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Do you want a master's in business, engineering, or a crossover degree?

Katie Schenk - March 13, 2018

business engineering crossover

An almost surprising number of CEOs today didn’t pursue business during their undergrad days.

Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, for example, received his MBA at Duke University, but he got his undergrad in industrial engineering from Auburn University.

Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, got his BS. in Electrical Engineering from the Manipal Institute of Technology before pursuing his MS Computer Science at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Only later did he pursue his MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

The CEO of General Motors, Mary T Barra studied electrical engineering before receiving her MBA from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business.

Strangely, it doesn’t seem to work in the reverse.

Perhaps it boils down to the technology understanding provided at the undergraduate level. Another key factor leading students to engineering first is the sheer practicality of such a degree, especially in emerging economies. It’s much more difficult to fake engineering skills and, worldwide, engineering unemployment rates are low.

But, as the prevalence of MBAs and business leaders with undergraduate engineering degrees shows, it’s not necessarily the stopping point. Engineers, simply based on the nature of the work, almost always require some level of management skills to progress in their career - and recruiters are looking for employees that can balance the technical aspects of modern work with the leadership skills taught in business programmes.

And engineers tend to excel when they make the transition. 

Why engineers make excellent business leaders

What makes a good business leader? While it absolutely depends, there are plenty of management books that suggest skills engineers learn from the minute they crack open their first textbook are on the list.

Think of qualities such as:

  • Analysis
  • Problem-solving
  • Quantitative skills
  • Risk management
  • Attention to detail

Sounds like skills you need for both fields, right?

And, while engineering students get practical, hands-on learning in these areas, they aren’t necessarily taught how to step back and take a look at the bigger picture, to sort some of the abstract challenges found in the business world. 

Not only that, most engineers don’t receive training in proposal writing, communication skills, budget development, and project or people management.

And yet, because engineers often work collaboratively, there’s always a need for these stereotypical business skills - even if they don’t make the transition from engineering to business.

The case for an MBA

Experience is a key factor for upward movement in engineering divisions and companies (especially in engineering positions), but once you get there, you’ll need those softer skills to reach the upper echelons, and just to be successful in mid-management. 

Engineers that pursue advanced business degrees find they’re able to tackle deeper issues and perform a wider range of functions, albeit with the technical precision gained in their previous education and work experiences.

And, in some countries, including the UK, you’ll need to demonstrate management and leadership skills to secure registration as a professional chartered engineer. In competitive industries and regions, business education isn’t so much an option as it is a necessity.

All this comes before the case for career switchers. An MBA can open doors in many directions. While you might be able to make a transition on your own, employers will certainly see the commitment behind an MBA; they’ll consider you as a serious candidate in addition to the incredible skills you’ll pick up along the way.

Fortune 500 companies tend to recruit from top business schools, assuming they can teach the practicalities after a prestigious institution has screened the best possible candidates in the field. If you work (or want to work) for a company like that, you may just find that an MBA is a box you’ll have to tick someday - and if you only find you can spare the opportunity costs of a single postgraduate degree, you might want to hold out for an MBA.

Fortunately, working engineers often find the quant component of MBA course something of a walk in the park. 

Crossover degrees

Engineering institutions have long recognised the need for increased business acumen. The Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (perhaps the most renowned engineering institution in the world) was founded way back in 1914 and started offering MBAs in 1925. Cranfield University’s School of Management was founded in 1967. Both institutions share high rankings in both the business and engineering field.

The need and desire for engineers to become effective in the business world has clearly taken off. Nearly a decade ago, over 70 percent of EMLYON’s MBA candidates held undergraduate degrees in engineering.

But, an MBA isn’t the only path to business success in an engineering world - and institutions like MIT were also among the first to realise the need for crossover and dual degrees that progress engineering understanding alongside the development of management skills. (MIT launched their first specialised crossover programme in 1988.)

As business moves more along the lines of technological advancements, more universities are offering crossover programmes. The University of Notre Dame has an Integrated Engineering and Business Program (founded in 2001) and Georgia Tech launched a dual-degree programme in 2016.

And, these don’t even take into account the increasing number of schools offering Master’s in Engineering Management programmes

These degrees focus on the technical aspects of engineering, but also hone:

  • marketing, 
  • management, and 
  • financing skills. 

Foundations like these make it possible for grads to launch technical startups as much as it offers a fast track to the corporate world.

How do you choose the right degree for you? Do you really need an MBA? Is one of the crossover degrees better for your career?

It all boils down to the type of skills you want to gain and how you want to use them. That’s something you only you can decide.

Luckily, you’ll find plenty of role models to inspire you.


Ready to get one of these degrees?

Prodigy Finance offers post-graduate loans for students pursuing business, engineering, and yes, even crossover master’s degrees. Once you’ve found your dream programme, we’re ready to help with the financing.


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