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How Do You Decide Which Advanced Course of Study is the Best Option for Your Career?

[+] Author Notes

Kevin Kuznia obtained his doctorate in business administration from St. Ambrose University in Davenport. Iowa, and is the principal of Dr Career Advisor.com, a career consultation firm that provides career insights and support to engineering professionals. He is the diagnostic supervisor at Deere & Co, in Waterloo. Iowa. where he also counsels colleagues on career choices. He can be reached at KuzniaKevinD@johnDeere.com.

Mechanical Engineering 130(03), 36-39 (Mar 01, 2008) (4 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2008-MAR-4

This paper focuses on ways to decide which advanced course of study is the best option for the career. The paper highlights that unlike the latitude offered to MBA students, the same variety of programs will not be found in engineering. There are very few accelerated master level engineering programs, but typically, one will have the advantage of not having to take prerequisites to start the program. However, unlike an MBA, which may require engineers to take prerequisite business classes before they start the actual degree program, in a master’s program in engineering, engineers will typically be allowed to take master’s level classes immediately. The MSE is marketable, but in a unique way from an MBA. However, many individuals outside the engineering discipline will have scant knowledge of just how this degree contributes to the organization. The MBA, on the other hand, is a widely recognized degree, and many people within and outside of engineering understand how an MBA contributes to an organization’s success. Both degrees can contribute to career advancement. It is important to let others know how this advanced education contributes to the goals of the organization. Deciding to obtain an advanced degree, whether it is in engineering or business, requires a commitment of time, effort, and expense. However, more important, the right degree can make an enormous difference in career opportunities.

The phone rings once again. On the other end is an engineer confused about continuing his formal education. He has been in engineering for a few years. He sees his colleagues pursuing either an M.B.A. or an M.S. in engineering. While both are noble pursuits, each is a distinct path to follow, with different expectations and outcomes. Theoretically the option exists to pursue both paths. However, such an endeavor is rarely practical, partly because of the expense involved and even more so because of the daunting prospect of spending six years or more juggling graduate study and full-time engineering employment. So how does anyone decide which road to take?

In my endeavors as a career consultant, I work with a steady progression of engineering professionals. These individuals, who thrive on data and analysis, seem to become paralyzed when deciding whether or not to pursue advanced education. To add to the confusion, I often hear, "Well, my boss said. . ." or, "This guy just got his degree and he got promoted." But is an advanced education the answer? Frankly, not for everyone.

But if it is something you choose to undertake, which degree should you pursue?

Yesterday's engineering careers were a little simpler than today's . Then, you went to college for four years, graduated, and took a job as a junior engineer until you earned the title of advanced or senior engineer. Through organizational tenure, you moved up in the engineering world until perhaps one day you became engineering manager. There was less need to consider advancing your formal education, because nearly everything you needed to know was gained through on-the-job experience, and a few hard knocks. And those M.B.A.'s? They were locked in the business office trying to figure out how to take the company to "the next level."

Today's engineering careers have changed. Not only must you keep up with emerging technologies, but you also have to understand the financial and strategic ramifications of your decisions. When designing parts or systems, you may be peppered with questions from marketing, accounting, and other engineering groups. It would appear that gaining an advanced education may put you on equal footing with these individuals. Having that degree can, and does, level the playing field-as long as you choose the right degree and apply your newly gained knowledge in the correct fashion.

So, let's look at each of these degrees to determine the prerequisites, effort for completion, and potential impact on your career.

The M.B.A., or Master of Business Administration degree, has been around since the beginning of the 20th century. It is a very popular degree program, attracting people from a wide range of academic disciplines outside of business.

Prerequisites for M.B.A. programs vary. Some programs have very liberal admission requirements. Some require no previous business courses. However, nearly all applicants to M.B.A. programs are required to take the Graduate Management Admission Test. The GMAT is designed to assess quantitative reasoning and verbal skills. Depending upon the university, work experience, academic transcripts, essays, references or letters of recommendation, and personal interviews may be considered for admission to a program. In addition, competitive schools also may be interested in extracurricular activities, community service, and how the applicant can improve the program's diversity and contribute to the student body as a whole.

Full-time M.B.A. programs are the most common, normally lasting two years. Students mayor may not enter the program with real-world work experience. The classes are typically conducted during weekdays, like undergraduate university classes. Most students are in their early 20s with few over 30.

Part-time M.B.A. programs are geared toward older working adults. Universities typically hold classes on weekday evenings, after normal working hours. The students in these programs typically consist of working professionals, who take a lighter course load for a longer period of time. These programs generally last three years or more.

Executive M.B.A. (or E.M.B.A.) programs were developed to meet the educational needs of managers and executives, allowing students to earn a degree in two years or less while working full-time. E.M.B.A. students generally have a higher level of work experience, often 10 years or more, than other M.B.A. students. Classes are typically a mix of weekend courses combined with electronic correspondence.

