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Graduate Degrees Can Boost Your Career

Graduate Degrees Can Boost Your Career

Does an engineer need a graduate degree to have a successful career?

The answer is yes and no. It depends on your career goals.

"I don't have a graduate degree," says Brian Ruffert. He's platform director for Sportsters Motorcyles at Harley-Davidson Motor Company (Milwaukee, WI), and his team won the 2004 Design News Quality Award.

"Neither do I," says Bret Blaisdell, a plastics engineer at Eastman Kodak Company (Rochester, NY) and winner of Design News' Global Innovation Award for 2004. "At the end of four years, my parents said 'if you want any more education, you figure out how to pay for it.'"

But a lot of Blaisdell's bosses have MBAs. "There is a definite financial incentive to get a graduate degree," he says, adding that a master's diploma was worth an extra $2k to start when he was beginning his career. Nowadays, according to one recruiter, a master's is worth an additional $5k to $10k, depending on the company, and equates to an extra two years of experience. A doctorate may bring an additional $2k to $3k on top of that and credit for another year of experience.

And as for a graduate degree in engineering, Dr. Ward Winer, Chair of the Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering at Georgia Tech University, says a master's degree in mechanical, and other areas of engineering, is becoming an entry level degree. "Big companies that do little recruiting of undergraduates are hiring people with master's degrees for entry level positions," he says. Winer says that the undergraduate program is a broad one that serves as a stepping stone into a lot of other areas, such as medicine, law, business, or the ministry. "It's the liberal arts degree for today's technological world," he asserts.

Getting a graduate degree sends a signal to the job market. "An MBA tells us that someone is leaning more toward the management side versus maintaining hands-on engineering. A technical degree tells us they like to maintain a hands-on engineering style, and that's also positive. We look for both," says Jeff Petersen, a recruiter with Madison Shea (Dana Point, CA).

"A doctorate, for the right person, is fantastic," Petersen adds. "It sometimes sends up a red flag, since we're typically looking for engineers for industry and a doctorate suggests that the person might be more structured for academia, but that isn't necessarily true. It's just something we know we have to screen for, to make sure that (industry) is what they really want to do, but the most outstanding engineers in industry have been Ph.Ds."

Both Brian Ruffert (above), platform director for Sportsters Motorcyles at Harley-Davidson Motor Company, and Brett Blaisdell, a plastics engineer at Eastman Kodak Company, do not have graduate degrees; but the two engineers were chosen as Design News Engineering Award winners this year (Ruffert for the Quality Award, Blaisdell for the Global Innovation Award).

Whether an engineer should pursue an MS or an MBA depends on his or her ultimate career goals and personality. "We have two or three executive MBA candidates each year at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University," says Ruffert of Harley-Davidson. "People speak very highly of the value of interaction with peer-level people in other organizations. That's really where they say the greatest learning is."

"Some people have gotten MBAs and forgotten about their technical background while others have added an MBA to their technical background and assimilated both," adds Kodak's Blaisdell. "I've often seen folks with MBAs ending up being 'bean counters.'"

Of course, there is a middle ground. In-depth business education may give an engineer a better understanding of broader issues, such as cost or schedule constraints, according to Gregg Taylor, an associate project manager at Stryker Corporation (Kalamazoo, MI). He suggests a graduate degree in engineering management as potentially the best of both worlds.

What's most important, Kodak's Blaisdell observes, is "a desire for continual learning, whether in a formal setting or not." People who don't have a graduate degree, he says, "can get ahead through the school of hard knocks and experience. That can add more value than a straight academic degree."

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