Higher Education > Advanced Advice

The Business of Technology

MBAs vs. advanced technical degrees

By Jennifer Bobrow Burns

As an engineer, you've undoubtedly experienced a highly theoretical and analytical course of study. And after all those late nights of problem sets and quizzes, you're ready to take what you've learned and apply the concepts to the real world.

But how will the workplace compare with what you've studied in the classroom? Employers may have expectations that exceed the skills your undergraduate degree has provided. If you feel your bachelor's degree isn't enough to propel you to the top of your career, what's your next step?

Choosing a Path

Many engineers and technical students face this dilemma: what graduate degree is the right one? When Tom Benson was an undergraduate mechanical engineering student at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., he wasn't ready to enter the job market after his graduation in 1993. "I was excited about continuing my studies," Benson says. Because of this enthusiasm, he didn't really think about how this decision would impact his future earnings and career path. Benson went on to receive a master's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, immediately after graduating from Cornell. He enjoyed this advanced learning, and after completing his master's degree, he went on to work for Boeing in Seattle.

However, after three years at Boeing, Benson decided he was ready for something new. "As I got older, my priorities changed and I began to see my career differently," he states. As Benson began thinking about more entrepreneurial options and the opportunity to earning more money, he decided to apply to business school.

Benson spent two years at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and graduated in May of 2002. He now works as a senior product line manager for Opnext in Eatontown, N.J. "Knowing what you want comes from having real-world perspective," Benson advises. "If you are on the fence about what type of graduate program is best for you, wait and gain some experience."

As you can see from Benson's story, the choice to go engineering versus business graduate school is often not clear-cut. For some, it makes sense to continue on with their engineering curriculum and go for a master's degree in their engineering or technical discipline in order to be better prepared for the job market. Yet, for others, the lure of business school and the practical focus it brings is more appealing. As you explore your options, there are a number of factors to consider that will help you weigh your choices and make an informed decision.

Self Assessment

When making a difficult decision, it's always a good idea to spend some time getting to know yourself better. The first step in the career development process is analyzing your skills, interests and values. Think about what is most important to you, where you've been, and where you're going. Ask yourself several questions: What am I good at? How do I like to spend my time? What really matters to me in terms of career, work environment and lifestyle? Put the answers down on paper so you will have concrete information to use as a reference.

Throughout your college career, you've had many academic and extra-curricular experiences.
Think about what experiences have meant the most to you and why. Recall your courses, as well as any internships, part-time jobs, clubs, activities, and volunteer work in which you were involved. Consider both your likes and dislikes.

Exploration

How much do you really know about careers in engineering beyond what you've learned in the classroom? To find out what civil engineers actually do, or what fields are open to techhies with MBAs, let your fingers do the walking. There are numerous books and Web sites out there with detailed career information. Take a look at www.bls.gov/oco/ocos027.htm, www.nspe.org and www.mba.com to get started.

Don't be afraid to delve into any and all fields that catch your attention. Read about typical "days in the life," of people in particular jobs, as well as career paths and educational requirements. Investigate graduate programs as well; learn more about the GRE exam (www.gre.org) versus the GMAT (www.gmat.org), and how, when, and where you would need to take the tests.

Informational Interviews and Networking

After you hit the books, start speaking to people. Informational interviews are meetings where you set the agenda-from arranging the appointment to asking the questions. Talking to professionals about their work will provide you with insights you would not be privy otherwise. Informational interviews can also help you get to the bottom of any concerns you may have about possible future careers.

Where do you find people to interview? Begin with people you know, including professors, friends, family, neighbors and colleagues. Professional associations such as the American Society for Civil Engineers or the Society of Women Engineers, and alumni networks through your university are other helpful resources.

Introduce yourself to contacts through an introductory letter, telephone call, or email. Explain that you are exploring careers and would appreciate a small amount of time (even fifteen minutes, if that's all they can spare) to discuss their current job and career path.

Be clear that you are not asking for a job, but merely for looking for further information about the career. If you find contacts that genuinely enjoy what they do for a living, they will usually enjoy talking to you about their careers and will be happy to impart their wisdom upon a representative of the future of the industry.

Through these meetings and follow-up conversations, you will begin to develop a network of contacts that will be useful in many ways. Not only will it provide you with people to talk to as you grapple with your decision-making process, but it will also offer you leads for jobs and graduate school programs.

Internships

The power of research can't be underestimated, but even at its best it can only provide part of the picture. Trying out a job in an internship setting, however, is invaluable. "My engineering education was highly theoretical," says Benson. "Practicing it [as opposed to studying it,] was really eye-opening."

A little hands-on experience certainly goes a long way, especially if you use time to your advantage during your internship. You can make the most of your time by talking to your supervisors and co-workers during lunch or any down time, or by offering to buy them coffee after the workday in exchange for some conversation. This is a great way to discover what types of graduate degrees, if any, they hold and what their take is on the value of different educational backgrounds.

Take Some Time Off

Career counselors and working professionals agree: Before you take out astronomical student loans and plunge headfirst into grad school when you're not 100% sure it's what you really want to do, it's probably a better idea to take some time away from academia and acquire some real-world career experience.

As you work, you will learn more about yourself and how you imagine your ideal career path in the future. While internships are great, they often highlight the best parts of the job and gloss over some of the not-so-glamorous realities. Once you are a full-time employee, however, the honeymoon is over, and you will be able to see the field for what it is-both good and bad. Once you have accumulated this experience, you can plan your next move accordingly.

Benson recommends working for at least three years before entering business school. "You won't understand [how to] apply the concepts to real world experience if you haven't had enough work under your belt," he notes. In fact, Benson believes that his business school classmates with six or more years of work-world experience were well ahead of the game compared to students who were back at school after just a couple of years.

In terms of engineering graduate programs, however, Benson's advice is slightly different. He still advocates taking some time off after college and working in the real world, but he doesn't think there needs to be as long of a break. "Time off gives you perspective," he comments, "but don't wait too long since engineering graduate school can be hard." He found that his graduate program in engineering was more academically difficult than his program in business, and that engineers who are "out of the school mode" for too long may find it challenging to jump back in.

Engineering vs. Business School

Going to graduate school for engineering versus going to graduate school for business clearly provides vastly different types of curricula, training and career paths. Before you decide which road is right for you, find out exactly what your goals are and weigh the pros and cons of each option.

If you decide to further your education with an MBA, you'll win up with a strong analytical framework, which will be an asset no matter where your career takes you. But maybe after your do some research into what you really want, you'll realize that you thrive in engineering and want to continue your education in that field.

No matter what the outcome, just remember to do your homework before you invest your time and money into a graduate degree. Whether you decide to continue your studies in investments, land mines or something in between-just be sure to take plenty of time to make the right choice. You'll be glad you did!

Jennifer Bobrow Burns is the former associate director of career development at Columbia University. Currently, she is a free-lance career consultant and writer living in Connecticut.

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