Master's in Robotics Degree Programs Cover a Lot of Ground
March 18, 2021
Robotics isn't just one field. It's an amalgamation of many disciplines, from mechanical engineering to programming. Master's in robotics programs have to touch on them all.
When Boston Dynamics started posting videos of its mobile robot lineup on YouTube, the videos quickly went viral, gaining the company legions of fans. Some were tech fanatics, excited to watch the company push the envelope of robotics and artificial intelligence. Others merely sought spectacle: it turns out that kicking, shoving, and attempting to trip humanoid robots like Atlas and four-legged robots like Big Dog isn't just good QA, but also funny and thought-provoking.
Questions about whether it's okay to kick a robot—or to laugh at a robot when it gets kicked—are at the heart of what makes career opportunities in robotics so fascinating. It's not just about mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and computer science. Robotics also involves design, biology, ethics, psychology, and other related fields.
Robots already perform all kinds of tasks for human beings. You can find robots on factory floors, in hospitals, on farms, and in war zones. These robots tend not to be anthropomorphic or particularly exciting to laypeople. In manufacturing plants and other industrial settings, robotics systems are often nothing more than groupings of computer-controlled arms. Bomb squads use squat, heavily armored robots on wheels that examine and detonate explosives. The now-familiar Roomba is a robot. What they all have in common is that they are relatively simple. Even the most sophisticated humanoid robots in existence are nothing like Data from Star Trek.
For the time being, that is. Robotics engineers are hard at work building faster, smarter, mower powerful, more independent robots—and working to develop robots that have personalities, feelings, and other traits we associate with being human. If that sounds like your dream come true, keep reading to learn more about what it takes to become a robotics systems engineer.
In this article about master's in robotics degrees, we cover:
- What is a master's in robotics, and who is most likely to pursue this degree?
- How much programming experience do students pursuing this degree typically have?
- What do students in master's in robotics programs study?
- Are there concentration options in most master's in robotics programs?
- Do students in master's-level robotics programs get to work with or build robots?
- Which schools have the best-ranked robotics programs?
- What kinds of jobs can I do with a master's in robotics?
- Do I actually need a master's degree in robotics to work in this field?
What is a master's in robotics, and who is most likely to pursue this degree?
The Master of Science in Robotics (MSR) is an interdisciplinary degree pathway that combines elements of computer engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and other degree programs related to the science of robotics. The curricula in these programs cover a lot of ground because robotics is such a complex discipline. Graduate students study robotics theory, the physical mechanisms that power and control robots, and the algorithms and other computer code that lets robots "think." Master's in robotics graduate programs are designed to prepare students for career paths in robotics research and development in various fields, from medicine to manufacturing to environmental science.
The master's students attracted to these MS degree programs (and PhD programs in robotics) are natural tinkerers and extremely curious about how things work. As kids, they probably played with LEGO MINDSTORMS kits and tried their hands at programming their own Raspberry Pi systems. They may have even entered robotics competitions.
While it would be natural to assume that students in master's in robotics programs are gifted in both science and mathematics, it's possible to become a robotics engineer even if you're not a math or science prodigy, provided you're willing to put in the work. A curious mind and a knack for problem-solving can take you farther in robotics than perfect grades.
How much programming experience do students pursuing this degree typically have?
The prerequisites for master's degree programs in robotics are often quite strict. Most colleges and universities only consider applicants with a bachelor's degree or graduate degree in computer engineering, computer science, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, or robotics.
Experience in just one of those areas isn't enough, however. Applicants need to show they have a basic understanding of each of those disciplines, plus programming skills. Even though many people who work on the electrical engineering and mechanical engineering side of robotics do little if any programming, most schools still prefer applicants with at least some knowledge of programming languages like C/C++, Java, Perl, and Python. If you're concerned that your programming experience won't be sufficient to get you into an MSR program, you can boost your chances of being accepted into a master's in robotics program by completing a few courses in object-oriented programming languages before applying.
What do students in master's in robotics programs study?
Master of Science in Robotics programs cover a broad range of topics related to the three core disciplines in robotics: computer science (software engineering and AI), mechanical engineering (physical design and actuation), and electronics (control systems and power). Some robotics master's programs—particularly those designed for aspiring researchers— also touch on theoretical subject matter involving ethics and psychology. While you can find programs that cover all of these core areas in equal measure, it's much more common for MSR programs to emphasize one or two of these disciplines.
