, I want to mention a free resource at Accepted that can benefit you if you are applying to graduate engineering programs and that is Applying to Graduate Engineering Programs: What You Need to Know. It can guide you through a process you’ve never been through before. It’s not the same as applying to college. Download your complimentary copy at accepted.com/564download.

Our guest today is Luis Morales, Executive Director of the Master of Engineering Management Program at Duke University. Professor Morales earned his bachelor’s in electrical engineering from the University of Puerto Rico and his master’s of engineering from Cornell University. He then worked as an engineer and manager at AT&T and at Cisco before joining Duke as an executive in residence and adjunct associate professor at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, while also founding his own consulting company. He became the executive director of the MEM program in 2021 and also teaches three courses in that program.

Professor Morales, welcome to Admissions Straight Talk. [2:00]

Thank you, Linda. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Can we start with an overview of the Master of Engineering Management program at Duke? Who is it for? What need is it intended to fill? [2:06]

Absolutely. So the Duke MEM program has been around for more than 25 years. In fact, last year we were celebrating our 25th year anniversary, and as I look back at the charter of the program back then in 1997, the purpose was to prepare engineers with business knowledge. So the assessment, Linda, at the time was that we were preparing engineers for industry, for the global economy that did not have the necessary business knowledge. So they were not able to either get an impact, have an impact on the business side of companies right away so that’s exactly the need that we’re trying to satisfy.

And if you think back to if that was the need then, and you look at where we are now as technology has become so pervasive across so much of how we as a society generate value, engineering management, to me is the perfect solution because it combines, again, it builds on a base of technical knowledge, but then it builds business knowledge on top of that. So the basic structure of the program is eight courses, four of which are core, focus on management, people management, intellectual property management, marketing and finance. Then the other four are technical electives designed to basically sharpen your STEM, saw, whether it is product management, data science, software management, et cetera.

There are two versions of the MEM program. There’s the online and the in-residence. Can you go over how they’re structured? [4:40]

Absolutely. So the campus program, as I mentioned before, has been around for more than 25 years. Our online offering is going to be 15 years in September. Yeah, the time flies. There are a lot of similarities between the two in terms of courses. The curriculum is the same, core courses, four electives, with some small exceptions, but the same instructors teach the core courses, teach the online sections. But then for the online course, Linda, what we do is that we replace the seminars and workshops that are included in the campus offering and we replace those with three weeks of residency where online students get to come to campus and then do their workshops, meet the faculty, and more importantly meet each other, meet fellow cohorts. So we do that before they begin their first semester. We do that halfway at the end of the first year of academic studies and then right before graduation. So those are the residency experiences.

Are there three residency experiences? [6:07]

That’s right.

How long are they? [6:10]

It’s one week. I know we’re not supposed to be sharing secrets here, but they’re one of the things that I consider to be the secret of success for our online program is precisely those residencies. We are lucky to have a professor who runs those residencies, La Tondra Murray, who is outstanding, and I think that helps keep the energy up during the residencies and after.

May I ask how many students are in each program and during the residencies? Do the in-residence and the online students get together? [6:51]

So the residencies, the way we design it is for the third residency, the one right before graduation, that’s the only one where there is actually an overlap between when the campus students are here and the online students are here. For the other residencies, they happen during the summer. One is in July and the other one is in early August. So by design, there are very small sections. There’s very little structural overlap between the two. Initially we were mixing it up, but we learned that their profiles are different. So our online students obviously are working professionals. They tend to join us, I don’t know, 5, 6, 8 years after graduation from undergrad. Whereas our campus students tend to join us on average three years after graduation. So there’s a significant difference in maturity. So we keep the two communities separate.

Do you have people in the in-residence program that are coming straight from college or do they usually work for a little bit? [8:11]

If we look at the distribution, I think there are three years, but students are allowed to join the campus program. They meet our admission requirements and we feel, Linda, if we were to change the program so that this only is dominated by fresh graduates, I think that we would be losing value if we were to do that.

So most of them have already worked a little bit. [8:48]

Yeah, most of them. In fact, this is admission season, so we just had our first deadline on Monday of this week. And if you look at the applications at random, then you just say, “Okay, what is the story? Why Duke? Why now?” And it’s very consistent. Engineers graduated with mechanical engineering degree or what have you. They went on and started working in a company and then all of a sudden they saw someone in their space that they admire and they want to emulate, and they realized that that person has skills that they don’t have. And in most cases, they tend to be leadership skills or financial or marketing skills. So that’s what brings them back to school. That’s why they’re here.

What do you see as the most significant differences between the MEM and an MBA? Because there are definite similarities. [9:51]

Oh, absolutely. So the way we look at it, let’s start with the MS because we live under the same roof, so to speak. With the school of engineering. We tend to encourage MS students,they tend to be individuals that are interested in pursuing research, or they may not have a line of sight to get to a Ph.D., but they’re very much interested in research type positions and opportunities in the industry. Whereas our MEM students are really interested in going back to the industry and working in roles as I mentioned before, product management, project management, more techno management roles, even on the engineering side of the companies but that’s the main difference between the two. So if we see somebody in their application, for example, tells me he or she is very much interested in research and that’s what they’re passionate about, we will encourage them to apply for an MS for a master’s.

As far as the MBA, there are similarities and there are some differences. I think as the MBA program has started to create this one, offerings like we have some here at Fuqua where we have MMS and other programs, some of the differences have become a blur. If you look at their curriculum, you will see obviously marketing, finance in some cases people management also will be there. Then we start diverging there because we start talking about intellectual property. And our approach to even finance and marketing is very much from a technology point of view. And then we have the electives, and our electives are different from the electives that you will get in an MBA program or a quant program. At the end of the day, Linda, we can make a case that, yes, an MEM student can make a choice of electives that will look very much like a MMS to some extent.

But then the main difference remains that your fellow students will all be engineers or scientists whereas the MBA will be a different profile, it’ll be a mix of different backgrounds. So I think that is the main difference and that resonates to me, Linda, given my background as an engineer, when if you and I get on that time machine and we go back to when I graduated from electrical engineering at Cornell, and you asked me, “Hey, Luis, what do you want to do after the next five years?” I would’ve told you, “Oh, Linda, I just want to be an individual contributor. I enjoy being an engineer.” I still do. That’s what brings joy to my life. But then at the time, I didn’t know that I have a passion for people that I later discovered. And it took me 10 years, so maybe I’m a slow mover, but it took me 10 years to discover the passion for people. So I shifted to a technical manager role.

