Never Get an Master’s Degree in Engineering Unless…

One of the questions I get often from interns or young engineers is, should I get a Master’s in Engineering? Society puts a lot of emphasis on higher education and generally speaking, it is worth it.  But in my experience, I have learned that for many engineers it is just not needed.

You should not consider getting a Masters Degree in Mechanical Engineering unless you desire to do specialized technical work or research. Instead, you will benefit more by working and acquiring your Professional Engineer License or other certification.

My advice is based on twenty years of experience in engineering and design. I have seen many engineers doing the same job; one with a master’s degree and the other with a bachelor’s degree, earning the same wage.  This surprised me, but some engineering jobs just don’t require the extra education, nor is it rewarded. 

Don’t get the wrong impression, it is essential to keep growing in your field of study throughout your career. Learning is what keeps your young. However, taking on lots of debt and spending years to get a degree may not be the best career path for you.

But some engineering jobs just don’t require the extra education, nor is it rewarded.

I intend to reveal several alternatives that cost a fraction of an advanced degree and are just as good if not better for your career path. We will explore several key factors that you should consider in the decision-making process as to whether the pursuit of a master’s degree is the best move for your future in engineering.

Why You Should Get a Masters Degree

The first consideration in whether to pursue an advanced degree depends on what you want to do with your career. If you want to work for NASA, in a nuclear facility, do highly technical work or conduct advanced research, it is more likely you will need at least a master’s degree (if not a doctorate)! 

These careers should be obvious to you because they are rare and prestigious. In these careers, qualified applicants are a dime a dozen and having a MS would be something that sets you apart from the pack.

If this is what you are driven to do, do it! However, be smart about it.

Graduate degrees are expensive and I don’t like debt. One of my college professors told me that the goal of graduate school is to make someone else pay for it. While it seems odd, there are many ways to have some one else pay for your education.

Colleges are all about prestige and want to show off the best and brightest students to the world. That could be you! If they want this opportunity, make them pay for it.

Likewise, the company you work for wants to be successful and if they see promise in your abilities they may foot the bill for a graduate degree.

Just make sure that your college, employer, or someone else shoulders the cost of the degree. The last thing that you want hanging over your head is a large amount of debt at the start of your career.  It will limit you options as you progress through your career.

On average it can cost around $60K to get your master’s and an additional $100K+ to obtain a PhD in Engineering. Most of the time if you are qualified enough to do higher end jobs then someone will support you financially in getting your master’s.

If you can’t get someone to help out financially with a graduate degree, consider it a sign. Maybe you should reconsider.

Why You Shouldn’t Get a Masters Degree

Potential Earnings

You probably noticed, that in the pros category additional salary was missing. Its because it is not a pro. In fact it is a con. Let me explain.

Getting paid more is usually a good thing, right? Yes and no. In this case, you are getting an increase in salary (on average) with a Masters degree than with a BS. The same follows with a doctorate.

The next important consideration would be to look at the data for career earnings by education level (or degree earned) for engineers. To get the full picture, we need to look at how salaries change over time. The information in the chart below is from the American Association of Engineering Societies (AAES) 2015 Salary Survey. The data sampled engineers of all disciplines and degree levels.

At first glance, getting an advanced degree makes sense. More money. Wrong!

We would want to give this data due consideration because of the effects it has on your total career earnings, investments, and retirement funds over time.  Figure 1 breaks down average earnings vs degree earned.  The timeline starts when you receive your bachelor’s degree.

According to current data spanning all engineer types, the base salary with a bachelor’s degree starts around 58K a year. On average the salary will rise and eventually level off after 20 years into a career. Remember with a bachelor’s degree there is no loss of earnings due to extended education time as there is with an advanced degree, so the money starts coming in with your first job.

With a master’s degree, the starting salary will bump up to around 60K, but two years of salary would have been lost from our total career earnings. In addition, the potential debt of student loans can compound the loss of income as well. The same occurs at the doctorate level, with annual salaries starting around 70K, but can cost up to seven years of a shortened career if you are a full time student.

When we chart how these earnings play out over a career, a much different picture is painted.  This may not be desirable to many.  Figure 2 shows lifetime earnings. (Note that these engineers will make over 3 million over their careers.)

The interesting factor in all of this is that given these figures, we find that at the end of the average career (about 40 years) the average income level for each degree intersects. For example, considering the PhD level, it would take 32 years’ worth of work to compensate the amount of career earnings as someone with a bachelor’s degree.

At this point, it is important to ask whether or not the additional seven years of study and hard work would be the better option for your career path? Is the time not making salary, potentially taking on debt, and losing retirement funds worth it?

Inflation

Though it is not factored into data, inflation plays a role here too. The data was all taken in 2015 and did not follow individuals throughout their career. The engineer that is about to retire making $90k a year would have been head over heals to make $58/k starting out. My first engineering job was $32k and that was twenty years ago.

Those early years of earnings will buy you more than the high salaries in later years due to inflation. This is also why you should start saving early for retirement.

Putting Aside for Retirement

While we are on the subject of retirement, I would briefly mention saving for retirement and the future value of money.  The “rule of 72”, generally speaking is a tool to estimate how long an amount will take to double.  For example, the market over the last 100 years has grown, on average, 12% a year.  Using the rule of 72, we find that our money will double in 6 years (72/12=6). 

If we put $100 into a retirement account in year 1, we should have doubled it roughly seven times for a total of $12,800!  While not exact (and you should consult your financial advisor), investing early definitely has it’s perks.  Right now, you can invest $6000 a year into an IRA (choose Roth at a young age). At the end of your career, that one time yearly investment could become $712,000. 

