Structuring your time at SDM

This quick post is written for prospective full-time candidates of the system design and management program at MIT. The SDM program is extremely flexible and gives you a whole bunch of options for getting through it, but it’s easy to trip over those options and lose sleep worrying about the future if you don’t know what you are getting into.

I am going to focus almost entirely on on-campus students who have made a conscious decision to attend MIT full-time and then go on to do things they always wanted to do (including a career change). Some of this information is discussed by during IAP, but from a staff member’s point of view. This blog post, on the other hand, is the straight dope from someone who’s been through the program, from the trenches!

Your ‘common’ options are:
1) 13 month (IAP + Spring  + Summer + Fall + IAP)
2) 16 month (IAP + Spring  + Summer + Fall + IAP + Spring)
3) 24 month (2-3 IAP’s + 2 Springs + 2 Summers + 2 Falls)

I say ‘common’ since it is possible to request for an ‘uncommon’ program plan (such as a 20 month plan or even a 28 month plan. But we’ll leave those off the table for now.

Consider the 13 month option if your employer is sponsoring you and you intend to go back. You will probably not have time to do an internship or get involved in a lot of good stuff happening on campus (talks, clubs, events,…) since you will have to complete the minimum coursework needed and do your thesis. Also, you’ll probably face challenges during Fall recruiting because of time constraints. I keep saying ‘probably’ since it is theoretically possible to do all this and finish the program in 13 months and land a great job (it’s been done before), but you’ll need to be ninja efficient and superb in all respects (untrue for ~>95% of the people who pass through the program every year). Or you’ll kill yourself with your schedule trying to do everything at once- something’s gotta give.

Consider the 16 month option if you’d like to get involved in a few things on/off campus (such as a consulting gig for a company) and would like a bit of a breather. Consider it if the economy is good, and you have a great network, understand the US job market (or are ready to go back to your country) and know for sure that you can land a job. This program option does not allow you to do an internship (unless you can find an off-cycle internship in the Spring of your second year). Not doing an internship will make it a bit harder for you to change your career after the program. Worst case, try to do a Winter ‘externship’ in an area that you want to move into.

Also note that tuition fees for the 16 month program go up by ~10-15%. The 16 month program costs about the same as a 24 month program (not counting living expenses, etc). You may also get lucky and land a TA/RA in the Spring of your second year and that will help with expenses. An RA/TA in the Fall of the first year is kind of doable, but it will compete for your time with recruiting events.

The 20 month option doesn’t make a lot of sense on paper since you will still be paying the same amount of tuition as the 24 month option. So why would you pay money and not take full advantage of it by taking more classes? It’s called opportunity cost. If you land a great job during Summer (or the Spring) of the second year and would like to rejoin the workforce quickly, you may want to consider this option. Importantly, this option lets you do a summer internship in your first/second year. Note that people on a student visa cannot intern in the first nine months of study because of immigration regulations. Look it up on the internet.

The 24 month option is my recommended choice (partly because I am personally going through it- ha!). It is priced reasonably (compared to other programs- nothing is cheap at MIT), gives you plenty of time to do internships, consulting projects, classes, events, etc. Having done all this and having gone through roughly twice the number of classes that a normal 13 month SDM graduate would go through without waiving a single program requirement, I daresay that I have really lived the MIT/SDM experience; but that doesn’t mean that 13 month graduates in my cohort did not learn enough or do well for themselves- they knew what they wanted, and got in and got out. To each, his own.

Importantly, the 24 month option lets you spend a lot more time in the job market and that is a blessing in a bad economy (such as what’s prevailing). It lets you fully understand your career options and allows you to spend time polishing yourself and your skills and building your network to help you achieve your career goals. Again, it’s not impossible to do all this, at varying degrees, with the other program options discussed above, but do consider the obstacles.

Secondly, the 24 month option allows you to spend good time on your thesis and come up with high quality work- something that I personally attach a high level of importance to. Finally, I know of many high tech employers who would recognize a 2 year business slightly more than a 1 year business degree, but that attitude’s changing somewhat.

As a closing comment, I will also say that less than a third of any given class (don’t quote me on this) graduates in 13 months. Many students who say upon matriculating that they want to finish in 13 months change their minds and extend their graduation, primarily because of one or more of the factors discussed above. The SDM program office has some very nice and cooperative folks who are willing to work with you if you change your mind in the middle of the program, but please don’t abuse the system! I know that it is impossible to predict the future (and the job market to an extent), but arm yourself with all the facts before you make a decision, and stick to your decision. It’s like the traveling salesman problem- plan your time ahead and save time later.

Decisions, decisions!


~ by aratnam on September 27, 2011.

4 Responses to “Structuring your time at SDM”

  1. Hi,

    Firstly, I want to send out a huge “thank you!” for your MIT-SDM blog posts. I have zeroed in on SDM as my first graduate school option, and your blog piece has given me a real insiders perspective. By way if introduction, my name is Niraj, and I am a mid-career semiconductor professional, based in Bangalore, India.

    I am applying to SDM for Fall 2015, and my post SDM goal is to work on policy relating to technology, rather than core technology management itself. From your experience, do you believe such a switch is feasible? I am currently responsible for the India business of an Electronic Design Automation startup.

    Thanks again for your hugely informative blog.

    Best regards,
    Niraj Sharma

  2. Incredibly helpful post as I figure out what to do with my new place in sdm! all the choices seem terribly daunting so this insider insight is perfect. great blog! thanks!

  3. I am glad that you guys are finding my thoughts from 5 years ago to be useful. Keep in mind that a few things have changed in the program (august-only start, fewer pogrom options, more tracks, etc.). Please check with the program before making your final choices.

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