Young Engineers

Getting an MBA as an Engineer: Worth It?

November 3, 2017

As a professional in the engineering field, you probably appreciate the value of a solid education.  Without a foundational background in the maths and sciences, for an example, you most likely wouldn’t be able to perform even the most basic of daily job tasks.  Your advanced degree is equally as valuable; providing you the intricate knowledge of the finer points of engineering necessary to obtain most entry-level positions.  There’s one degree, however, that may have left you puzzling when it comes to the age-old equation of value versus investment.  

While advertisements and college recruitment drives love to tout the value of a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree, the path isn’t quite as clear when it comes to engineers.  Graduate degrees in engineering are directly applicable to your chosen job field while the MBA subject and study matter can seem a bit…nebulous.  In addition, most MBA programs only accept candidates that have several years of relevant job experience, forcing these candidates to either forgo several years of earning potential or pursue a degree part-time.  In either case, candidates thinking of pursuing such a track want to feel confident that their hard-earned MBA will provide a comparable return on investment.  

Sure, our set-up of the problem may have left you with more questions than answers, but never fear.  We’ve interviewed some of the best and brightest insiders on the subject: Jay Rogers, Vice President of Recruiting for Randstad Engineering, Matt DiGeronimo, Managing Director of Smith Floyd Mergers & Acquisitions and former Navy Nuclear Submarine Officer, and Dennis Chandler, who holds an MBA from Purdue in addition to his MS in Mechanical Engineering.  With their help, here we’ll break down the plusses and minuses of obtaining an MBA as an engineer which will hopefully shed a little light on your own decision-making process.

Identifying the Cons to an MBA

The Opportunity is Going to Cost You

One of the most basic analyses for balancing out the worth of the all-mighty MBA comes down to dollars and cents.  The cost of attaining that coveted acronym is no mere chump change.  In recent years, costs for higher education have well outpaced the rate of inflation, and the MBA degree is no exception.  An MBA at a storied institution such as Harvard or Stanford will easily run you above $60k per year.  That’s not counting books, housing and other actual expenses.

As a numbers and facts minded person, however, you should realize there’s another factor missing from the cost equation.  Since MBA’s require some work experience prior to enrollment, most candidates will be giving up full time work in order to pursue their degrees.  With this in mind, obtaining an MBA can cost candidates upwards of $175k a year.  Multiply that by the two years it’ll take even the most brilliant minds to complete the program and you’re looking at a hefty $350k or more in actual cost.  Several schools recently passed all kinds of records by advising incoming MBA students to budget $200k per year for their education.

Let’s not even get started with an Executive MBA program which typically asks for ten plus years of actual experience for those looking to enroll.  Factor that much-earning potential into the salary-abstention mix and you can add another hundred thousand or more to your total cost of a traditional, two-year, full-time program.

Not Necessarily a Prerequisite to Leadership Positions

While we’re on the topic of cons, when it comes to obtaining that high-up, c-suite or other leadership position, it turns out that the primary factor is experience more than education.  According to interviewee, Jay Rogers of Randstad Engineering (an engineering staffing firm) a relatively small number of job placements requests he’d seen actually asked for the degree.  Over 15,000 requests for placement, 97% wanted a Bachelors of Science in Engineering, a far less impressive 1.7% asked for an engineering Masters and a minuscule .6% required an MBA

But What About that Pay Increase

Not to pile bad news on top of, well, more bad news but for engineers looking for a hefty pay increase to go along with their college tuition bills, things aren’t exactly looking up.  Back to the facts and figures from Jay Rogers, the average posted salary of a position asking for an MBA was around $131k while the average salary for positions asking for more targeted degrees, such as a Masters in Engineering, averaged at $137k.  

In short, according to Rogers, when it comes to the engineering field, an MBA is more of a “plus” than actual benefit or necessity.  What candidates considering an MBA need to know, therefore, is that, if you’re looking to stay in the engineering field, you may not recoup that hefty tuition and other opportunity costs in future salary increases.

An MBA May Actually Make You Less Attractive to Some Employers

You know the old saying that too much education is never a bad thing?  Well, as it turns out when it comes to an MBA, that advice may actually be turned on your head.  Per interviewee Dennis Chandler, many employers look at young, inexperienced MBA holders and assume they will be an expensive hire, not worth the cost when it comes to actual knowledge and lack of real-world experience.  

In the startup world especially, Dennis has seen a great deal of bias against MBA’s.  These maverick industries believe that your fancy degrees actually hinder rather than help business, with their formalities and dependence on traditional styles of management and growth.  This doesn’t mean that holding an MBA will prevent you from getting any given position, but be prepared to back up those initials with innovative ideas and a novel approach.

Not All MBAs are Equal

If you’re looking at an MBA as a way to boost your value with your current employer, the institution gracing the top of your MBA degree may not matter as much as if you were switching companies or industries.  Verify that the school that you’ll be attending is accredited, with a decent reputation and you may be able to save yourself a few thousand dollars on tuition and related fees.

If, however, you are looking for a Fortune 500 company, switch industries, say into finance, investment banking, or management Firm, you may need to shell out the big bucks for a degree from a top tier school.  Interviewee Matt DiGeronimo concurs, adding that the largest companies don’t make it a secret that if you don’t have an MBA from an Ivy League or similarly reputable institution, don’t even bother applying.  These “image-conscious” institutions tend to have the opposite approach from a typical engineering Firm.  If you attended a top school, they can teach you whatever else is needed to succeed in the field.  The institutions are essentially a prescreening process for employment.”