I think another difference is length of time. The traditional MBA degree is a two-year degree. The MEM degree, even in-residence, is a one-year degree.

I had a situation with our oldest daughter. At the time she was twenty-two, and our youngest daughter was sixteen. And our oldest daughter wanted to go for a master’s in not-for-profit management and my husband and I felt she should go for an MBA and just focus on not-for-profit management because an MBA is a much more flexible degree. And she didn’t want to hear it. She didn’t want to do the MBA.

One day we had over one of our younger daughter’s friends, and she asked our older daughter, “What are your plans?” She said, “I want to go for a degree in not-for-profit management.” And she got accepted to some really top programs in that field and our daughter’s sixteen-year-old friend said to her, “Why aren’t you going for an MBA? It’s a much more flexible degree.” At which point she looked at us, like, “Did you pay her to say that?”

I’m sure that some people listening to this are thinking, “Well, if I’m going to get the leadership skills and I’m going to get the business skills, and it’s going to complement my undergraduate training, wouldn’t I be better off getting an MBA and having the flexibility?” How would you respond to that concern? [13:42]

That’s a fair question. I think the way I look at it is, we do offer flexibility, but I think it comes from our vantage point. So let me explain, we are catering to engineers and scientists or a STEM scientist or an engineer. Our audience is different. If you are a scientist or an engineer like me who was stupid back then, but if you use the word ‘sales’ and you say, “Hey, Luis, do you want to learn more about sales?” I would’ve said, “No, no, no, no. I want to be an engineer. Give me tech, right? Tech is what I want.” That’s what I want to do. So that is our constituency, Linda.

For them, what MEM does, it provides you that flexibility, right? It provides you a way of… I used to work at Cisco, one of my favorite executives there, he used to talk about squids and spaceships. So it’s a hard thing to follow, but the squids were these people who were focused on one thing and they knew it in depth. And then the spaceships were the individuals that can cover a lot of ground. And as an executive, he wanted everybody to be a spaceship because you could be deployed in multiple roles from the point of view of the company. But I think we make, build, and prepare squids with spaceship heads.

I love the metaphor. [16:55]

We’re trying to build on the “squidness” that we all, engineers, bring to the table and broaden your perspective so that you can operate as a spaceship using my friend’s analogy.

I did my MBA many years ago, I have a social science and humanities background, and I remember some of the engineers in our program were bored with the math that we were doing. I was finding it quite challenging because I didn’t have a quantitative background.

I noticed that the MEM focuses very much on professionalism and its five principles. Can you touch on what they are and their importance in the program? Often, programs will have some very nice sounding motto or mission or key principles, whatever you want to call them. And they sound great, but they’re not really ingrained in the program. So when you’re talking about them, how are these principles guiding you? How are they realized in the program? [17:20]

Thank you for asking me the question by the way, because this is something I feel really, really strongly about. This is even before I became the director as a faculty, I was one of the main forces behind the development of this.

My motivation at the time when I started the dialogue at the faculty meetings was to… I said, “We come from industry, and in industry we have a very clear purpose.” There’s clarity of purpose from leadership. This is why we’re here. This is our vision, this is our mission, this is our strategy on how we accomplish our vision. So I felt like our program, despite the fact that we’ve been around for so long, we didn’t have that articulation. We clearly have a mission, as I mentioned before, preparing engineers with business knowledge, but we couldn’t articulate what do we stand for. So what happened was, and it was organic, Linda, at the faculty meetings, when I pitched this, “Okay, we should come up with a mission, a vision.” The team said, “You know what? I think it’s important for us to communicate to our prospective students and even to our students and prospective students, what are the areas of knowledge where we’re going to build core competence?”

So the initial intent was to articulate like a brand promise, Linda. If you come into this program, these are the areas of competency that you’re going to work on, and this is communication. We want to make sure that you can communicate effectively and you can communicate your ideas. I always tell my students if they’re unable to communicate their ideas, they could be the most creative person in the world, those ideas are trapped in their brains. Set them free by working on your communication skills. And in our classes and through co-curricular activities, we give students opportunities to work on their communication. Part of our Pratt master’s services team helps students with communication, particularly if English is not their first language. We help them improve their skills. The second one is teamwork. I think it goes without saying at this point in life that if you think that you’re just going to work by yourself in a lab, that’s not going to happen.

And companies will not put up with it. So we live in a world where you need to work in teams. So we talk about, particularly in our management class, Linda, we talk about how do you build a high-performing team? What are some of the characteristics of this? What are the five dysfunctions of a team? How do you have a difficult conversation? And so on and so forth. So that’s the teamwork piece. The other one is critical thinking, and it could be based on the demographics of our program. We have a lot of international students from India and from China. Sometimes faculty would see students that come with this expectation that there’s a recipe, Linda, tell me what the recipe is and I’ll follow it and I will have success in my life. And we said, “No, that’s not going to work. We need to equip you with the ability to make critical decisions when presented with multiple views of data.” And in many cases, and we’re living this through media today, it’s sometimes conflicting pieces of information. How do you deal with ambiguity? So that’s critical thinking.

Then the next one is ethics. And ethics is one that, to be honest, the students struggle with. So what does that mean? I am an honest person. I am kind. I do the right thing. So we have been putting a lot of focus on this, particularly around our data and data science areas. I was doing my own homework with your podcast, and I’ve heard some of the administrators talk about ChatGPT and how we’re using ChatGPT. To me, AI, if used correctly, which means we are all upfront. The students and faculty, we say we’re not afraid of it. We consider it a source of information. If we’re upfront with it, it’s fine. But for example, in my class, I teach a class on improving customer experience. How do we build a system to collect data that can help improve the customer experience? I talk to my students about making sure they consider data privacy concerns as you’re building the system because we say, “Okay, we’re building a system that improves the customer experience, but at what cost?” And you need to have that in the back of your mind that your decisions could impact the privacy of others and expose private information from others. And then last but not least, humanness. I think that’s my favorite principle, Linda.