Upon starting an M.B.A. program, a student can expect to take classes in a variety of areas. Core subjects typically include economics, organizational behavior, marketing, accounting, finance, strategy, operations management, and information technology management. Some students may then seek to specialize in an area such as internati9nal business, supply chain management, or project management.

An engineer who pursued a management degree is someone I'll call Steve. He was a very successful mechanical engineer for a Fortune 500 manufacturing company and had always had ambitions to become an engineering manager like his college intern mentor. He asked his former mentor what skills would be necessary to move into a management position. He learned that, although technical skills were necessary, business skills also play a big part in management, and so he decided to pursue a master's degree in business administration.

Through his M.B.A. program, Steve learned how to effectively manage people, how various aspec ts of corporate finance worked, and how the contributions of his department supported the overall strategy of the company. According to Steve, these were all important aspects to a successful engineering management career. Steve is now the vice president of engineering for his company, and suggests that the keys to his success were a solid technical background in engineering combined with business acumen gained from earning his M.B.A.

Upon completing an M.B.A. program, you should be well versed in the language of business. You should have a clearer appreciation of how your actions affect the business bottom line. You should also have acquired a skill set that is applicable to many different types of organizations. In addition, you'll have developed a broad-based network of professionals employed in a variety of industries.

On the negative side, many individuals are pursuing an M.B.A. Diffe rentiation among M.B.A.'s in organizations is becoming increasingly difficult. It will be up to you to apply your newly gained knowledge to stand out among the ever-increasing M.B.A. crowd.

By contras t, then, what is an M.s. in Engineering? A Mas ter of Science in Engineering takes your under-graduate engineering education to a more advanced level. In the undergradu ate program, yo u became well versed in the foundation of knowledge necessary to be an engi neer. You gained the vocabulary, the analytical reasoning, concepts, and principles that engineers must have to be successful in the fi eld.

Students completing the master's degree in engineering typically acquire a greater depth and breadth of engineering analysis skills, enabling them to better understand and predict the performance of engineered systems and components. T hey should be able to more effectively understand and utilize resea rch on engineered systems and on phenomena integral to their performance. As a result, graduates should be in a position to better contribute to the body of knowledge available to business and industry, and to more effectively solve complex engineering problems affecting their respective organization.

To apply to a master's program in engineering, applicants typically must have a bachelor's degree from an accredited university with a suitable engineering background for the selected area of study, and a minimum 3.0 grade p oint ave rage in th eir undergradu ate program. Some universi ties may grant latitude in the requirements if the applicant can demonstrate extenuating circumstances.

In terms of course stru cture, master's degree in engineering programs usually follow pattern similar to bachelor's degrees wi th lectures, laboratory work, course work, and exams. Many universities require the completion of a substantial project in the final year.

Upon completing a master's degree in engineering, you should possess a much deeper knowledge of a specific engineering discipline. You should also have gained new perspectives on emerging trends in engineering, and have deve loped network contacts who share your passion for engineering.

Consider, for example, someone I'll call Chad. He truly enjoyed his job as an engineer for a large automotive manufacturer. As engineers often are, he was inquisitive, and would often be found reading about the latest advancements in his field of expertise. With encouragement from one of his peers, Chad enrolled in a Master of Science in Engineering program offered by a local university.

Although it took Chad three years to complete the program, he said that it was time well spent. He met several individuals who shared his passion for engineering, and co-authored a technical paper with one of his professors. Chad said that through the pursuit of the master's degree, he is now even more confident in his abilities as an engineer, and finds himself more marketable to other companies.

Unlike the latitude offered M.B.A. students, you will not find the same variety of programs in engineering. There are very few accelerated master level engineering programs, but you typically will have the advantage of not having to take prerequisites in order to start the program. However, unlike an M.B.A., which may require engineers to take prerequisite business classes before they start the actual degree program, in a master's program in engineering you'll typically be allowed to take master's level classes immediately.

Neither degree is inherently better than the other. That would be like comparing business to engineering. Each discipline supports the organization in its own way. Each has distinct advantages and disadvantages, and it is up to you to decide which one supports your career objectives more appropriately.

The M.S.E. is marketable, but in a different way from an M.B.A. However, many individuals outside the engineering discipline will have scant knowledge of just how your degree contributes to the organization. The M.B.A., on the other hand, is a widely recognized degree, and many people within and outside of engineering understand how an M.B.A. contributes to an organization's success. Both degrees can contribute to career advancement. It is important to let others know how your advanced education contributes to the goals of the organization.

Deciding to obtain an advanced degree, whether it is in engineering or business, re quires a commitment of time, effort, and expense. But more important, the right degree can make a huge difference in career opportunities. I often counsel individuals by saying that investments in yourself pay the highest dividends. It's up to you to decide where the biggest payoff is

Copyright © 2008 by ASME
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