Master of Science in Engineering Online Graduate Finds Harmony with a Career in Engineering and Music

Brian McLaughlin

Courtesy of Brian McLaughlin


Jun 17, 2024

UCLA Samueli Newsroom

Brian McLaughlin has found a way to have the best of both worlds. A full-time touring musician who also has a passion for engineering, he graduated from the top-ranked Master of Engineering Online (MSOL) program at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering in the winter quarter of 2024.

Growing up in Barrington, Rhode Island, McLaughlin was immersed in a community where academia and the arts flourished.

“There was a strong emphasis on academics in our town since many of my friends’ parents were professors or researchers at Brown University or the Rhode Island School of Design or engineers at the naval base in Newport,” McLaughlin said. “I spent a lot of time running through the woods with the cross-country team and I was really into skateboarding and skate culture, which got me interested in alternative music as well as physics.”

McLaughlin’s musical journey began with an old Casio VL-Tone keyboard he found in his basement — an old wedding gift his parents had received. “I would teach myself to play songs on the keyboard by ear,” he said. 

This early interest in music led his parents to arrange piano lessons for him, setting the stage for a lifelong passion. After high school, McLaughlin pursued a degree in engineering at Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts, while indulging in his love of music.

“I took as many music composition and poetry classes as I could as electives and secretly wish I could’ve been a music major,” he said. “But the artist career path can be like playing the lottery, so engineering was something that provided the stability I needed to remain creative.”

It was at Tufts where McLaughlin (singer) and Luke Imbusch (drummer), who have been making music together since their early teenage years, formed The Rare Occasions with the addition of Jeremy Cohen (bassist). Since then, the trio have toured nationally, won the John Lennon Songwriting Contest and released their music online. After graduating, McLaughlin joined audio equipment manufacturer JBL as a transducer engineer, designing speakers for large concert sound systems, a role that perfectly blended his engineering skills with his musical interests.

“I always have ideas about gadgets or applications that would be useful for working musicians, said Brian McLaughlin.”

The COVID-19 pandemic was a turning point for McLaughlin. Seeking to advance his skills during a period of global uncertainty, he enrolled in UCLA’s MSOL program in spring 2021. That fall, The Rare Occasions went viral on TikTok with the band’s hit song “Notion.”

It’s in the charts, so every major label wants to meet with us,” McLaughlin said. “I was taking Zoom meetings with label executives in the acoustics test chamber in between taking loudspeaker measurements, while also attending lectures online, doing problem sets and taking exams.”

The song’s success allowed him to quit his job at JBL in January 2022 to focus on music and his master’s degree. He chose UCLA’s MSOL electrical engineering graduate program because the flexibility and breadth of the program allowed him to explore various interests within the field while managing his soaring music career.

Despite his busy schedule as a musician, McLaughlin made a concerted effort to connect with his professors and teaching assistants. He said the program helped him form meaningful relationships within the UCLA community, and the opportunity to take exams in person after COVID restrictions eased allowed him to meet classmates and TAs he had been working with all quarter.

Looking ahead, McLaughlin is optimistic about potential entrepreneurial endeavors and his future with The Rare Occasions. The band is set to release its third full-length album, “Through Moonshot Eyes,” in the fall and the trio will start touring across the U.S. and Canada.

“I want to make music that does something unexpected and unconventional,” McLaughlin said. “I want the songs to get stuck in people’s heads. That’s what I’m good at and that’s what I love to do and I hope to keep doing it!”

As for his engineering degree, McLaughlin sees it as a valuable asset for future projects. While his immediate focus is on music, he acknowledges the possibility of returning to engineering, armed with advanced knowledge and experience that could propel him to new heights in the field.

“I always have ideas about gadgets or applications that would be useful for working musicians, and I have this entrepreneurial spirit. If I ever find the time I will use the knowledge from my degree to finish prototyping my ideas and launch a product or company.

Share this article