And I think the way I would describe it to you is we actually went back to the Greek word of eudaimonia. I’m sure I’m pronouncing it incorrectly, but the feeling of flourishing. We’re trying to encourage our students to make use of all the gifts that God had given them, right? And put the effort to do introspection, understand what those gifts are, then make use of them for the betterment of society, but also help others do the same. So those are the five principles, and we reinforce them in class, in my communications as leader, and in every activity we have. In fact, we have awards in the program where we give out awards to students that embody these principles the most and it’s very much an element of our admissions process.

So you’re looking for people who identify with those values basically? [25:06]

Yes.

Not just mouthing them, but demonstrating them. [25:12]

Yes. That’s a very good point because I could go to Bard or ChatGPT and ask, “Tell me something about professionalism and the five principles,” and it would spew something out that sounds nice. But what we do in our application review, Linda, is we look for the holistic connecting the dots. So in your essays, in your resume, in your video, are you connecting those dots or it is just a one-time mention that you made of that? It has to be genuine and supported by facts.

Yeah. You don’t want your website spit back to you. That’s not very helpful. [25:57]

Exactly.

You touched on experience or professional experience already. Is a GRE required? [26:08]

No. We decided to re-evaluate the GRE during COVID and have been re-evaluating that every year. I made the decision to make it optional this year again. And part of it is because, we’re satisfied with the outcome of the quality of the applicants that we’re getting. We get a wider range of applicants, and we are still saying, if you want to submit the GRE, you can do it. And I think my ask is, students say, “But why would I do it if it is optional?” I say, “Well, if your GPA is not as good as you think it should be, or it could be, and you feel the GRE tells the story or helps you tell the story, then I would do it in that case.”

What else are you looking for in the admissions process? Obviously, good grades, I assume and an engineering or STEM background. Are you looking for leadership experience? Are you looking for extracurricular activities to show that somebody’s not just focused on engineering or just focused on STEM? Does that play a role? [27:09]

Absolutely. The way I would articulate, so we have four criteria, Linda, that we use, and we consider them equally, actually, the equal weight. So the rubric, again has the four elements that are number one, academic, school quality. And what we’re looking for is that you graduated from a challenging or reputable academic institution that sets the bar high. Gets you ready to be a member of the Duke community. The second criteria is academic performance. So you went to that school, how did you do? Our average GPA ranges between 3.4 and 3.6. I think that’s where most of our students, so mostly A’s, a few B’s, in some cases there are C’s scattered, one or two C’s here and there.

But when we start seeing D’s and F’s, then we get discouraged. The other two criteria are, in my opinion, as important or maybe more important, the third criteria, we call it engagement. And what we’re looking for there, Linda, back to the point we were making before, is a demonstration of projection to society. So we are very clear here at Duke and our mission that we’re trying to prepare engineers that will impact the world and impact society for the better. So we want those engineers, those scientists that care about the community, that care about the world. So one of the criteria we look for is how engaged are you with the community.

It’s amazing how many applications I read of students that have a 4.0 GPA, and when you read it, Linda, it’s all about them and things that they’ve done for themselves and very little about how they’re using, again, the gifts that they have to help other people, and leader in sports or church or community or helping remove trash or whatever it is. I just want to see evidence that you really care about other people more than just you. So that’s engagement. And then the last one is fit. And that ties back to professionalism and defined principles. The way I look at it, Linda, is that we’re looking for engineers that believe in principle-based leadership, that when you say things like that, they are like, “Yeah, that makes sense.” Or “What the heck is that?” Right?

They roll their eyes. So what I’m looking for there, or what we’re looking for there is people that resonate to that, and they have demonstrated interest and there’s evidence that they believe in it. They act on it, whether it’s teamwork or critical thinking, or humanness. Some of the best applications I’ve seen are applicants talking about humanness and how they’re trying to help their community and, through that, live out their five principles.

That was very informative. What if an applicant is interested in attending the MEM? Maybe they didn’t graduate in engineering, but maybe they took a lot of biology classes or biological anthropology or something like that. It’s not hard STEM, but it’s getting close. Can he or she take specific classes to get the technical foundation that you expect? And what would those classes be? [30:56]

Yeah, so for situations like that, what we recommend is that students take third-level calculus. Calculus 1, 2, 3, and then probability and statistics. And I think the third level calculus, it’s not that we’re going to be doing triple integrals in our program here, but it’s really more about you as a student feeling confident that you can be successful and you can hang around with your peers and don’t feel intimidated that you understand the concepts at that level, number one. And then probability and statistics is more about what we were talking about dealing with ambiguity. As engineers, we’re used to very precise things. Probability and statistics help us appreciate the fact that the world is not perfect, and there’s always randomness associated with it. I was teaching a class in data science, and I would always integrate probability and statistics into it because every outcome, every exercise that you do, you could characterize it as a random process to some extent.

Let’s turn to the short essays. The first question is, what is short? [33:01]

It’s 1,500 characters, including space and punctuation. I think the reason why we make it so short is that we want students to put the time to think about what they want to say, number one. And number two, when they say it, they say it in a way that is somewhat concise and not rambling. But I would give you another secret, Linda.

I think if you’re an applicant out there and you’re interested in being part of our program, don’t shortchange yourself and try to use as much space as possible to tell your story. There’s nothing worse than us seeing people… A video essay is a part of our application and you see students that just spend less than a minute saying what they need to say when they have whatever, three minutes to say what they need to say. So more is more, not less. Because we’re trying to get to know you, and if you’re shortchanging us with your word, then it’s hard for us to make an assessment.

Can you give us some tips in terms of answering these three questions?

Question A: We can learn about your past experience from your resume, but we’re interested in your plans. Why are you interested in pursuing the Master’s of Engineering Management degree from Duke University?

Question B: Please choose one principle and explain how you plan to contribute in that way at Duke MEM and beyond.

Question C: Does any elective track within the Duke MEM program fit your needs? If so, which one and why? If not, and understanding you’re free to change your mind later, those three to four electives within or outside MEM and how they will help you meet your career goals

Yeah. So for the first one, what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to understand your motivation. What is your motivation to be part of this program? And as I was telling you, this is where I hear the very similar story of I graduated, I wanted to be an engineer to fix airplanes or whatever, cars or buildings or whatever you want. But then I realized I was missing something and therefore, I decided to come to Duke. So that’s where you will see that so the first one gives us your motivation.

