4 Ways You'll Build Real-World Experience in SMU Lyle's Online MSNE Program

A female computer network engineer works on her laptop in a server room.

Network engineering is a rapidly changing field. Today's network engineers have to be as comfortable with software-defined networking, network automation and multi-cloud technology as they are with firewalls, switching, Wide Area Networks (WAN) and Local Area Networks (LAN). Employers increasingly look for network engineers with certifications and broad practical experience, a nuanced view of the future of network management and master's degrees.

Staying up-to-date can be challenging. Some network engineering master's programs require students to take time out of the workforce, which means they sacrifice a year or more of experience. Others cover advanced topics in network engineering theoretically but don't give students opportunities to apply what they've learned. Still, others cover foundational topics but don't dive into the impact emerging technologies will have on the field.

The Online Masters in Network Engineering (MSNE) offered by SMU Lyle School of Engineering is different. The online MSNE is a 100 percent remote program in which students can complete all required coursework entirely online, but extensive hands-on lab work is still part of the curriculum. Distance learners graduate with as much real-world experience as their peers who complete on-campus programs—including experience working with leading-edge technologies reshaping the networking landscape.

"Each year we've added some component [to the program] to keep up with the growth in the technology," explains adjunct faculty professor John Rhymer, who teaches graduate-level network engineering coursework and provides mentoring and career counseling to students in the online master's in network engineering program. Rhymer is also a Senior Network Engineer at Citi—something that, he says, is a big part of why SMU MSNE students graduate with so much real-world experience and are so competitive in a changing marketplace.

What to expect in SMU's Online MSNE program

Students in the SMU Lyle School of Engineering online master's in network engineering program come from various professional backgrounds and have bachelor's degrees in disciplines like networking, information technology, cybersecurity, software engineering, computer engineering, computer science and data science. What they have in common is a desire to learn more about the latest networking technology and industry strategies so they're prepared for what's coming next in the field.

"Every single semester we have success stories of students getting hired by companies like Google and Amazon."

The program is built around flexibility, customizability and affordability. Most students can complete the program in just 20 months while working full-time but they have up to six years to complete the MSNE degree requirements. They take four core network engineering courses and seven electives—including SMU's advanced network engineering courses. Students can also take up to three related elective courses offered by the Lyle School of Engineering and other departments with adviser approval. Students can further customize the program by taking independent study courses, completing real-world projects with companies that have relationships with the university or Lyle School of Engineering faculty and participating in research.

How you'll build real-world experience in SMU's online MSNE program

Becoming a network engineer has always involved practical, hands-on experience. When the computing needs of technology companies and businesses were simpler, aspiring network engineers often learned networking skills, terminology and technologies on the job. Today, networks are larger and more complex than ever before, and more networking professionals are enrolling in degree programs to enhance their existing skills and gain new ones. Experiential learning is still a big part of the typical network engineer's education, however. At SMU, the Online Master of Science in Network Engineering program helps students gain real-world experience via:

1. Labs

The Online MSNE curriculum at Lyle School of Engineering offers students practical computer networking experience through network designs in foundational labs. Meanwhile, degree candidates who already work in network engineering can expand their skills in advanced labs and hands-on electives. In both cases, distance learners use their own devices to virtually access SMU's on-site lab complete with Cisco and Juniper routers and switches, and a server farm with software that can simulate various network topologies.

These labs meet students where they are in their careers. Many distance learners in the MSNE are already credentialed professionals with access to other computer networking and telecommunications resources and they often do hands-on work that reflects that. Others are relatively new to networking and labs represent an opportunity to practice their essential network engineering skills using live devices, specialized software tools and server-based network systems before moving on to more advanced exercises.

"Every single semester we have success stories of students getting hired by companies like Google and Amazon," says Rhymer. "The program has been very successful based on the fact that students can get operational experience both in the classroom labs and in the add-on industry project courses."

2. Projects

Online MSNE candidates at Southern Methodist University work virtually to solve real-world problems posed by companies like CITI, AT&T and Verizon. These semester-long group projects are limited in scope but require students to take on the kinds of projects they will encounter in their professional lives. When security might be an issue, company details may be anonymized, but the challenges are real. Groups of three or four students—or more on larger projects—tackle these projects from beginning to end, honing the kinds of research skills, practical networking skills and presentation skills they'll use in networking careers.

