Why get a Masters Degree in Engineering?I have talked with a lot of undergraduate students about career ideas and decisions, and the topic of graduate school and MS degrees often comes up. Depending upon your expectations and experience as an undergrad, it may sound like something to consider, or on the other hand it might sound like more years of horror. After all, as an engineering student, you may be just finishing up an undergraduate degree in one of the hardest majors anyone could have chosen, and a lot of it was probably advanced math and theory that you are wondering if you will ever find a use for. On top of that, maybe jobs are going begging this year, the pay looks good, and all your friends are heading for the ranks of the gainfully employed and getting on with their lives. Given all that, why go to grad school?
There are a lot of ways to answer this because it depends on what you are looking for in your career. So, here are my top 10 reasons itemized below. These are all directed towards going the extra two years, depending on the program, and getting a MS degree. If you want to go for a Ph.D. degree, I'll cover that in another list. But this one is about getting a Masters.
1. Breadth and broad application of skills is becoming more and more important in engineering.
What are the hottest engineering companies you can name? You are probably thinking of the same names I am. Now, think about the kinds of products they produce. If you are thinking about many leading technology companies, or consulting companies, one thing you have probably noticed is that the products they produce are best described as being relatively complex systems. They use devices, communication, and services to produce very complex applications where customers use a variety of different devices to interact with data, media, and each other. What this means is that more and more advanced engineering requires a much broader command of skills than it did before. Don't forget about global competition either. Engineering skills should be mobile enough to be applicable anywhere. Getting a MS degree means that you can add to what you already know and get more breadth into the skills you have. This can include communications, Systems-on-Chip, advanced software techniques and business skills. All of these are going to be necessary to some degree in most engineering positions in the future, especially if that engineering position is in your own company.
2. You can acquire applied skills in areas you already are familiar with.
You took all the theory, but now what? One nice thing about going on for a MS degree is that you can have the opportunity to apply a lot of the theory and science you learned in your undergraduate classes. At the master's level, it is common to find courses where you can really build stuff. Students routinely do this in my courses, and it gives a whole new view into engineering skills. One counter to this is that if you took a real job, you would probably be building stuff. True, but by going for a MS degree, you get to choose a lot of the courses you take, and you can focus on the skills you want.
3. You can go into a lot more depth in the areas you really like.
In addition to getting more breadth, you also can go for more depth in areas you want more skills in. If you really like an area, now is your chance to get more into it. In some cases, advanced classes in a particular area are often only available at the graduate level. Cutting edge stuff that is coming right out of the research labs and into the class room is often only available to graduate students. When you do your MS thesis work, you will definitely go into depth in one more more areas.
4. Compared to an undergraduate degree, you can get an instant advantage when you do go to look for a job.
Depending upon the job, employers may favor applicants with MS degrees over ones with only an undergraduate degree. Based on US government survey data, the ratio of Bachelor's degrees to MS degrees awarded in 2004 is almost 4 to 1. That suggests if an employer is preferentially looking for MS degrees, you may have almost a 4 to 1 advantage right there.
5. Starting salaries are often higher for people with MS degrees.
Assuming the average MS degree takes 2 years to complete, one argument I've heard for not going on to get a MS degree is that you lose the equivalent of two years of pay, while you are racking up two more years of school and paying tuition. That's certainly true, but what might also be true is that you may end up earning it back over time. One way that you can earn some of it back right away is that many employers consider graduate school not only as a place that produces more highly educated employees, but also as a form of employment experience. The result is that starting salaries for people with MS degrees are often higher than starting salaries for Bachelor's degrees.
6. It could help you get promoted, especially early on.
Another way you can earn back some of the money spent to get the MS degree is if it results in your being promoted faster. In fact, with a MS degree you might get hired into a more advanced or interesting position right from the start. If one has a broader background, then one can have more choices. When considering promotion, employers take into account everything concerning an employees performance and background. Having the higher degree can be an advantage in situations where several individuals are being considered for a limited number of higher level positions. A MS degree is more education, and it counts. Also, it doesn't lose its value over time.
7. You get to interact with very interesting people who know a lot.
People going to graduate school are often very smart, interesting individuals, and you can learn a lot from them. Also, depending on the school you go to, in graduate school you interact more with a broader range of professors, and they can be great sources of ideas, technologies and techniques. It can be a very rich, diverse environment that is hard to find anywhere else.
8. It doesn't take all that long.
Two years can seem like a lot of time, but I have rarely talked to anyone who has gone to a good MS program and regretted it. Remember that 4 to 1 advantage over people with Bachelor's degrees I mentioned earlier? Two years seems like a really good bargain to get that!
9. You are never too old.
I've never heard of a graduate school with an age limit. If you have gone on to get a job after finishing your undergraduate degree, but now you are thinking of going back for a MS degree, then do it! It's harder, and it takes moxie and planning to go back to school after one has been away for a while, but sometimes it is easier than one thinks. For example, sometimes an employer will allow you to keep working while you get your MS degree. Makes good sense, as such an employer knows that you will be worth more. Another way of looking at it is, in engineering if you don't develop some way to continually update your skills, then you are doomed to career obsolescence. Technology has a way of progressing even if people and companies often don't like to think so. At the end of the day you are responsible for your own career, and age has nothing to do with it.
10. It can be a lot of fun.
Depends on where you go to school, and everyone's experience is different. But, it can be a lot of fun. I remember my own experience as an undergrad. A professor in biology who I was working for suggested that I look at bioengineering graduate programs. Up to that point, I don't think the idea of graduate school had ever crossed my mind. Not surprising, as I think I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. As it was, graduate school allowed me to study areas that I couldn't as an undergrad, and I had a blast. I was surrounded by people who knew enormous amounts, and every day was spent discovering something. It still seems amazing that I should have had so much fun, and get a degree for it as well. But, I've talked to others who had similar experiences, so I know it can be good.
So, those are some of the reasons why you should consider applying to a Masters Degree program. For breadth and depth of skills, technical ability, career opportunity, the experience and diversity of it, and fun.