Leland Teschler's editorial: What good is an M.S. degree?

Oct. 11, 2007
No question the M.B.A. degree has a reputation for being a worthwhile credential.

Leland Teschler

Despite ridicule for teaching management as something done strictly by-the-numbers, M.B.A. programs still get candidates from all kinds of backgrounds who treat the degree as an entry-level ticket to a big-bucks job.

So here’s a question: Why doesn’t an engineering master’s degree have the same kind of allure? That’s worth pondering in light of recent outsourcing trends. Researchers say the key to keeping technical work in the U.S. is a labor force that includes a large number of dynamic, innovative engineers. One might think there would be a big push for fielding more engineers with master’slevel degrees who, presumably, are most able to work at the cutting edge.

Guess again. Surprisingly, only a little over 8% of those receiving a B.S. in science or engineering go on to get a master’s degree in a technical field and another 1.4% go on for a technical Ph.D., according to the most recent figures from the National Science Foundation.

Why so few? “The master’s degree in engineering is underrated, at least in academic circles,” says Georgia Tech Professor Wayne Book, Husco/Ramirez chair of fluid power and motion control. Book thinks a master’s degree is almost the minimum qualification to do meaningful technical work today. That’s because a bachelor’s level engineering education has become fairly broad. “It is not just training in a narrow discipline. But at the same time, you don’t have the opportunity to get into technical sophistication with a four-year degree. If someone is interested in a technical career, the MS degree is sort of a minimum,” he says.

Not all academicians see a master’s degree quite the same way. “It depends on the company and the field,” says University of Texas at Austin Aerospace Engineering & Engineering Mechanics Chair Robert Bishop. “There are some engineering companies that provide engineering services. All they need is a bunch of engineers who can be directed. You don’t need a master’s degree to work there. But there are smaller, more nimble companies on the cutting edge of providing new technologies. In those companies, a master’s degree is a requirement unless you want to spend your career on the low rung of the ladder.”

All well and good, but does a master’s degree get you a higher paycheck? The National Association of Colleges and Employers says master’s holders make about 20% more than the same engineers with bachelor’s degrees. That sounds promising until it is compared with starting salaries for M.B.A.s. The Graduate Management Admission Council reported that M.B.A.s in manufacturing earned a median annual base salary of $82,000 last year. That’s over 20% more than the average for those with master’s degrees in any engineering discipline.

Of course, GMAC collects no figures on how many M.B.A.s in manufacturing also have M.S. engineering degrees. And that might help explain where M.B.A. degrees really get their value. Says University of Texas’ Bishop, “If you want to move up in management to help direct the company’s technology, or if you want to develop it yourself, it’s critical to have an advanced technical degree.”

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