The second one speaks to remembering what we talk about fit and engagement to some extent. And then the third one, we’re really trying to get to your ability to do your homework. And it’s amazing how many students don’t even bother to look at the… Or I should say, applicants, don’t bother to do their homework, and that’s really a bad mark on you and bad reflection when we feel that you didn’t do your homework. I’m coming here to talk to you and you did your homework on me, and I did my homework on you, Linda.

You have an in-person interview that comes later, but you also have a video interview. Can you touch on that and why? [36:52]

Yeah, so we’ve lived through the COVID pandemic where many people had to work remotely and operate remotely. So we all know that being able to see each other’s facial expressions and full spectrum of communication is important. So we look at the video as a way of delivering the complete story. So think of it as your written essays, your resume, your transcripts, your letters of recommendation are building blocks. And then the video is the opportunity to integrate all of that into one cohesive story. So that’s what we do. It is basically a way of telling the story. I enjoy listening to the videos, especially those that are successful in connecting the dots.

What can applicants invited to interview expect during their in-person interview? [38:11]

One of my specialties in industry, Linda, was operations. I’m a quality management guy, so I’m in the engineering space so I would typically be part of the operations team. So I’m very good at productivity and structure and organization. So one of the things I did when I took over as the director of this program is I developed that rubric very clearly, articulated the four criteria that I just mentioned. Then I went on and hired readers that, using the rubric, evaluate applications as they come in. And we just went to our first milestone, Linda, I think we got 1,040 applications.

How many students are in the program again? [39:11]

180.

So out of that number of applications, we have a number of readers, we call them. So the readers will provide a score or an assessment on their application on the basis of their rubric. And then those applications that are deemed to be strong enough that we feel that this person has a potential to be part of Duke MEM, then those get invited to an interview. Now, one of the things that we’re doing this year, Linda, that we have never done before is in the past, the interview was conducted by faculty staff here in our program. What we’re doing now this year is we have asked alumni to get involved in the interview process. So the assignment is somewhat, you can think of it as random. It’s not really, but you can think of it that way. And what happens during that interview is basically we just want to chat.

The alum have a chat with the applicant and what we’re asking applicants, and the best advice I could give applicants is to just be yourself. We’re trying to get to know you, get to know you. The heavy lifting or all the stuff, what you have accomplished, and all of that is in the application. We’re trying to get to know you as a person. So then we ask the alum to provide feedback on the applicant. That feedback comes to me. And then as part of the committee review, I decide on the offer admission or not.

During the in-person interview with the alum or the admission staff person, would they ask more questions, let’s say about how the applicant has handled particular situations or would handle particular situations? Are they going to be asking about decision points in the resume? Is the interview blind or have they reviewed the application? [41:02]

It’s blind. In the past, before this alum involvement, it used to be more informed. So we would have exactly what you described, right? I will look at their application and say, “Hey, I had doubts about this, or I am curious about that.” But with the alums, we don’t share the applicant’s information. So it’s just, okay, I get the… Linda and I, we get to meet each other today, and then at the end I say, “Okay, I think Linda is wonderful”, or whatever. That’s really the process. So there’s no set agenda.

We just have a chat, get to know each other, answer a question. So I would encourage the applicants to use that time to ask questions. Right? That’s another way of getting people to know you by the questions that you ask.

What is a common mistake that you see applicants make in their applications? [42:23]

I think the biggest mistake I see is that they maybe don’t follow instructions and they leave it for the last minute. And then the work product, if you will, is subpar. We just talked about the videos. Just delivering a one-minute video when you’re expected or allowed to do a three-minute video is a mistake. Remember, the goal here is we are trying to get to know you. So make use of the time and the resources that you’re given. And then pay attention to the details. Sometimes people answer the wrong questions and skip questions, and it’s so sad because sometimes we see people who seem to have the right potential, but then they squander the opportunity.

You also think of engineers as usually being very detail-oriented so it’s almost more glaring if they aren’t. [43:22]

Yes. And in most cases, I think it’s because they’re rushing. They left it for the last minute, and then yeah, and we can’t help with that.

What question would you like to answer that I haven’t asked? What piece of information would you like to convey to listeners that we haven’t discussed? [43:45]

Thank you for that one, Linda. I think the question I wish you would’ve asked, or I would like to share with you, is that even though we have been around for 25-plus years, we’re very much looking for ways to reinvent ourselves and build on what we do well and improve what we don’t. And I’ll give you a case in point. So during the first six months of my tenure here as director, we developed something we call our Vision 2027. And part of our Vision 2027 was to do precisely that, understand what is it that we’ve done that is working that our students and our alums are saying, “Yes, this is great faculty experiential feedback case-based learning, Duke.” What is it that is not working? So what they told us wasn’t working is that as the program had gotten bigger, we lost intimacy. So the students didn’t get to know, meet their cohort members. So what we did, we took a page out of the MBA playbook and we created something called the cohort model.

So basically, Linda, we took that 180 target of students inbound, and we broke it into four cohorts, each of the 45-ish students. And those students, we tried to curate so that there was a very diverse gender, country of origin, experience, what have you. And each cohort takes the same courses at the same time, the core courses anyway, the same time, and they get to know each other, build bonds between them very strongly. So that’s one thing that we rolled out this year, last fall. And then associated with that is something called the community building time, where we took three hours of our academic calendar or academic schedule every week, Tuesdays at noon, Thursdays at noon, and Fridays at noon and we say, we’ll have no classes during those three hours. And they’re dedicated to promoting faculty-student relationships, students-student relationships, and student-alum relationships. So we have programming that helps promote that. For example, today, Thursday, we have one of those events. So today’s event was a faculty-student luncheon that I pay for. The program pays for where faculty can take students out for lunch.

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Show Summary

Are you an engineer who wants to use your technical skills and move into an entrepreneurial or managerial role? Well, Duke’s Master of Engineering Management or MEM may be just the ticket for you, and it provides two options, on campus and online. The program has been around for over 25 years and aims to prepare engineers with business knowledge. Luis Morales, Executive Director of the program, shares more of what the program offers and how applicants can successfully present themselves.

