Interview with Donald Gipe

“Prospective graduate students should start conducting research as undergraduates. This is extremely helpful in finding a job in the industry or gaining acceptance to a good graduate program.”

Second year Master of Science student in Aerospace Engineering
University of Colorado, Boulder
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Graduate School – Application Process

How did you select your graduate program?

I selected University of Colorado, Boulder’s masters program in aerospace engineering based on cost, convenience and research interests. Because I had already earned my undergraduate degree at University of Colorado Boulder, I was familiar with the quality of their program and found it to be a good match for my criteria.

In addition, I talked with an undergraduate teacher whose guidance helped solidify my decision to attend Boulder for my masters degree.

What did you do to prepare yourself for graduate school?

In order to prepare myself for graduate school, I conducted a lot of research during my undergraduate education. Starting my sophomore year, I worked with another professor doing aerodynamic research.

Did your application requirements include standardized test scores?

In my case, I was not required to submit standardized test scores because I had already University of Colorado Boulder for my bachelors degree.

What kind of information did you include in your personal statement?

In my personal statement, I discussed the past research I have conducted, my motivations for pursuing an advanced degree and the unique attributes I would bring to a graduate school in general.

How did you choose faculty to approach for letters of recommendation?

For my letters of recommendation, I chose faculty who knew me on a personal level. As an undergraduate student, I spent a lot of time getting to know my professors and their personal research interests. As a result, I formed relationships with my undergraduate professors and felt completely comfortable asking 3 of them for letters of recommendation.

Do you have any other tips for a student who is considering applying to graduate school in aerospace engineering?

I would tell a student who is considering applying to graduate school in aerospace engineering to make sure that they have the proper prerequisites to succeed in the program. Students need to have a good background in mechanical, aerospace or even electrical engineering to understand some of the more difficult graduate classes in the field.

Prospective graduate students should also start conducting research as undergraduates. This is extremely helpful in finding a job in the industry or gaining acceptance to a good graduate program. In addition, students who have published research have a better chance of receiving graduate funding or a fellowship.

Graduate School – The Program

How long is your program and how is the curriculum distributed?

My 2-year graduate program in aerospace engineering is composed of 30 credits. Of those 30 credits, 26 credits are classwork and 4 credits are thesis work. The first year is mainly focused on taking courses, while the last year concentrates on researching and writing a thesis.

In the first year of my program, I took 8 courses including fluid mechanics, high speed propulsion, numerical analysis, reacting flow and continuum mechanics. Classwork involved a combination of homework and projects. Projects usually required students to write a paper or present their findings to the class.

What is the focus of your masters research?

My masters research focuses on improving the design of scramjet engines using physical modeling. By using computational fluid dynamics coupled with statistical modeling, I can predict the design performance and optimization of scramjet engines.

I started developing my thesis topic while I was applying for fellowships during the first year of my program. In order to narrow down my topic, I spoke to professors about different research areas and read a lot of research papers. As soon as I decided on a topic, I started working on researching and writing my thesis.

Can you describe the process of researching for and writing your thesis?

The process of researching for and writing my thesis is challenging but flexible. I spend up to 40 hours a week working on my thesis, depending on how fast a deadline is approaching. I only have to meet 2 deadlines for my thesis project. The first deadline occurs when I have to defend my thesis to a panel of professors, advisors and students. The second deadline occurs when I have to actually turn in my thesis.

In order to complete my thesis project successfully, I must establish my own goals and personal timelines. This requires a lot of self-management skills.

Does your program have a special project component?

Yes, my program has a special project component for masters students who decide not to complete a thesis. In this case, students are required to complete a project in aerospace engineering, aeronautical engineering or space sciences along with 10 to 15 other students. They are subjected to frequent deadlines and design reviews and must produce a tangible product at the end of the year.

What role does your advisor play in your education?

My advisor, who I chose, acts as my guide during the research process. I selected my advisor based upon our similar research interests in aerodynamics. In fact, I had worked with him during my undergraduate studies, so I was already familiar with his research focuses.

Because my advisor is an expert in my area of research, he was instrumental in helping me select an interesting and useful research topic. He steered me away from choosing an overly examined or redundant topic and introduced me to exciting developments in the field.

Does your masters program require comprehensive exams prior to graduation?

My masters program in aerospace engineering does not require comprehensive exams prior to graduation.

How does a masters program differ from undergraduate study?

My masters program differs from undergraduate study mainly in classroom size and work load. A master program offers smaller classes and a more difficult workload. Graduate students often spend 2 weeks finishing 1 or 2 problems, while undergraduate students complete 4 easy problems in maybe 5 or 10 hours.

Graduate School – Paying for It

How much does your masters program cost?

My masters program costs about $12,000 per year in tuition. Books generally cost about $200 to $300 per semester depending on whether I purchase most of them at the bookstore or online.

How are you funding your education?

I am funding my education mainly through financial aid, a research assistantship and a current part-time job. During the first year of my program, I worked as a research assistant for a professor who was able to give me funding in return for spending 10 to 20 hours per week in the lab. In addition, I am lucky because my part-time job is related to the type of research I am conducting for my thesis.

How difficult do you anticipate it will be to pay off your loans after graduation?

I don’t anticipate it being too difficult to pay off my loans after graduation. The aerospace engineering program is relatively well-paid.

Graduate School – Living Life

What are the time commitments for a masters degree in aerospace engineering?

The time commitments for a masters degree in aerospace engineering entail 40 to 60 hours per week. I spend about 6 to 9 hours per week in class as well as a significant amount of time reading books and solving practice problems in order to understand the class material. In general, I don’t have much free time unless I work extra-long days during the week in order to free up my weekend.

How has graduate school affected your personal life?

Graduate school has certainly affected my personal life. Because I work 60 hours per week, I have less time to spend with my wife or parents. However, I try to make time each week for my family by setting personal deadlines, freeing up my schedule and utilizing good time management strategies.

Graduate School – After Graduation

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

In the next 5 years, I hope to be working in the aerospace engineering field. I am trying to keep my options open, so I am not ready to commit to working in research or doing practical applications for a company yet.

Graduate School – Advice

What insights can you offer a student who is interested in pursuing a masters degree in aerospace engineering?

I would tell prospective aerospace engineering students to look forward to multiple career options in the field of aerospace engineering. Depending on what interests them, students could work on launching satellites or rockets for the space program, designing airplanes or predicting energy from wind turbines.

In addition, I would recommend that students join local aerospace engineering chapters and attend annual conferences in order to meet professionals and other aerospace engineering students.

Erin Larson


University of Minnesota


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Robin Soares


Rice University


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Shweta Rawal


Florida State University