If you were to get a doctorate 7 years later and then invest the $6000, it would only be $308,000 at retirement. That’s less then half! The point of the story is this: Invest Young and Start Early.  Especially if your employer matches. 

Personally, I have not pursued a master’s degree because I do not see much value in it to advance my career or generate more revenue. I believe these figures justify my decision.

I am not saying there are no circumstances where a person might benefit from an advanced degree. I only caution the pursuit of it unless you are choosing a career path in engineering that requires it.

Alternatives to Advanced Engineering Degrees

There are several alternative options available to those serious about growing in their career field and succeeding as engineers long term without a Master’s in Engineering. Most of these are well recognized in the industry and many engineers have overlapping licenses and certifications from each of these options:

These alternatives can be:

  • Fundamentals of Engineering Exam (FE Exam)
  • Professional Engineering License (PE License)
  • SAE Certifications
  • International Fluid Power Society (IFPS) Certifications
  • Six Sigma Certification Programs
  • Do your own research and publish it
  • Masters in Business Administration (MBA) Programs

Professional Engineer or FE Certifications

As a starting point, I recommend looking into the Fundamentals of Engineering Exam (FE Exam) as it provides a solid foundation for further education. Next, I recommend getting your Professional Engineering License (PE License).

Getting your PE show employers that you are very serious about engineering and are committed to your own long-term growth

The cost for obtaining this license is usually less than a $1K investment, which when compared to higher education is much more affordable. Keep in mind it will take time to study and learn the material to obtain the certification. A masters degree would too.

While pursuing these options you will need to get several other professional engineers to sign off on your work. Make it a habit of logging your work. The log should include the project goals, how they were accomplished and what obstacles you had to overcome. Its hard to believe, but only a few months after a project is complete, the hardest parts about can already be forgotten.

If one of the Professional Engineers writing you a recommendation isn’t directly familiar with your work, this log becomes useful to demonstrate competency and experience.

Most importantly, getting your PE and/or FE show employers that you are very serious about engineering and are committed to your own long-term growth.

SAE Training / Certifications

Next, I would recommend SAE certifications for career advancement.  Even though they are geared for the automotive environment, they touch on so many disciplines of engineering.  Not only will you find help on the design side for mechanics, controls, and communications, but also, training on project management, industrial design, and quality control.  There is definitely something for everyone.  I have taken several classes from SAE on fatigue, designing for robustness, and finite element analysis. 

Although they tend to be a bit more expensive than the PE License, often your employer will assist with the cost as you are training for a specialty or need additional certification. Take advantage of it!

International Fluid Power Society

Another option is the International Fluid Power Society (IFPS) which offers many technical fluid power certification programs such as mobile hydraulic technicians, pneumatic specialists, control systems specialists, and fluid power engineers.

The certifications touch on many of the engineering disciplines including; mechanical, electrical/controls, and fluid power. I have learned that if you plan your certifications just right it will allow you get a new certification every five years to remain current with all certifications held and eventually you can work up to the fluid power engineer.

Six Sigma Certification

An expensive option that looks at quality issues and setting up processes to improve manufacturing and business processes is called Six Sigma. It can be expensive ($100K) and has a method of obtaining certifications which give a greater command of the Six Sigma methods. Larger firms and companies may offer or provide access to these certification programs.

This would be a career path that would put you in high demand with top companies.

Do Your Own Research and Publish

Many people, like me, just want to keep learning and experimenting. That’s part of the reason that I started writing, I wanted to learn more and share it with others. While I publish myself, I encourage you to do the same.

Find a specific subject that is interesting to you and has a wide audience. Do some research and talk to the experts about it. Don’t be shy about reaching out to them as long as you have clear questions to ask. More often then not, they will be excited to talk to you.

Once your research is complete, start writing. If you want to get it published, trade magazines are probably the way to go, because they are always looking for good content. You probably already have a few in mind that would run your article. Contact them to see what the requirements are for getting published.

The main benefit in doing your own research is to keep learning. In my opinion, learning is vital to staying young and there is so much to learn. However, if you get published in several magazines, you might find an additional benefit in becoming the expert, because you are.

Master’s in Business Administration

If you are interested in taking the management route, it would be worthwhile to explore different MBA programs. Getting an MBA can help broaden opportunities in the business side of the engineering world and is a viable alternative to working in the more technical side of the industry.

I recommend this over the MS degree because there are a lot more schools that offer this degree, so there is more competition for you business. In addition, many schools are setup for “working” students so you can work your full time job and then take classes a few times a week. You will have to be in school for longer if this is the case.

Third, if you already have an engineering degree, getting an MBA should be less of a time commitment because you are smart and there are no labs and lab reports.

Again, this will come with the higher price of education so be sure to investigate options that can mediate the cost and not add future debt.

The Bottom Line

In summary, getting an advanced degree is not necessary for most engineering work.  As I mentioned before, if you need an advanced degree for a particular field of work within the engineering industry, then by all means pursue it.

My biggest concern with all of this is the time investment, loss of career earnings and retirement funds, and potential increased debt due to student loans. I think it is important to look at all the variables and explore any alternative options that may be a better choice for your career path in the long run.

It may be helpful to keep in mind that if you cannot find someone to sponsor your investment in an advanced degree then that could be a good indicator that you should not be pursuing it now.  Wait a few years and reconsider it in the future. Whatever direction you take, be sure you know the potential risks involved and have a clear vision for your future career goals.  

(And don’t take on debt doing it)!

Corey Rasmussen

Corey is the Managing Director of the Mentored Engineer and owner of Rasmussen Designs. He received his BSME from Baylor University and holds a professional engineering license in North Carolina and Texas. He has been an engineer since 2002 with extensive experience in engineering design, fabrication and troubleshooting. He specializes in mobile equipment, hydraulic systems and machine design. He has two patents

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