Cornell to offer systems doctoral program

Samalis Santini, Oliver Gao and Faisal Alkhannan Alkaabneh
From left: Samalis Santini (systems Ph.D. student), Oliver Gao (director, systems engineering) and Faisal Alkhannan Alkaabneh (systems, Ph.D. student).

A unique doctoral program in systems that will prepare students to tackle some of the world’s most complex logistical problems is now being offered by the graduate field of systems.

These social, business and engineering problems often require individuals to produce solutions for different pieces of an operational challenge, but they also need a systems expert who can use a multidisciplinary approach to coordinate those efforts and ensure the different pieces fit together.

For instance, understanding the market for natural disaster insurance requires a systems thinker who can integrate models of natural hazards, building-specific structural vulnerability, consumer choice, insurance company competition and governmental action. Systems specialists also have the ability to face such challenges as organizing networks of Earth-observing satellites and predicting the transmission of disease-causing agents through the food supply chain.

Cornell’s systems doctoral program, approved by New York state in May, accepted transfer students for the fall 2016 semester and is currently enrolling students for the spring 2017 semester. It will build on the success of the college’s 15-year-old master’s degree in systems.

The doctoral program is designed for students and professionals who have a strong technical background and are looking to take a leadership role within a research group or company, according to Patrick Reed, who teaches systems courses as a professor of civil and environmental engineering. The program will also provide distance-learning options for professionals wishing to maintain some level of employment while they pursue the degree.

“At a lot of other schools, this would be housed and strongly flavored by one department,” said Reed. “Whereas here at Cornell, the program is multidepartmental and you have everything from very classical engineering all the way through the social sciences that are already interacting with the systems program. Traditionally, that’s very difficult to do,” added Reed, who says Cornell Tech will eventually interact with the new doctoral program.

Daniel Selva, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, also instructs systems courses and says Cornell’s strong academics in areas such as economics and the social sciences – aspects often overlooked in systems engineering – uniquely position the university to offer the degree. “We try to emphasize the human-centered aspect of designing complex systems. We do a lot of work with how you incorporate empathy into system design, for instance, and on improving the interaction between humans and computational design tools,” said Selva.

The curriculum for the program will be based on a number of required courses, complemented by two minors chosen according to the interests of each doctoral student. Students will also be required to participate in a case-based doctoral colloquium.

Graduates will be prepared to pursue careers as analysts, consultants and managers in the areas of aerospace, defense, energy, climate, water resources, information technology, healthcare, transportation, large-scale retailing, urban planning and many more.

“This is not learning existing techniques. These are people who are going to create the state of the art,” said Reed of the program’s students. “And so who do you turn to when appropriate techniques don’t exist for innovating complex systems? That’s a systems Ph.D.”

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