Will an MBA Benefit You?

September 19, 2011

The Masters of Business Administration (MBA) degree, long a staple for engineers preparing for leadership, is looking pretty enticing lately.

A few days ago, Forbes Magazine, exploring the MBA's healthy returns, declared that students are "often able to get their hefty upfront investment back in less than three years." At the same time, the Graduate Management Admissions Council announced that applications are down this year at 63 percent of full-time MBA programs and 46 percent of part-time programs.

And while that's been going on, thousands of engineers, hustling for jobs, have been eyeballing universities and wondering whether an MBA will give them a competitive edge. So with applications down and with the economy struggling, does it benefit engineers to take the plunge now?

Engineering school administrators who we talked to said that MBAs still have great value, but added that engineers should never view them as a necessity for success. "As a general rule, every graduate who leaves an engineering school shouldn't have a to-do list with a little box on it that says 'MBA,'" noted Richard Miller, president of Olin College of Engineering, a selective engineering school in the Boston area.

"Those who are headed for corporate leadership will probably be tapped on the shoulder by a supervisor at work. And they'll probably be advised that their career would be advanced if they make that commitment," he said.

Those employees can receive great educational benefits from an MBA, Miller said. Engineers, typically schooled in technical feasibility, need to understand the viability and desirability of their technologies, he said. Comprehension of those two qualities enables them to know if a technology fits in a given market, and whether it motivates people. Miller said that many traditionally-trained engineers are weak in those areas. But MBA programs -- which typically offer classes in finance, marketing, and management -- can help.

"We believe the great innovators are people who combine insights from all three independent ways of looking at the world," Miller told us.

Still, the appeal of science and technology is greater for some than the draw of leadership. And those engineers should think twice about obtaining a business degree. "Some engineers really want to focus on technical design, get immersed in narrow area, and develop a depth of expertise in that area," said Richard Stamper, head of the Department of Engineering Management at Rose-Hulman Institute, a highly-regarded Indiana school with a heavy focus on engineering. "In that case, an MBA is not going to help."

At the same time, advanced degrees in engineering don't necessarily aid the journey down the technical track, the experts said. Doctorate degrees, in particular, won't make it easier to find jobs, since many companies don't have the inclination or money to pay PhDs.

"PhDs don't make you a better engineer," Miller said. "It's a license to do research."

While all that may seem obvious, one aspect of the MBA equation isn't self-evident: entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs are a different breed who may not have a personal need to be leaders or engineers. "They're driven by passion," Miller said. "They see what other people don't see. And their passion drives them to levels of expertise and knowledge that are often extraordinary. They become world-class experts in their fields, and they often do it without any formal education at all." Miller cited Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg as examples of entrepreneurs who found their way, not only without MBAs, but without bachelor's degrees.

The bottom line is that MBA degrees provide their greatest benefits for engineers who want to lead. "The thing they do best is enable engineers to work in teams, to develop independent insights, and to be persuasive in their communications," Miller said. "There's a need for education beyond what's available in the basic sciences. The MBA is one way to get there."

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