It’s been two years since I’ve graduated with my PhD from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, NY. When I graduated with my bachelors from the University of British Columbia, I wrote a little guide to the university just for fun, now I’m finally going to do the same for RPI. I enjoyed my four years as a graduate student. It was a very different experience than my undergrad due to the difference between the schools, between the cities they are located in, and the fact that I was a grad student instead of a naive undergrad. Like my “guide” to UBC, this post has some general info on RPI, but it’s mostly focused on things that I found relevant, interesting or fun during my time there. More information can be found in RPI’s website, Wikipedia, and the other links contained in this post.
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) is a private research university whose main campus is located in Troy, New York. There are two smaller campuses located in Hartford and Groton, Connecticut. Founded by Stephan Van Rensselaer and Amos Eaton in 1824, RPI is described as the oldest technological university in the English-speaking world. As its name indicates, RPI is most well-known for its engineering and science programs which are highly-ranked in publications. The institute also has programs in business, arts and humanities, and architecture. RPI is relatively small university with about 7000 students in total. Despite its history of graduating some of the most influential people in the tech industry, RPI is not very well known outside of the engineering/technical circles. To be honest, I have never heard of the school until I asked my relatives where I should apply for grad school for electric power engineering.
Campus and Location
RPI’s main campus is located in Troy, NY. Troy is in the metro area of Albany, which is the state capital of New York. The whole area is called the Capital Region. For those who don’t know where Albany or Troy are on the map, they are located approximately three hours drive (~200 miles) north of New York City, and this is in the Northeast portions of the US. Troy is an old city (by American standards) and the downtown is full of 19th century architecture. The city used to one of the most prosperous in the state of New York thanks to the steel and textile industries, but those days have long passed. Troy definitely has seen better days, but people are making an effort to revitalize the historic downtown and other areas within the city. There are a couple of bars and restaurants in downtown, but otherwise there is not much there in terms of culture and entertainment.
As a whole, the Capital Region is not a particularly happening area and there isn’t really that much to do when it comes to city fun. The good news for those who are seeking more big city entertainment is that New York City, Boston, and Montreal are all within 3-4 hours drive. On the other hand, the Capital Region is great for those who like outdoor recreation, as there are plenty of mountains nearby with the Adirondacks to the north, Catskills to the south, Vermont’s Green Mountains to the east. The whole region is gorgeous during fall as the leafs change into brilliant colors. Autumn is definitely the best season in the area, due to the beautiful foliage and the nice temperatures. Spring is also pretty good, sans the foliage. Summer is relatively short, but there will be two or three weeks where the heat and humidity become uncomfortable.
The longest and worst season by far is winter, which lasts five months from November to March in the Northeast. There is potential for extreme cold (think -20 degrees F) and enough snow to bury cars. The longer I stayed, the less I could take the winter. People in the area are used to the winter though, and there is plenty of infrastructure to clear the roads in most cases. RPI has its own fleet of snowplows to keep the campus open during winter. From my experience, RPI rarely ever cancels class due to winter weather. It only happened a few times when systems were expected to bring very fast accumulations of snow of over a foot. It would be very wise to invest in good winter gear, including warm winter jackets, pants, gloves, hats, ear cover, a snow brush and scraper for your car, and a shovel to dig your car out after a lot of snowfall.
Moving on to the RPI campus itself, the campus sits on top of the hillside, overlooking Downtown Troy and the Hudson River to the west. A set of stairs known as the Approach provides a pedestrian path between downtown and the campus. Compared to UBC where I did my undergrad, the main academic area of RPI’s campus is considerably smaller. RPI does have dormitories and the East Campus Athletic Village (ECAV) that extends the campus footprint more to the east. In the main academic area, the buildings are a mix ranging from red brick buildings from the late 19th/early 20th century, to very modern glass buildings such as the EMPAC performing arts center, and everything in between. The green space in between the buildings are usually maintained very well. Overall I liked the appearance of the RPI campus, because it has a good number of these old buildings give the campus a historic look. The only thing I can think of to improve the campus is to have some covered walkways connecting the buildings, so that people wouldn’t have to walk outside in the cold during the long winter.
Student Demographics and Organizations
Being a polytechnic institute, RPI’s student makeup is a little different than most general universities. In particular, the gender ratio is skewed heavily towards males. The gender ratio has been tending towards parity, but when I was there the ratio is still about 70% male to 30% female. The gender ratio depends on the program, as gender ratios in the business or architecture school tend to be closer to parity, while engineering is probably more than 70% male. All that means is that if you are a male student in RPI, your chances of finding a girlfriend who also goes to the same university are lower than in most universities . There is an all girls college down the hill in Downtown Troy though
In terms of race and ethnicity, most of the undergrad students seem to be white Americans, and students of Chinese and Indian subcontinent origins make up significant minorities. In contrast, the make-up of the graduate student population is quite different as most of the grad students are foreigners. In electrical engineering where I studied, people from China, India, Pakistan, and Iran seem to be the biggest groups. The student makeup is probably quite different depending on the program.
A few things about the RPI’s School of Engineering, and my department and some general grad student experience. The School of Engineering is probably the largest faculty in RPI. It is split into seven departments: Biomedical, Chemical and Biological, Civil and Environmental, ECSE (Electrical, Computer and Systems Engineering), Industrial and Systems, Material Science, and MANE (Mechanical, Aerospace and Nuclear Engineering). The school used to have a separate department for electric power, but it has been folded back into ECSE when I started at RPI.
