01 January 2003
How important is an MBA to an engineer?
By Ellen Fussell
While more than 80% of graduate students in an August gradschools.com survey said M.B.A. programs need ethics courses, how much are M.B.A. programs really helping engineers?
Paul Schmeling said it was a big help to his career at Emerson Process Management's Rosemount Measurement division in Chanhassen, Minn. As global product marketing manager, Schmeling had been working in an engineering position in which he felt he was becoming a specialist. "I knew I didn't want that, and I also wanted to move into management," he said.
While being a specialist is certainly a fine career choice for some, Schmeling said, "you can get confined, and I didn't think being a specialist would help me move into management." If you have an engineering degree, "the M.B.A. gives you more exposure to business-related topics you didn't get in engineering school."
Kim Corfman, associate dean and academic director, NYU Stern School of Business in New York City, said the decision to go for an M.B.A. depends on engineers' goals. "If you want to make your company competitive in the marketplace, then that's exactly what an M.B.A.'s good for," she said.
The opportunity for advancement is the same as with any other career choice. "The most talented employees usually rise in organizations," Corfman said. "The same thing happens to salespeople. Suddenly, you're a manager, making decisions for products to invest in and directions in which R&D should go."
Schmeling said all his courses were at night and on the weekends, and it took four years. Going to school full time could get you out in two years, "but doing it at night gives you more flexibility," he said.
The Langone program at NYU Stern, designed for working professionals, allows students to keep on working while also getting their degree. "They can do it in as few as two years, but they have as long as six years to finish," Corfman said.
Learning how to solve different business problems and understanding marketing issues and management relational issues are some key skills an M.B.A. degree can teach you, Schmeling said. "When you're trying to read financial reports or dealing with employee relation issues," those skills come in handy.
But what about engineers who don't necessarily want to manage? "I think it would round out your skills better and make you more savvy in how to deal with business-related issues, anyway, and open your eyes to the way the rest of the business is run," Schmeling said. "If you don't have those skills, you could be myopic in the way you go about your day-to-day work," he said.
Having an M.B.A.-or at least the skills such a degree offers-just might work better for you in today's economy, especially because companies are looking for employees with more well-rounded skills than just narrowly focused engineering skills, Schmeling said. "It may make that person more flexible in down times, where employers might rely on that person to take on more responsibility," he said.
If an engineer wants to stay strictly with engineering, it might not be as important to get an M.B.A., Corfman said. "But for someone who wants to advance, it's critically important," she said. Yet it is a huge commitment.
While most people could benefit from the pieces that go into an M.B.A., they don't necessarily have to go through the whole program to benefit from what the skills offer. Communication, for example, is one skill students learn.
"Certainly since engineers should be interacting with marketing, finance, and accounting, those skills an M.B.A. offers can help engineers understand where they're coming from," Corfman said. "It's crucial, though, for anyone who wants managerial responsibility." IT
UNLEVEL PLAYING FIELD
In this 2002 National Society of Professional Engineers salary survey, respondents holding an M.B.A. or an M.B.A. and an M.A. or M.S. have higher median incomes than those holding an M.S. in engineering. Having a B.S. outside of the engineering field results in higher earnings than does a B.S. in engineering. However, a higher percentage of these respondents are in executive/administrative jobs-an area that pays better than straight engineering.