Why Do Engineers Want MBAs?
Now that results are out for the April Professional Engineer (PE) exams, many newly minted PEs are asking themselves “what’s next?” With some extra free time on their hands and a successful study routine established, many desire to keep improving themselves. Some do this out of love of learning whereas others think this will make them more attractive to employers. If you’re asking “Should I Get an MBA” so that you can get ahead in industry, then this is for you.
I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering in 2007 and joined industry in 2008, working on marine steam surface condensers.
Within a couple of years, I had received a job-family promotion and began asking myself how I would continue to obtain increasing levels of responsibility. How was I going to stand out among other employees?
At this point, I didn’t have enough experience to pursue my PE license. Additionally, my employer did not require the use of PEs and there weren’t many around the office. I considered furthering my education through additional schooling. Popular options included: Master of Business Administration, Master of Engineering Management, and Master of Engineering.
A masters in Engineering Management sounded like a fictional compromise between the other two options so I didn’t consider it. I considered how difficult my undergraduate degree was and also how studying business would diversify myself.
I understood the role of the engineering supervisor at work. It seemed as though engineering studies were the most applicable discipline they should have. However, the role of the engineering manager seemed a bit more ambiguous. Aren’t the supervisors ensuring all the work is getting done properly? Then there were higher titles and higher levels of ambiguity: Director, Vice President. Who knows what they did, I thought. They get paid the most and probably have business degrees, right? While it seemed overly ambitious to consider these titles, I didn’t want to waste 3 years of time pursuing a degree that would get me nowhere.
I had not the slightest idea of what a company vice president did or how someone with a business degree would eventually qualify for such a position. I thought “that’s what school is for! That is where I will learn!” I enrolled, expecting an epiphany.
The MBA Experience
We studied organizational theory, accounting, economics, finance, marketing and our choice of electives. I found each class to be interesting, but too easy. The work was time consuming and I didn’t have a perfect GPA, but most of the material wasn’t difficult to understand. Was this because business studies are easier than engineering? Is it easier because I’m in a graduate vs. undergraduate program? Has this to do with it being night school and part time? Maybe it was easier because my undergraduate degree was at a military college (VMI). I don’t know which explanation was most responsible, but the whole time I felt like full time undergraduate students of accounting or finance were learning things. Meanwhile, I had the pamphlet version of their studies.
A Capstone to Remember
My last semester included a capstone course. This class was all case studies and discussions. The professor of this course, I disliked the most because of his purposeful inflammatory remarks that he used to instigate heated discussion. Perhaps his methods worked and we all benefited because of it. One of the more interesting discussions started with him asking each of us to say why we all wanted to get an MBA.
Unfortunately, I felt like I had the absolute worst answer. I had the time and my company was paying my tuition. The conventional wisdom around the office seemed to indicate that I should get this degree while I can, without a family, because it will help me in the long run. However, amongst all my classmates, that wisdom seemed to fade as it came out of my own mouth. The professor essentially said that I should drop out and find a better use of my time. I would have liked to heard this advice three years prior, but since I had not, I finished my degree. The epiphany I waited for never materialized.
A Better Question
So I learned more helpful advice than “quit now.” The advice is something that I offer to all my coworkers who go through the same line of thinking that I did prior to school.
Instead of asking “Should I get an MBA?” we should ask “What is required to get the job that I want?”
Don’t rely on school to give you ideas for jobs to pursue. It’s possible that you will make a discovery in class or network with the right person. However, such a strategy is an expensive gamble. Even if someone else is paying your tuition, you’re still paying in time. There is always an opportunity cost in everything that you do. The time spent in class could be used pursuing other pursuits of life. Furthermore, you must consider the return on investment of your time and energy. Will the marginal gains be enough to offset the things that you will have to sacrifice?
Getting back to the point: you must ask yourself what job you want and then find out if an MBA is actually required. Does the job description list this degree as a requirement? Do you know people with this job already? What are their qualifications? Some of them may have MBAs, but do they all? What other common factors do they possess?
This article isn’t intended to discourage anyone from pursuing an MBA education. Instead, it is my intent to provide you some questions and options to consider. I don’t regret getting my degree, but I do wish that someone had been there to provide this advice to me prior to starting.
There are many alternative means to obtain education besides a formal process.
The Alternatives to Getting an MBA
One method is to move laterally through your organization, gaining broader knowledge that you could later integrate with a role in management.
A second method is to put your own time, money, and reputation on the line by starting your own business pursuits. With everything on the line, you will learn so much more. It will be painful and you will have losses, but you will have the best education and experience there is to offer. You might be tempted with a lot of research, but getting started is the best way to accomplish your goals faster.
A third thing to consider is finding a volunteer position. If you already work for a company with a position you desire, then start reaching out to contacts and see how you can help. There may be corporate organizations that you can join to get leadership experience and networking benefits out of as well.
Your Thoughts on Getting an MBA?
Are you asking yourself “Should I get an MBA?” How has this exercise affected your thoughts? What are your plans? Leave a comment to let me know!