As a student in ECSE, I spent most of my time in my lab in the Jonsson Engineering Center (JEC). JEC is the main engineering building where the Dean’s office. ECSE classes also take place in the Darrins Communications Center (DCC), and the Low Center of Industrial Innovation (CII). These building are in the middle of the campus, and they are right next each other, and they are easy to recognize as the JEC and CII are two of the tallest buildings on campus. There are various other buildings that other departments use, but I’m not very familiar with them.
In terms of academics, RPI’s engineering programs are as tough as you would expect. For us research-based grad students, our course credit requirements are a bit different since we have to do research and complete our master thesis and/or doctoral dissertations. During my time as a Master and PhD student, I took at most three courses a semester. I think for most research grad students, the course load tends to decrease as the people have to spend more time working on their research to finish their degree. The grad school experience, including the course load, mostly depends on the student’s adviser, so different students even in the same department can have very different academic experiences.
In the School of Engineering, the majority of research grad students have assistantships, and it’s probably out of necessity given how expensive tuition is at RPI. Grad students are either teaching assistants (TAs) or research assistants (RAs), both of which include a stipend for living expenses and a tuition waiver. The stipend is enough to live on, but you probably won’t be able to save up much money. Between RA and TA, RA is definitely better since you are getting paid to do your own research, while TAs have to spend time doing things such as marking papers that do not contribute to their thesis. RAs may be offered in summer if your professor have the funds and wants to keep you around. Those grad students who cannot get funding during the summer typically try to find internships to gain income and valuable experience. I would actually encourage grad students to do internships instead of RAing in the summer. It’ll take a little longer to graduate, but doing internships makes it much easier to find a job when you do graduate. Companies like candidates with work experience.
To end this not quite a guide, here are some random facts/thoughts on the school that granted me my Master’s and PhD degrees.
- RPI may be one of the nicest part of Troy, but the neighborhood around campus isn’t that great. The campus itself is quite safe due to regular patrols for RPI’s public safety officers, but outside of their patrol areas things do happen. Every month or so there would be notices posted around campus about somebody getting mugged or about places getting broken into. It’s not that the area is horribly unsafe, but people should use common sense. Walking alone after it gets dark is probably not a good idea. Take advantages of the shuttle buses and and/or public safety escorts at night. Also, parking in the north lot is free after 5pm, so one can drive to the campus if they have to be there at night.
- RPI, being a private school, is quite expensive attend. In fact, RPI has made more than one list for the most expensive universities in the US. Tuition alone was $45000 USD a year during my time there, and I would have never been able to afford that if I didn’t have assistantships. Undergrads are also mandated to live on campus for the first and second years, and forced to pay for not-so-great housing and meal plans
- When I attended RPI, the school president Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson was the highest paid private university presidents in the US. Whether or not she is deserving such compensation has stirred up some debate on campus. Other than seeing Dr. Jackson at school functions, people can also sometimes see Dr. Jackson being chauffeured around in a black Audi A8L with the license plate 001 RPI.
- In terms of student athletics, most of RPI’s sports play in NCAA Division III. The only exception is ice hockey, which plays in Division I. The men’s ice hockey games is probably the most popular sporting event in the city of Troy. Ice hockey is played at the Houston Field House in the ECAV area, and the home crowd is always boisterous and yelling insults at the visiting team and the referees. It’s definitely something to experience for any student who attends RPI.
- For all the expensive tuition paid, RPI does have the benefit of offering food every so often. Between all of the events held by the university, the engineering school, the ECSE department, and different student societies, I could get a couple of free meals per semester, and some events even serve alcohol.
- On campus food options, at least the ones that are accessible to grad students not living on campus, are pretty bad. Thankfully, there are some better options not far from campus, there is a Moe’s right outside of campus, and there is even a tolerable Chinese/Japanese restaurant right up 15th Street. I’ve seen plenty of Chinese grad students order lunch take-out from the restaurant up the street. I do have to mention that the food from the Faculty Dining Room (on the second floor of the Russell Sage Hall) is not bad, but that room can only be booked by faculty.
- For a small school, the student recreation facilities of RPI are not too bad. The Mueller Fitness Center actually has more room and equipment than the student fitness center at UBC. Right next to Mueller is the swimming pool which I’ve also used a lot. There are number of gymnasiums open to student use throughout campus, and including the newer and air-conditioned basketball courts at ECAV.
- There isn’t very much to do during the five harsh months of winter… unless you get into winter sports. The Capital Region is close to several mountain ranges, and as such there are probably half a dozen ski hills within a two hour drive, and a dozen within a three hour drive. Prices are pretty reasonable, but of course the resorts tend to be on the smaller side. RPI has a ski and snowboard club that rents out equipment for cheap (although the equipment tends to be pretty beat-up) and organizes trips during the ski season that are excellent deals. RPI students can also get a student season passes to some nearby mountains for $300-$400, and that is a great purchase if you are going to ski for more than four or five times during the season.
- RPI seem to have a very active student senate. Every year during the winter semester there will be a GM Week, where the students will vote to elect the Grand Marshal (GM) and other members of the student senate. Other than the active campaigning and voting, the whole week is a big celebration with free ice cream (GM Week always coincides with the week where Ben and Jerry’s give free ice cream) and a school wide barbecue. Those students who take the time to vote will receive a nice glass beer mug that changes in design every year.