Show Notes

Welcome to the 564th episode of Admissions Straight Talk. Thanks for joining me. Before we dive into today’s interview, I want to mention a free resource at Accepted that can benefit you if you are applying to graduate engineering programs and that is Applying to Graduate Engineering Programs: What You Need to Know. It can guide you through a process you’ve never been through before. It’s not the same as applying to college. Download your complimentary copy at accepted.com/564download.

Our guest today is Luis Morales, Executive Director of the Master of Engineering Management Program at Duke University. Professor Morales earned his bachelor’s in electrical engineering from the University of Puerto Rico and his master’s of engineering from Cornell University. He then worked as an engineer and manager at AT&T and at Cisco before joining Duke as an executive in residence and adjunct associate professor at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, while also founding his own consulting company. He became the executive director of the MEM program in 2021 and also teaches three courses in that program.

Professor Morales, welcome to Admissions Straight Talk. [2:00]

Thank you, Linda. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Can we start with an overview of the Master of Engineering Management program at Duke? Who is it for? What need is it intended to fill? [2:06]

Absolutely. So the Duke MEM program has been around for more than 25 years. In fact, last year we were celebrating our 25th year anniversary, and as I look back at the charter of the program back then in 1997, the purpose was to prepare engineers with business knowledge. So the assessment, Linda, at the time was that we were preparing engineers for industry, for the global economy that did not have the necessary business knowledge. So they were not able to either get an impact, have an impact on the business side of companies right away so that’s exactly the need that we’re trying to satisfy.

And if you think back to if that was the need then, and you look at where we are now as technology has become so pervasive across so much of how we as a society generate value, engineering management, to me is the perfect solution because it combines, again, it builds on a base of technical knowledge, but then it builds business knowledge on top of that. So the basic structure of the program is eight courses, four of which are core, focus on management, people management, intellectual property management, marketing and finance. Then the other four are technical electives designed to basically sharpen your STEM, saw, whether it is product management, data science, software management, et cetera.

There are two versions of the MEM program. There’s the online and the in-residence. Can you go over how they’re structured? [4:40]

Absolutely. So the campus program, as I mentioned before, has been around for more than 25 years. Our online offering is going to be 15 years in September. Yeah, the time flies. There are a lot of similarities between the two in terms of courses. The curriculum is the same, core courses, four electives, with some small exceptions, but the same instructors teach the core courses, teach the online sections. But then for the online course, Linda, what we do is that we replace the seminars and workshops that are included in the campus offering and we replace those with three weeks of residency where online students get to come to campus and then do their workshops, meet the faculty, and more importantly meet each other, meet fellow cohorts. So we do that before they begin their first semester. We do that halfway at the end of the first year of academic studies and then right before graduation. So those are the residency experiences.

Are there three residency experiences? [6:07]

That’s right.

How long are they? [6:10]

It’s one week. I know we’re not supposed to be sharing secrets here, but they’re one of the things that I consider to be the secret of success for our online program is precisely those residencies. We are lucky to have a professor who runs those residencies, La Tondra Murray, who is outstanding, and I think that helps keep the energy up during the residencies and after.

May I ask how many students are in each program and during the residencies? Do the in-residence and the online students get together? [6:51]

So the residencies, the way we design it is for the third residency, the one right before graduation, that’s the only one where there is actually an overlap between when the campus students are here and the online students are here. For the other residencies, they happen during the summer. One is in July and the other one is in early August. So by design, there are very small sections. There’s very little structural overlap between the two. Initially we were mixing it up, but we learned that their profiles are different. So our online students obviously are working professionals. They tend to join us, I don’t know, 5, 6, 8 years after graduation from undergrad. Whereas our campus students tend to join us on average three years after graduation. So there’s a significant difference in maturity. So we keep the two communities separate.

Do you have people in the in-residence program that are coming straight from college or do they usually work for a little bit? [8:11]

If we look at the distribution, I think there are three years, but students are allowed to join the campus program. They meet our admission requirements and we feel, Linda, if we were to change the program so that this only is dominated by fresh graduates, I think that we would be losing value if we were to do that.

So most of them have already worked a little bit. [8:48]

Yeah, most of them. In fact, this is admission season, so we just had our first deadline on Monday of this week. And if you look at the applications at random, then you just say, “Okay, what is the story? Why Duke? Why now?” And it’s very consistent. Engineers graduated with mechanical engineering degree or what have you. They went on and started working in a company and then all of a sudden they saw someone in their space that they admire and they want to emulate, and they realized that that person has skills that they don’t have. And in most cases, they tend to be leadership skills or financial or marketing skills. So that’s what brings them back to school. That’s why they’re here.

What do you see as the most significant differences between the MEM and an MBA? Because there are definite similarities. [9:51]

Oh, absolutely. So the way we look at it, let’s start with the MS because we live under the same roof, so to speak. With the school of engineering. We tend to encourage MS students,they tend to be individuals that are interested in pursuing research, or they may not have a line of sight to get to a Ph.D., but they’re very much interested in research type positions and opportunities in the industry. Whereas our MEM students are really interested in going back to the industry and working in roles as I mentioned before, product management, project management, more techno management roles, even on the engineering side of the companies but that’s the main difference between the two. So if we see somebody in their application, for example, tells me he or she is very much interested in research and that’s what they’re passionate about, we will encourage them to apply for an MS for a master’s.

As far as the MBA, there are similarities and there are some differences. I think as the MBA program has started to create this one, offerings like we have some here at Fuqua where we have MMS and other programs, some of the differences have become a blur. If you look at their curriculum, you will see obviously marketing, finance in some cases people management also will be there. Then we start diverging there because we start talking about intellectual property. And our approach to even finance and marketing is very much from a technology point of view. And then we have the electives, and our electives are different from the electives that you will get in an MBA program or a quant program. At the end of the day, Linda, we can make a case that, yes, an MEM student can make a choice of electives that will look very much like a MMS to some extent.

