Should Engineers Get An MBA Degree?

Sep 28, 2010

Editor's note: An updated version of this story which includes testimonials of our graduates who went on to earn master's degrees in business or engineering  appears here.

The answer is a resounding – maybe. Engineers in the field and current MBA-candidates say that it all depends on the individual and their career aspirations. “For me, the decision to pursue an MBA stemmed from a desire to tackle larger and more abstract strategic problems instead of the structured ‘engineering type’ problems I was accustomed to,” says Charlie Briston, a MBA student at Georgia Tech. “The strong analytical capability that engineers possess is highly valued in the business world, but it is imperative that you also understand the other, more qualitative, aspects. These qualitative skills are what engineers stereotypically lack; we like black and white answers, but in the business world, it’s not typically that simple.”

Making the decision to get an advanced engineering degree or an MBA means taking a hard look at personal goals. “In a world without resource constraints, an MBA compliments most any other degree or set of degrees an individual obtains,” says Sean McClenaghan of CHB Capital and a GT alumnus. “However, the reality is most individuals feel like they are time or resource constrained and can only afford one advanced degree. In that situation, the answer to the question regarding whether engineers should obtain an MBA versus an advanced engineering degree is – it depends.”

Randy Steele, an engineer working on his MBA degree, knew that his career path at Siemens needed more business-based knowledge. “My rationale for going back to get my MBA was based on several factors at Siemens. I've stepped farther from the technical fields and more into the business side of things,” says Steele. “My new role has developed to incorporate things like project management, forecasting, cost estimation, and proposal development and taken a step away from the nuts and bolts. While not every company discusses blade design, flowrates, or bearing clearances, nearly everyone sets and meets budgets, has profit and sales goals and manages projects. In that sense, business is a lot like math, it's a language that is common across all industries.”

Deb Kilpatrick, Vice President of Market Development at CardioDXHowever, not everyone agrees that an MBA is a necessity for engineers to succeed in business. "Here in Silicon Valley, MS/PhD-level engineers, with and without MBA degrees, are very common on the management teams of new technology companies. Graduate degree choices are driven, in part, by what you want your core skill set to be and how you will use it to distinguish yourself in the business world early on in your career,” says Deb Kilpatrick, GT alumnus and Vice President of Market Development at CardioDX, Inc. "In my own experience, a PhD program provided me with a strong technical foundation for solving complex problems across multiple domains. This, along with a lot of "on the job" learning, has enabled me to migrate from the R&D side into commercial management roles without an MBA. However, the reverse migration is not so prevalent.”

Across the board, MBA students and practicing engineers seem to agree that each person should work in the field before making the decision. “My advice would be to first go out and work for a couple of years and decide then what you want or need to do,” suggests Larry Jacobs, associate dean in the College of Engineering at Georgia Tech  That is the same advice that the Career Services office at Georgia Tech gives. “Unless they have a strong desire for an advanced degree or know that they need it to get the type of job they want upon graduation, I recommend that our students get several years of work experience beyond graduation prior to pursuing an advanced degree. This helps them to make an informed decision regarding graduate school and, if desirable, the type of graduate program they wish to pursue,” advises Marge Dussich, associate director of Tech’s Career Services.

Taking time to work is seen as a necessity for many hiring managers. “Whether it’s an MBA or engineering specialty, an engineering graduate should not hurry to jump into a career. Use this time to learn as much as you can,” says Mike Polak, GT alumnus, of Memorial University Medical Center in Savannah.

Is the role of an engineer changing with industrial companies who have to implelement new practices and new technology so that in the future the MBA will be a necessity? “Engineers often become the primary manager of change with an organization,” adds Ron Nash of InterWest Partners and a GT alumnus. “What is changing today is the fact that technology is a pervasive component in most industries. The business leader now has the additional challenge of getting the most leverage out of their proprietary technology as well using technology adroitly to support most all of their business processes. The best way to develop an understanding of broad classes of technology is to obtain an undergraduate degree in engineering.”

Larry Jacobs, Associate Dean, Georgia Tech College of EngineeringA study of CEOs today will reveal many more of them with engineering degrees than was the case only a couple of decades ago. “It is an oddity, but practically a fact, that you can get this technology and business education in only one way - an undergraduate degree in engineering followed by a masters degree in business. The reverse order does not work,” says Nash. “An engineering degree opens up possibilities for advanced degrees in many disciplines, business being only one of them. I have heard an engineering degree described as "the liberal arts degree for a technological age. There is a lot of truth to that.”While some believe that the MBA gives engineers a broad grounding that is missing from their technical degrees, Jacobs disagrees. “Engineering does give you a broad education; gives you great exposure to underpinnings or framework of how things are done. Getting an MBA depends on what you want to do. I am a big proponent of a BS/MS five year program to give someone a more technical ability. “

“For those that ended up in the perfect area of focus as a result of their undergraduate degree choice, they should consider themselves lucky,” says McClenaghan. “They should seriously consider an advanced degree in their technical field.  Again, at this point, do what will differentiate you the most in an ever increasingly competitive job market in a way that aligns you with your goals and desires.”

Editor's note: An updated version of this story which includes testimonials of our graduates who went on to earn master's degrees in business or engineering  appears here.

For those still torn between an MS or an MBA there's some good news. Thanks to a new dual-degree program launched at Georgia Tech in early 2016 students have the option to pursue both simultaneously. This option is available for master's and doctoral students pursuing an advanced degree in industrial engineering, electrical or computer engineering, industrial and systems engineering, and mechanical engineering. To find out more about the newly launched program visit the Scheller College of Business dual degree program website.