Lessons from Graduate School Abroad

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Lessons from Graduate School Abroad


Paul McKinley, Graduate Student in Energy Technology Engineering, University of Cambridge

I enjoyed studying physics during college, but I was most interested in the applications it unlocked for understanding the energy sector and decarbonization. I had missed the opportunity to study abroad due to COVID-19 and didn’t feel ready to undertake a PhD, so I applied to international master’s programs during my senior year. I’m now in a master’s of philosophy (MPhil) program in energy technology engineering at the University of Cambridge.

MPhil programs are usually one year and serve as preparation for a PhD program, although many graduates pursue other paths. My first term was exciting, challenging, and wholly different from my undergraduate experience. Lectures are longer and faster paced, but the coursework can be more interesting and in-depth compared to weekly homework sets.

The MPhil curriculum covers a range of topics in the energy sector, from renewable power generation systems to combustion processes and electricity market design. It’s focused on engineering, but my physics and math background has been helpful (you can actually use some of those headache-inducing derivations beyond undergrad).

Living in Cambridge is exciting. It’s exhilarating and deeply humbling to walk through a campus shared at various points in time by pioneering figures not only in science, but in all academic fields. Beyond the picturesque grounds and cobblestone streets, I’m fortunate to have found supportive communities in my academic program, residential college, and the university cross country team.

At times, the single-year duration of the program feels punishingly short. There is so much information and so little time to absorb it! As I write this, a little over halfway through my degree, I’m reflecting on some lessons I’ve already learned: Starting grad school can reveal how interesting a field is while also reminding you how much you don’t yet know, supportive communities are critical for weathering the inevitable periods of stress and frustration, and British scones and American scones are fundamentally different pastries.


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