Graduate students in master's in robotics programs take required courses like:
- Algorithm Analysis and Design
- Artificial Intelligence
- Biomechanics of Movement
- Computer Vision
- Conversational Interfaces
- Embedded Intelligent Systems in Robotics
- Human-Computer Interaction
- Kinematics, Dynamical Systems, and Control
- Machine Learning
- Mechanics of Manipulation
- Mechatronics in Robotic Systems
- Microprocessor System Design
- Motion Planning
- Sensing and Sensors
- Statistical Pattern Recognition
- Swarms and Multi-Robot Systems
- Theories of Machine Design
Are there concentration options in most master's in robotics programs?
Robotics is an extraordinarily complex field, and so many MSR programs allow students to choose a concentration or specialization in a specific area of this field. While a generalist master's degree in robotics can prepare students for a wide range of careers, specializations can support particular career aspirations. Master of Science in Robotics concentrations include:
- Artificial Intelligence
- Autonomous Systems
- Control Systems
- Field Robotics
- Human-Robot Interaction
- Machine Perception
- Mechatronic Systems Design
- Robot Design
- Robotic Vision
Master's in robotics programs approach concentrations and specializations differently. In some, students take two semesters worth of core courses in mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and other disciplines that form the basis of modern robotics. Subsequently, they embark on two or more semesters of electives that form the core coursework of specific concentrations. In others, students create custom concentrations based on their selection of elective courses.
Do students in master's-level robotics programs get to work with or build robots?
How much time students in MSR programs spend working on actual robots depends on the program's core curriculum. That said, the emphasis in many programs is on hands-on learning. Students may conduct supervised research alongside faculty members or several small robotics projects that allow them to put the concepts they learn in class into action and become the basis of an original master's thesis. Most master's-level robotics programs also require students to complete one or more for-credit internships at robotics companies.
Not every school that offers a master's in robotics has a robotics institute on campus or the ability to place students in internships at notable robotics companies. You may end up having to create some of your own practical experiences with electronics and robotics. If you're passionate about robots, chances are that won't be a hardship.
Which schools have the best-ranked robotics programs?
Some of the best master's-level robotics programs can be found at:
- Carnegie Mellon University (the first university in the United States to establish a Robotics Institute)
- Georgia Institute of Technology (Main Campus)
- Johns Hopkins University
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- Ohio State University (Main Campus)
- Stanford University
- University of Michigan - Ann Arbor
- University of Pennsylvania
- The University of Tennessee - Knoxville
- University of Washington
- Worcester Polytechnic Institute
However, it's worth considering that it's hard to pin down the best schools for robotics as a discipline. There are so many distinct focus areas within robotics, and different colleges and universities are known for their research and instruction in those areas. As a commenter in a Quora thread about the best schools for robotics put it, "There is no one 'best' because robotics is so big a topic. Sure, MIT spawned some of the most important legged locomotion work, but Carnegie Mellon led the way in 3D perception for robots and autonomous vehicles, Stanford for robot perception, Berkeley for grasping, and even Johns Hopkins and Worcester Polytechnic for surgical automation… the good news is there is a veritable buffet of brilliance."
What kinds of jobs can I do with a master's in robotics?
There are many types of jobs in robotics, like:
- Aerospace operations technician
- Automation engineer
- Controls engineer
- Development manager
- Mechanical engineer
- Product development engineer
- Repair technician
- Research scientist
- Robotics engineer
- Robotics technician
- Robotics operator
- Software engineer
- Systems engineer
- Technical manager
How much you can earn with a master's in robotics depends on not only your title, but also your highest level of education, what company you work for, where that company is located, and your industry. The average robotics engineer salary is about $83,000—or $99,000 for experienced robotics engineers and robotics professionals working in specialties like computer vision.
Do I actually need a master's degree in robotics to work in this field?
Robotics as a field is growing more sophisticated, and the barriers for entry are getting higher. Technically, it's possible to get an entry-level job in consumer robotics—at a company like iRobot or similar—with a bachelor's degree.
An undergraduate degree probably won't lead to a career in robot design or robotics research, though. Grad school is an absolute must if you want to work at a company like Boston Dynamics or any company operating at the forefront of robotics research.
Even a master's degree may not even be enough. Don't be surprised to find that landing one of the coolest jobs in robotics requires a PhD in Robotics or a related discipline. The alternative is to network your butt off during your master's degree years and hope for the best.
On the other hand, you don't necessarily need a degree in robotics to work in this field. Many professionals in robotics specialized in mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, software engineering, systems engineering, or biomedical engineering before transitioning into robotics. Building and operating robots is, after all, a team sport in which each member of the team brings different skills and knowledge to the table. So, while you'll almost certainly need a graduate degree to work in robotics engineering, you might not need a robotics degree to work on robots that ultimately change the world for the better.
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