CSU grants its first ever Doctorate of Engineering in Systems Engineering degree

Sandra “Sandy” Dawson has on her doctoral regalia and is standing next to Ann Batchelor. Both are white women smiling. The background is strands of shiny party strings and stars in CSU colors.
Sandra “Sandy” Dawson, the first CSU recipient of a Doctorate of Engineering in Systems Engineering degree, and her advisor Professor Ann H. Batchelor, meet on graduation day, May 13.

For the first time, Colorado State University has granted a Doctorate of Engineering in Systems Engineering degree (DEng). Equivalent in prestige to a PhD, this new program requires direct industry involvement to ensure candidates’ research is applicable to real world practice.

Sandra “Sandy” Dawson graduated in May with a 4.0 GPA, having completed all the requirements of this unique degree program. She enrolled in 2019 as part of the program’s inaugural class and she attended online while employed at Lockheed Martin Space.

The program has many of the same basic requirements as a PhD. Students must complete a research-intensive dissertation, they must pass their preliminary and final defense exams, and they are advised by a qualified graduate committee.

But a DEng committee also includes a “practicum sponsor.” These sponsors actively work in industry (usually at the candidates’ workplace) and must directly evaluate the dissertation research in the context of systems engineering practice. The work performed to complete the degree must meet the requirements set by both the participating company and CSU.

These degree requirements can lead to more research opportunities but also more challenges.

“I wanted my degree to be practically applied, and I wanted people to actually use my results,” Dawson said. “I’m sure many PhD students feel the same way and achieve that, too, but I wanted to be certain my research results would be applied.”

The CSU Department of Systems Engineering launched the new program to build deeper industry ties and to give working students more options. The department also wanted to put students in the best position for success, according to Tom Bradley, the CSU Systems department head.

“Industry and government are often the ones discovering systems engineering problems, and this type of deep engagement with industry ensures that CSU’s scholarship is informed by the state of the art,” Bradley said. “In applied academic disciplines we must work with these enterprises to translate our innovations into practice.”

This program isn’t just about a new approach to graduate education, Bradley said. It’s about the future of engineering in higher education.

“Both professional and traditional students are looking to the University to provide educational value and career advancement,” Bradley said. “Our DEng program is tailored for those students who see their purpose in industry and government. Their research is both novel and relevant to the most important problems facing our society today.”

Dawson said her education benefited her employers by giving them thousands of hours of productive work and by helping them strategically plan.

“As a doctoral student, you’re not just focused on the project for one semester,” Dawson said. “You’re committed for the degree duration and you have to strategize for a longer time horizon. You have access to both academic minds and industry resources and that’s valuable.”

Due to the proprietary nature of Dawson’s research, she had to receive permission from the graduate school to have her dissertation embargoed from public view for two years after it was submitted. This protection of proprietary research is one way CSU helps to enable and support industry-connected academic research, Bradley said.

Dawson said she was grateful for her industry-experienced professors and CSU’s rigorous but accessible education.

“CSU and the department do a great job of bringing professors in who have that industry practical experience,” she said. “The professors and instructors understand corporate life with its constraints and priorities.”

Dawson said that because her work was applied, the pressure of the stakeholders’ expectations for a product motivated her to complete her program. This helped her stay energized and focused on graduating.

Her advice to future students is to stay self-motivated and to select a project they’d enjoy working on for at least four years. She said CSU Systems Engineering made that possible for her.

“CSU is a school where people who work for a living can realistically pursue a degree. You don’t have to leave your job. You don’t have to completely give up your lifestyle,” Dawson said. “There’s a sacrifice, no doubt. But you can still do other things. And the instructors and professors are realistic about the workload.”

Professor Ann Batchelor, assistant director of CSU Systems and Dawson’s advisor, said she was proud of Dawson.

“As the first graduate of our DEng program, Sandy’s drive and perseverance are an inspiration to us all,” Batchelor said. “I was fortunate to be her advisor and am proud of her for this great achievement.”

To apply to the DEng program, applicants must document five years of industry experience and a relevant master’s degree, or eight years of industry experience.

DEng students also complete a more applied and structured course load than other doctoral students. This training prepares graduates for leadership roles in applied research and development activities.

More about this new program and the differences between the PhD and DEng can be found here.