But then the main difference remains that your fellow students will all be engineers or scientists whereas the MBA will be a different profile, it’ll be a mix of different backgrounds. So I think that is the main difference and that resonates to me, Linda, given my background as an engineer, when if you and I get on that time machine and we go back to when I graduated from electrical engineering at Cornell, and you asked me, “Hey, Luis, what do you want to do after the next five years?” I would’ve told you, “Oh, Linda, I just want to be an individual contributor. I enjoy being an engineer.” I still do. That’s what brings joy to my life. But then at the time, I didn’t know that I have a passion for people that I later discovered. And it took me 10 years, so maybe I’m a slow mover, but it took me 10 years to discover the passion for people. So I shifted to a technical manager role.

I think another difference is length of time. The traditional MBA degree is a two-year degree. The MEM degree, even in-residence, is a one-year degree.

I had a situation with our oldest daughter. At the time she was twenty-two, and our youngest daughter was sixteen. And our oldest daughter wanted to go for a master’s in not-for-profit management and my husband and I felt she should go for an MBA and just focus on not-for-profit management because an MBA is a much more flexible degree. And she didn’t want to hear it. She didn’t want to do the MBA.

One day we had over one of our younger daughter’s friends, and she asked our older daughter, “What are your plans?” She said, “I want to go for a degree in not-for-profit management.” And she got accepted to some really top programs in that field and our daughter’s sixteen-year-old friend said to her, “Why aren’t you going for an MBA? It’s a much more flexible degree.” At which point she looked at us, like, “Did you pay her to say that?”

I’m sure that some people listening to this are thinking, “Well, if I’m going to get the leadership skills and I’m going to get the business skills, and it’s going to complement my undergraduate training, wouldn’t I be better off getting an MBA and having the flexibility?” How would you respond to that concern? [13:42]

That’s a fair question. I think the way I look at it is, we do offer flexibility, but I think it comes from our vantage point. So let me explain, we are catering to engineers and scientists or a STEM scientist or an engineer. Our audience is different. If you are a scientist or an engineer like me who was stupid back then, but if you use the word ‘sales’ and you say, “Hey, Luis, do you want to learn more about sales?” I would’ve said, “No, no, no, no. I want to be an engineer. Give me tech, right? Tech is what I want.” That’s what I want to do. So that is our constituency, Linda.

For them, what MEM does, it provides you that flexibility, right? It provides you a way of… I used to work at Cisco, one of my favorite executives there, he used to talk about squids and spaceships. So it’s a hard thing to follow, but the squids were these people who were focused on one thing and they knew it in depth. And then the spaceships were the individuals that can cover a lot of ground. And as an executive, he wanted everybody to be a spaceship because you could be deployed in multiple roles from the point of view of the company. But I think we make, build, and prepare squids with spaceship heads.

I love the metaphor. [16:55]

We’re trying to build on the “squidness” that we all, engineers, bring to the table and broaden your perspective so that you can operate as a spaceship using my friend’s analogy.

I did my MBA many years ago, I have a social science and humanities background, and I remember some of the engineers in our program were bored with the math that we were doing. I was finding it quite challenging because I didn’t have a quantitative background.

I noticed that the MEM focuses very much on professionalism and its five principles. Can you touch on what they are and their importance in the program? Often, programs will have some very nice sounding motto or mission or key principles, whatever you want to call them. And they sound great, but they’re not really ingrained in the program. So when you’re talking about them, how are these principles guiding you? How are they realized in the program? [17:20]

Thank you for asking me the question by the way, because this is something I feel really, really strongly about. This is even before I became the director as a faculty, I was one of the main forces behind the development of this.

My motivation at the time when I started the dialogue at the faculty meetings was to… I said, “We come from industry, and in industry we have a very clear purpose.” There’s clarity of purpose from leadership. This is why we’re here. This is our vision, this is our mission, this is our strategy on how we accomplish our vision. So I felt like our program, despite the fact that we’ve been around for so long, we didn’t have that articulation. We clearly have a mission, as I mentioned before, preparing engineers with business knowledge, but we couldn’t articulate what do we stand for. So what happened was, and it was organic, Linda, at the faculty meetings, when I pitched this, “Okay, we should come up with a mission, a vision.” The team said, “You know what? I think it’s important for us to communicate to our prospective students and even to our students and prospective students, what are the areas of knowledge where we’re going to build core competence?”

So the initial intent was to articulate like a brand promise, Linda. If you come into this program, these are the areas of competency that you’re going to work on, and this is communication. We want to make sure that you can communicate effectively and you can communicate your ideas. I always tell my students if they’re unable to communicate their ideas, they could be the most creative person in the world, those ideas are trapped in their brains. Set them free by working on your communication skills. And in our classes and through co-curricular activities, we give students opportunities to work on their communication. Part of our Pratt master’s services team helps students with communication, particularly if English is not their first language. We help them improve their skills. The second one is teamwork. I think it goes without saying at this point in life that if you think that you’re just going to work by yourself in a lab, that’s not going to happen.

And companies will not put up with it. So we live in a world where you need to work in teams. So we talk about, particularly in our management class, Linda, we talk about how do you build a high-performing team? What are some of the characteristics of this? What are the five dysfunctions of a team? How do you have a difficult conversation? And so on and so forth. So that’s the teamwork piece. The other one is critical thinking, and it could be based on the demographics of our program. We have a lot of international students from India and from China. Sometimes faculty would see students that come with this expectation that there’s a recipe, Linda, tell me what the recipe is and I’ll follow it and I will have success in my life. And we said, “No, that’s not going to work. We need to equip you with the ability to make critical decisions when presented with multiple views of data.” And in many cases, and we’re living this through media today, it’s sometimes conflicting pieces of information. How do you deal with ambiguity? So that’s critical thinking.

Then the next one is ethics. And ethics is one that, to be honest, the students struggle with. So what does that mean? I am an honest person. I am kind. I do the right thing. So we have been putting a lot of focus on this, particularly around our data and data science areas. I was doing my own homework with your podcast, and I’ve heard some of the administrators talk about ChatGPT and how we’re using ChatGPT. To me, AI, if used correctly, which means we are all upfront. The students and faculty, we say we’re not afraid of it. We consider it a source of information. If we’re upfront with it, it’s fine. But for example, in my class, I teach a class on improving customer experience. How do we build a system to collect data that can help improve the customer experience? I talk to my students about making sure they consider data privacy concerns as you’re building the system because we say, “Okay, we’re building a system that improves the customer experience, but at what cost?” And you need to have that in the back of your mind that your decisions could impact the privacy of others and expose private information from others. And then last but not least, humanness. I think that’s my favorite principle, Linda.