"We made it mandatory to present to the people doing the implementation," Rhymer says. "They ask the students questions—both technical questions and business questions. It is as close as we can get to giving them a real-world experience."

"The idea is to keep them engaged and learn what their interests are so when research opportunities present themselves, we know which students will benefit most."

3. Research

SMU Lyle School of Engineering conducts groundbreaking research across a variety of disciplines and the university is home to several research centers and institutes, such as the AT&T Center for Virtualization. Faculty and student researchers lead and participate in research into topics such as:

  • Chained virtual network functions (VNF)
  • Network security and reliability
  • Network function virtualization
  • Programmable network infrastructure
  • Software-defined networks (SDN)
  • Virtual systems engineering
  • Wireless networking

Students in the online master's in network engineering program have ample opportunities to participate in this research. There is usually a minimum grade requirement students must meet to be eligible to take part in research activities but beyond that, Rhymer says, engagement is the most important factor. The department posts research opportunities—which can involve working with companies like Amazon and Juniper—online and any student can apply, but faculty and instructors do look at how students' areas of interest align with specific opportunities before making recommendations.

"We engage students by enhancing Canvas pages with discussions about careers and the job market, and we ask them to put their skills matrix into those conversations," Rhymer explains. "The idea is to keep them engaged and learn what their interests are so when research opportunities present themselves, we know which students will benefit most. When you're passionate about something, you'll take it to the next level."

4. Coursework

Most of the professors and instructors who teach in Lyle School of Engineering's Online M.S. in Network Engineering program aren't lifelong teachers. Instead, they're lifelong networking professionals working in the field. They're able to augment the curriculum with real-world examples of networking challenges and solutions from their careers.

"One thing that sets the SMU program apart is that professors take what they're doing in their careers and apply it in the classroom so students know what to expect in the world," says Rhymer. "We leverage the experiences we're facing at work every day and provide those as learning examples in the classroom. It enhances the student experience."

Professors and instructors in the Online MSNE program also loop in networking experts who work in different industries to talk about their careers.

"When we align student interests with research projects and industry projects, it's more beneficial for the university, our partners and most importantly, the students."

"We try to use real-world life events to augment their learning, and I interview industry experts, whether networking experts, business experts, or vendors," Rhymer explains. "I might interview someone at Cisco about their career and then about what students can expect on day one. Then I interview someone in the business sector, to show what it's like to work on the business side."

Students watch these interviews via video as part of asynchronous classwork or live in synchronous core courses, allowing students to ask questions and network with professionals in the field. Some industry expert interviews are pretty eye-opening. Students are often surprised, Rhymer says, by how much technology network engineers research, deploy and maintain at companies in non-tech sectors.

How real-world experience adds value to an MSNE

Success in networking is increasingly a matter of having up-to-date cross-functional skills that align with evolving industry needs. Strong routing and switching skills are still important, but ambitious network engineers also need to be comfortable working with emerging technologies related to delay-tolerant networks, virtual computer networks, wireless networks, smart intent-based networks and software-defined data center networks. Networking professionals who have a graduate degree and quantifiable hands-on experience working with the latest network architecture and related technologies can advance more quickly than those with a degree from graduate programs that prioritize theory.

"We've found when we align student interests with research projects and industry projects, it's more beneficial for the university, our partners and most importantly, the students," explains Rhymer. "They come out with something they can put on their resumes—with real experience."

That experience is a big part of why SMU MSNE students go on to work for major companies in technology, finance, aerospace and other sectors. Because they work with so many leading-edge network technologies and tackle real-world challenges, they're able to stay current in an area of tech where innovations in automation and virtualization are driving rapid change. Southern Methodist University students also build strong networks while in the online program, which is why graduates can measure the ROI of their degrees in both dollars—the average network engineer with an MSNE earns about $100,000—and in access to opportunity.

"One of my favorite things about the program is being able to mentor the students and help them on their career paths," adds Rhymer. "I talk to a student almost every day and I provide references and letters of recommendation. Another thing that sets our program apart is that we not only have the current students' interests in mind but also help alumni with their careers. And as the alumni get better jobs and get promoted, they come back to the program to hire. The strength of our program is not just in the professors and the TAs, but also the alumni who come back to us to pay it forward."

If you're ready to start building real-world experience in an online master's in network engineering program, check out SMU Lyle Online's admissions and application requirements and more information about the online student experience. Multiple application deadlines make it easy to grow in your current networking career or launch a new one in just 20 months.