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Large Graduate Student Population Promotes Research, Prestige

By growing the number of graduate students in The University of Alabama College of Engineering, the amount and quality of research produced will also increase. However, higher education has competition without funding options.

Shelby Critcher, an electrical and computer engineering student working on her doctorate, earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at UA. After graduating she took an internship, but eventually Shelby returned to UA to pursue a doctorate at the suggestion of her adviser, Dr. Todd Freeborn, when he received funding for a research project that made her graduate assistantship possible.

“If I didn’t have the opportunity to have graduate school paid for, it wouldn’t have been an option for me,” she said about the funding that enabled her to pursue a doctorate.

As an undergraduate, Shelby was able to apply funding as a military dependent to UA’s Accelerated Master’s Program, which allows students to work on a bachelor’s and master’s degree simultaneously and graduate in five years.

Shelby gravitated toward research and enjoyed being in the lab since her time as an undergraduate student, and her relationship with Todd impacted her decision to return for a third degree at UA. The assistantship made the dream a reality for Shelby.

“Alabama was appealing in general, but the money definitely made it nice to not have to go into debt for school,” she said.

Funding opportunities are significant for students considering graduate school because of stiff competition with jobs offering substantial salaries. According to Shelby, it’s difficult for some to pass up high paying jobs in favor of pursuing postgraduate degrees.

“I think there are a lot of people who want to pursue higher education, but specifically in engineering the temptation to go make close to six figures right out of college kind of dominates — especially when you can’t afford to live otherwise,” she said.

Continuing the work she started as an undergraduate student and seeing the research through various stages has been invaluable for Shelby. Her work with Todd focuses primarily on bioimpedance technology with applications for monitoring muscle fatigue, arthritis and swelling.

Together, they design embedded systems for health monitoring applications.

“We inject a really small current in the body that doesn’t elicit a tissue response, and we try to characterize tissue properties using the voltages we measure from that,” she said.

According to Shelby, funding is not talked about enough in graduate school though she would love to see funding become a regular topic of conversation with her peers and mentors within the college.

“There’s a taboo when talking about needing money. People get scared about trying to figure out money, and so they just avoid it,” she said. “I’ve never had anyone in this department not willing to help me, but it is scary to ask. There are options and people have to know it’s OK to ask.”

Shelby praises UA faculty for the support given to her and other students. But her main concern, apart from her research, is finding a financial channel that makes it possible for everyone to pursue their goals in higher education.

With few opportunities currently available, it is a priority to grow funding options for graduate students to increase the life-changing research being conducted in the UA College of Engineering.


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