And I think the way I would describe it to you is we actually went back to the Greek word of eudaimonia. I’m sure I’m pronouncing it incorrectly, but the feeling of flourishing. We’re trying to encourage our students to make use of all the gifts that God had given them, right? And put the effort to do introspection, understand what those gifts are, then make use of them for the betterment of society, but also help others do the same. So those are the five principles, and we reinforce them in class, in my communications as leader, and in every activity we have. In fact, we have awards in the program where we give out awards to students that embody these principles the most and it’s very much an element of our admissions process.

So you’re looking for people who identify with those values basically? [25:06]

Yes.

Not just mouthing them, but demonstrating them. [25:12]

Yes. That’s a very good point because I could go to Bard or ChatGPT and ask, “Tell me something about professionalism and the five principles,” and it would spew something out that sounds nice. But what we do in our application review, Linda, is we look for the holistic connecting the dots. So in your essays, in your resume, in your video, are you connecting those dots or it is just a one-time mention that you made of that? It has to be genuine and supported by facts.

Yeah. You don’t want your website spit back to you. That’s not very helpful. [25:57]

Exactly.

You touched on experience or professional experience already. Is a GRE required? [26:08]

No. We decided to re-evaluate the GRE during COVID and have been re-evaluating that every year. I made the decision to make it optional this year again. And part of it is because, we’re satisfied with the outcome of the quality of the applicants that we’re getting. We get a wider range of applicants, and we are still saying, if you want to submit the GRE, you can do it. And I think my ask is, students say, “But why would I do it if it is optional?” I say, “Well, if your GPA is not as good as you think it should be, or it could be, and you feel the GRE tells the story or helps you tell the story, then I would do it in that case.”

What else are you looking for in the admissions process? Obviously, good grades, I assume and an engineering or STEM background. Are you looking for leadership experience? Are you looking for extracurricular activities to show that somebody’s not just focused on engineering or just focused on STEM? Does that play a role? [27:09]

Absolutely. The way I would articulate, so we have four criteria, Linda, that we use, and we consider them equally, actually, the equal weight. So the rubric, again has the four elements that are number one, academic, school quality. And what we’re looking for is that you graduated from a challenging or reputable academic institution that sets the bar high. Gets you ready to be a member of the Duke community. The second criteria is academic performance. So you went to that school, how did you do? Our average GPA ranges between 3.4 and 3.6. I think that’s where most of our students, so mostly A’s, a few B’s, in some cases there are C’s scattered, one or two C’s here and there.

But when we start seeing D’s and F’s, then we get discouraged. The other two criteria are, in my opinion, as important or maybe more important, the third criteria, we call it engagement. And what we’re looking for there, Linda, back to the point we were making before, is a demonstration of projection to society. So we are very clear here at Duke and our mission that we’re trying to prepare engineers that will impact the world and impact society for the better. So we want those engineers, those scientists that care about the community, that care about the world. So one of the criteria we look for is how engaged are you with the community.

It’s amazing how many applications I read of students that have a 4.0 GPA, and when you read it, Linda, it’s all about them and things that they’ve done for themselves and very little about how they’re using, again, the gifts that they have to help other people, and leader in sports or church or community or helping remove trash or whatever it is. I just want to see evidence that you really care about other people more than just you. So that’s engagement. And then the last one is fit. And that ties back to professionalism and defined principles. The way I look at it, Linda, is that we’re looking for engineers that believe in principle-based leadership, that when you say things like that, they are like, “Yeah, that makes sense.” Or “What the heck is that?” Right?

They roll their eyes. So what I’m looking for there, or what we’re looking for there is people that resonate to that, and they have demonstrated interest and there’s evidence that they believe in it. They act on it, whether it’s teamwork or critical thinking, or humanness. Some of the best applications I’ve seen are applicants talking about humanness and how they’re trying to help their community and, through that, live out their five principles.

That was very informative. What if an applicant is interested in attending the MEM? Maybe they didn’t graduate in engineering, but maybe they took a lot of biology classes or biological anthropology or something like that. It’s not hard STEM, but it’s getting close. Can he or she take specific classes to get the technical foundation that you expect? And what would those classes be? [30:56]

Yeah, so for situations like that, what we recommend is that students take third-level calculus. Calculus 1, 2, 3, and then probability and statistics. And I think the third level calculus, it’s not that we’re going to be doing triple integrals in our program here, but it’s really more about you as a student feeling confident that you can be successful and you can hang around with your peers and don’t feel intimidated that you understand the concepts at that level, number one. And then probability and statistics is more about what we were talking about dealing with ambiguity. As engineers, we’re used to very precise things. Probability and statistics help us appreciate the fact that the world is not perfect, and there’s always randomness associated with it. I was teaching a class in data science, and I would always integrate probability and statistics into it because every outcome, every exercise that you do, you could characterize it as a random process to some extent.

Let’s turn to the short essays. The first question is, what is short? [33:01]

It’s 1,500 characters, including space and punctuation. I think the reason why we make it so short is that we want students to put the time to think about what they want to say, number one. And number two, when they say it, they say it in a way that is somewhat concise and not rambling. But I would give you another secret, Linda.

I think if you’re an applicant out there and you’re interested in being part of our program, don’t shortchange yourself and try to use as much space as possible to tell your story. There’s nothing worse than us seeing people… A video essay is a part of our application and you see students that just spend less than a minute saying what they need to say when they have whatever, three minutes to say what they need to say. So more is more, not less. Because we’re trying to get to know you, and if you’re shortchanging us with your word, then it’s hard for us to make an assessment.

Can you give us some tips in terms of answering these three questions?

Question A: We can learn about your past experience from your resume, but we’re interested in your plans. Why are you interested in pursuing the Master’s of Engineering Management degree from Duke University?

Question B: Please choose one principle and explain how you plan to contribute in that way at Duke MEM and beyond.