MBA Material Not Exactly Challenging for Engineers

If you’ve head all of the cons and are still thinking that as an engineer you might find additional value in the course material, think again.  MBA programs, especially the math and technical components, are a far shy of what you probably had to endure to pick up your Engineering degree.  “There is nothing challenging in the MBA program if you are an engineer – if you’ve been through differential calculus you’re just going to laugh at the statistics curriculum,”  per DiGeronimo (who holds an undergraduate degree in nuclear engineering).

Now…How About Those Pros?

Intrinsic Value of Studying Business

Now that we’ve managed to put on our best Debby Downer impression, it’s time to talk up the value of an MBA, yes, even to an engineering professional like yourself.  For starters, getting an MBA as an engineer is much like learning to speak another language.  Sure, you’re practical with an uncanny ability to problem solve.  Add to that an innate understanding of the language of business and you’re a one-two combo that c-suite’s dream of.

For every 100 down in the trenches engineer, there’s the need for the management type that can walk in both worlds and guide the business activities of an engineering-centric firm.  These types of companies will be quick to acknowledge this type of diverse skillset.  DiGeronimo notes:

“The biggest benefit of being an engineer with an MBA, serendipitously, is that it allows me to think like an engineer, have the language of an MBA and find somewhere I can be a unicorn of sorts.

Moreover, if you hope to obtain a position that requires working with budgets and financial forecasting, graduate-level business education is advantageous.”

Let’s Talk Promotion

If you’re looking to stay at your current engineering-focused company and are looking for that leg up into the upper echelons of management, it turns out your MBA may be a golden ticket to dreams fulfilled.  Per a recent LinkedIn article on the topic and just plain old common sense, managers with an engineering background are much more equipped to oversee other engineers.  

The functional leadership skills supplied by an MBA help those looking to move out of the lab coat and into the corner office.  Marketing skills gained from an MBA along with a nuts and bolts understanding of the business of your company can lead to better promotional opportunities.  Some companies, in fact, even provide scholarship opportunities for top talent looking to take on advanced education courses in their spare time so be sure to investigate before shelling the funds out of your own bank account.

The Right Degree at the Right TIme

Many candidates for advanced degrees, MBA’s included, tend to enter as a consequence of a poor job market.  The thinking goes that there are few to no great opportunities in their field due to downsizing or financial instabilities and extending an education career allows for the deferral of those onerous student loans.  While we can’t endorse this type of falling into an expensive and time-intensive advanced degree program, there may be times when this kind of opportunistic thinking works for your benefit.

If your industry is on the verge of a breakthrough or you are seeing a lack of advanced management experience among your peers, seeking an MBA as an engineer may be the ticket to success.  Dennis Chandler comments on his own experience: “I increased my salary by 61% once I finished my MBA, and made the move from the aerospace industry to the more lucrative medical device industry. I went from the title of Senior Engineer in a large corporation to the Director of Operations.”

Related: Jobs for Engineers with an MBA

This does lead to a word of caution, however.  If your goal is to take advantage of the market or individual company considerations, jumping immediately from the college frying pan into the MBA program fire may not be the best timing.  It may behoove those with engineering backgrounds to enter the job market first, postponing an advanced or MBA degree until the moment is right.  This will also give you time to think your decision of career over.  The last thing you need is a few hundred thousand of additional debt based on a knee-jerk decision.

Using the MBA for Switching Careers

As Jay Rogers previously pointed out, while an MBA may be beenficial in many career fields, the value to an engineer may be limited.  This can come in handy, however, if you’ve decided that an entirely separate field is your calling.

Many employers can look askance at a candidate whose resume is centric to one particular role or profession.  The commitment necessary to switch tracks and get an advanced degree to back it up, on the other hand, can bolster the argument that you’re really, truly serious about the switch in paths.

If you’re looking to go into fields such as accounting, finance, analytics, high value commercial real estate or Fortune 500 management or consulting, an MBA could help you make the transition or score the job of your dreams.  If this role is with a business that has a strong engineering component, bonus points for you.

Bottom Line: Is Getting an MBA as an Engineer Worth It ?

Whether you TL:DR this article long ago, or are just looking for a quick recap, the bottom line answer for the question of whether an MBA is worth the cost and effort if you’re an engineer is: it depends.  For those looking for something a bit more concise, we’ve put together this handy compare and contrast guide.

 

“Yes” an MBA degree may be valuable to you if …

  1. You want to move into a managerial or C-suite position for a large corporation or a traditional employer.
  2. Your job (or anticipated job) will require managing a budget or forecasting.
  3. You would like to change careers, especially if you are looking outside of engineering altogether.
  4. Your employer offers subsidies for obtaining advanced degrees.

“No” if you:

  1. Want to remain the go-to problem solver or technical wizard.
  2. Don’t want to fork over two (or more) years of your time and incur expensive student loan debt.
  3. Want to remain with a traditional engineering firm.
  4. Need a guaranteed return on investment.
  5. Have a set career path with plenty of avenues for advancement.

 

Some final words when it comes to determining whether an MBA as an engineer is worth it.  Going to school for any degree is a large investment of both time and money.  Take the time to really study your individual pros and cons.  Consider your personality, individual career prospects, and current company or position.  If, after all these discussions you decide an MBA has a return on both monetary and personal investment, then go for it.  You’re an engineer, after all.  Use all that logic and reasoning to tackle this problem the same as you would any other and you can’t go wrong.

Image credit: Eran Kampf
Article Updated from the Original on November 3, 2017

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