A Matter of Degree

Dec 22, 2010

by Kevin Kuznia

Engineers thrive on data and analysis, but are often stumped by whether to pursue an advanced degree. While a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) or a Masters in Science in Engineering (MSE) can lead to career advancement, graduate study isn’t for everyone. It requires a lengthy commitment of time, money, and serious effort.

Engineering careers used to be straightforward. After four years of college, you took a job as a junior engineer, eventually became a senior engineer, and might move up to engineering management. Everything you needed to know came through undergraduate training, on-the-job experience, and a few hard knocks. People with MBAs were off in the business office, decoding the mysteries of taking the company to "the next level."

Today, engineers must keep up with emerging technologies and understand the financial and strategic impact of their decisions. When designing parts or systems, you may face questions from marketing, accounting, and other departments. An advanced degree can put you on more equal footing with them – provided you choose the right degree and apply your additional knowledge deftly.

If you’re considering graduate school, it’s important to consider the two paths.

The MBA

This popular degree program attracts people from diverse areas. MBA programs with liberal admissions policies may not even require previous business courses. Some evaluate work experience, academic transcripts, references, and personal interviews. The Graduate Management Assessment Test, which assesses quantitative reasoning and verbal skills, is a standard requirement.

Most full-time MBA programs last two years, offering classes conducted on an undergraduate-type schedule. Part-time MBA programs, geared toward working adults, usually hold classes on weeknights. Part-time students carry a lighter course load, generally over three or more years. Executive MBA programs, for managers and executives (many with a decade or more of work experience), allow students to earn a degree in two years while working full-time. Classes often combine weekend and on-line coursework.

A wide-ranging MBA curriculum includes economics, organizational behavior, marketing, accounting, finance, strategy, operations, and information technology management. Some students opt to specialize in a particular area, like international business or project management.

MBA studies will familiarize you with business language, and provide a clear appreciation of how your actions affect an organization’s bottom line. Your expanded skill set will be applicable in many different employment situations.

The downside: many professionals hold MBA degrees. You’ll need to emphasize the advantages of your specific knowledge, among other MBA-holders.

The MSE

A MS in Engineering builds on your undergraduate education, which provided the vocabulary, analytical reasoning, concepts, and principles essential for success in engineering.

The MS program increases depth and breadth of analytic skills, enabling you to better understand and predict the performance of engineered systems or components, and solve complex engineering problems. You’ll learn more sophisticated ways to understand and utilize research on engineered systems and their performance, through deeper knowledge of a specific engineering discipline. These studies help develop new perspective on emerging engineering trends.

MS applicants usually need a bachelor’s degree and engineering background appropriate for the selected study area. Program structure is similar to undergraduate studies, with lectures, lab work, classes, exams, and often, a substantial project in the final year.

Unlike MBA offerings, you’ll find few accelerated MS programs; they’ll take several years to complete if you attend part-time. While an MBA program may require engineers to take prerequisite business classes, MSE programs typically allow students to take masters level classes immediately, without prerequisites.

Choosing a Degree

Either graduate path can advance a career. Each degree affords a valuable network of contacts in your own field, and across a broader spectrum. Decision-makers in any sector understand the skills and functions an MBA affords. A MSE is a valuable credential, but often, non-engineers may not realize its potential value to their organization. You’ll have to let any potential employer know how your advanced degree can benefit their business.

Identifying your career aspirations is the crucial step for deciding which degree better matches your goals. Investing in yourself can yield a high dividend: the right degree truly expands your career prospects.

[Adapted from "To a Higher Degree" by Kevin Kuznia, for Mechanical Engineering, March 2008.]