Question C: Does any elective track within the Duke MEM program fit your needs? If so, which one and why? If not, and understanding you’re free to change your mind later, those three to four electives within or outside MEM and how they will help you meet your career goals

Yeah. So for the first one, what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to understand your motivation. What is your motivation to be part of this program? And as I was telling you, this is where I hear the very similar story of I graduated, I wanted to be an engineer to fix airplanes or whatever, cars or buildings or whatever you want. But then I realized I was missing something and therefore, I decided to come to Duke. So that’s where you will see that so the first one gives us your motivation.

The second one speaks to remembering what we talk about fit and engagement to some extent. And then the third one, we’re really trying to get to your ability to do your homework. And it’s amazing how many students don’t even bother to look at the… Or I should say, applicants, don’t bother to do their homework, and that’s really a bad mark on you and bad reflection when we feel that you didn’t do your homework. I’m coming here to talk to you and you did your homework on me, and I did my homework on you, Linda.

You have an in-person interview that comes later, but you also have a video interview. Can you touch on that and why? [36:52]

Yeah, so we’ve lived through the COVID pandemic where many people had to work remotely and operate remotely. So we all know that being able to see each other’s facial expressions and full spectrum of communication is important. So we look at the video as a way of delivering the complete story. So think of it as your written essays, your resume, your transcripts, your letters of recommendation are building blocks. And then the video is the opportunity to integrate all of that into one cohesive story. So that’s what we do. It is basically a way of telling the story. I enjoy listening to the videos, especially those that are successful in connecting the dots.

What can applicants invited to interview expect during their in-person interview? [38:11]

One of my specialties in industry, Linda, was operations. I’m a quality management guy, so I’m in the engineering space so I would typically be part of the operations team. So I’m very good at productivity and structure and organization. So one of the things I did when I took over as the director of this program is I developed that rubric very clearly, articulated the four criteria that I just mentioned. Then I went on and hired readers that, using the rubric, evaluate applications as they come in. And we just went to our first milestone, Linda, I think we got 1,040 applications.

How many students are in the program again? [39:11]

180.

So out of that number of applications, we have a number of readers, we call them. So the readers will provide a score or an assessment on their application on the basis of their rubric. And then those applications that are deemed to be strong enough that we feel that this person has a potential to be part of Duke MEM, then those get invited to an interview. Now, one of the things that we’re doing this year, Linda, that we have never done before is in the past, the interview was conducted by faculty staff here in our program. What we’re doing now this year is we have asked alumni to get involved in the interview process. So the assignment is somewhat, you can think of it as random. It’s not really, but you can think of it that way. And what happens during that interview is basically we just want to chat.

The alum have a chat with the applicant and what we’re asking applicants, and the best advice I could give applicants is to just be yourself. We’re trying to get to know you, get to know you. The heavy lifting or all the stuff, what you have accomplished, and all of that is in the application. We’re trying to get to know you as a person. So then we ask the alum to provide feedback on the applicant. That feedback comes to me. And then as part of the committee review, I decide on the offer admission or not.

During the in-person interview with the alum or the admission staff person, would they ask more questions, let’s say about how the applicant has handled particular situations or would handle particular situations? Are they going to be asking about decision points in the resume? Is the interview blind or have they reviewed the application? [41:02]

It’s blind. In the past, before this alum involvement, it used to be more informed. So we would have exactly what you described, right? I will look at their application and say, “Hey, I had doubts about this, or I am curious about that.” But with the alums, we don’t share the applicant’s information. So it’s just, okay, I get the… Linda and I, we get to meet each other today, and then at the end I say, “Okay, I think Linda is wonderful”, or whatever. That’s really the process. So there’s no set agenda.

We just have a chat, get to know each other, answer a question. So I would encourage the applicants to use that time to ask questions. Right? That’s another way of getting people to know you by the questions that you ask.

What is a common mistake that you see applicants make in their applications? [42:23]

I think the biggest mistake I see is that they maybe don’t follow instructions and they leave it for the last minute. And then the work product, if you will, is subpar. We just talked about the videos. Just delivering a one-minute video when you’re expected or allowed to do a three-minute video is a mistake. Remember, the goal here is we are trying to get to know you. So make use of the time and the resources that you’re given. And then pay attention to the details. Sometimes people answer the wrong questions and skip questions, and it’s so sad because sometimes we see people who seem to have the right potential, but then they squander the opportunity.

You also think of engineers as usually being very detail-oriented so it’s almost more glaring if they aren’t. [43:22]

Yes. And in most cases, I think it’s because they’re rushing. They left it for the last minute, and then yeah, and we can’t help with that.

What question would you like to answer that I haven’t asked? What piece of information would you like to convey to listeners that we haven’t discussed? [43:45]

Thank you for that one, Linda. I think the question I wish you would’ve asked, or I would like to share with you, is that even though we have been around for 25-plus years, we’re very much looking for ways to reinvent ourselves and build on what we do well and improve what we don’t. And I’ll give you a case in point. So during the first six months of my tenure here as director, we developed something we call our Vision 2027. And part of our Vision 2027 was to do precisely that, understand what is it that we’ve done that is working that our students and our alums are saying, “Yes, this is great faculty experiential feedback case-based learning, Duke.” What is it that is not working? So what they told us wasn’t working is that as the program had gotten bigger, we lost intimacy. So the students didn’t get to know, meet their cohort members. So what we did, we took a page out of the MBA playbook and we created something called the cohort model.

So basically, Linda, we took that 180 target of students inbound, and we broke it into four cohorts, each of the 45-ish students. And those students, we tried to curate so that there was a very diverse gender, country of origin, experience, what have you. And each cohort takes the same courses at the same time, the core courses anyway, the same time, and they get to know each other, build bonds between them very strongly. So that’s one thing that we rolled out this year, last fall. And then associated with that is something called the community building time, where we took three hours of our academic calendar or academic schedule every week, Tuesdays at noon, Thursdays at noon, and Fridays at noon and we say, we’ll have no classes during those three hours. And they’re dedicated to promoting faculty-student relationships, students-student relationships, and student-alum relationships. So we have programming that helps promote that. For example, today, Thursday, we have one of those events. So today’s event was a faculty-student luncheon that I pay for. The program pays for where faculty can take students out for lunch.

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