In the past, ambitious engineers typically chose between two distinct academic and advancement pathways. Some would earn a master’s in engineering to qualify for senior-level engineering roles such as principal engineer. Others would earn a Master of Business Administration (MBA) to become engineering managers. Today, engineers who want to leverage their engineering skills in leadership positions can choose a third master’s degree option: the Master of Engineering in Engineering Management (M.Eng.EM).
The M.Eng.EM is a graduate degree specifically for engineers across branches who want to boost their business acumen and advance their technical skills. The core and elective coursework in engineering management master’s programs comprises a hybrid mix of management courses and technical courses. In fact, M.Eng.EM programs cover much of the same ground as MBA programs. The most significant difference is that engineering management master’s programs such as the Stevens Institute of Technology School of Systems and Enterprises’ 100% online M.Eng.EM program learn advanced management fundamentals in an engineering and technology context.
MBA programs can help engineers transition into management positions, and many engineers who want to go into management look at MBA programs first because it is a familiar professional development pathway. However, only M.Eng.EM students graduate with a more robust understanding of the technology involved in engineering projects and the management processes through which technology creates value. Choosing the right pathway can nonetheless be challenging. Both master’s degree programs have value, and finding the right one requires digging into each.
HOW ARE M.ENG IN ENGINEERING MANAGEMENT AND MBA PROGRAMS SIMILAR?
Students in M.Eng in Engineering Management and MBA programs study similar business fundamentals. Both programs develop leaders capable of guiding teams and thinking strategically. The coursework in on-campus and online master of engineering management and MBA programs teach management skills, decision-making, leadership skills, operations management, organizational behavior and operations research. Core courses in both bolster foundational competencies with data analysis and risk assessment skills. Applicants can enter these graduate programs with a bachelor’s degree in engineering, knowing that both lead to enhanced career outlooks and salary prospects. Credit hours top out in the 30- to 40-hour window. And at some universities, the course content in on-campus and online MBA programs gets nearly as technical as that in engineering management master’s degree programs, but that is rare.
In broad sweeps, these two programs seem more alike than they are different, but they diverge in critical ways. Think of these two master’s programs like trees sharing tangled roots. They are related on a fundamental level but look further into the coursework and it becomes clear how and where the branches separate and lead in different directions.
HOW DO M.ENG.EM AND MBA PROGRAMS DIFFER?
The biggest myth about the M.Eng.EM is that it is just another MBA program for engineers, but MBA programs prepare students to work in the business of business. Most MBA programs do not dig into the technical or technological aspects of specific industries. Meanwhile, engineering management master’s degree programs prepare students to lead in the business of engineering. M.Eng.EM programs prepare engineers to guide teams through the technical work that powers modern enterprises.
“A good engineering manager must know the technology well and be an expert in the jobs that the teammates are performing,” HPR Director of Engineering Christopher J. Pendleton told Built In. “You then are credible, can transition into a strong mentor and create a cohesive, successful team that works well together.”
That is where skills taught in engineering management programs make all the difference. MBA programs are the more general academic pathway. They do not cover the complexity of project management in engineering environments. Even an MBA combined with an engineering degree cannot provide exactly the same skill set as a full-scale engineering management program. Take the faculty, for instance: Professors who teach in master of engineering management programs most likely have a background in engineering project management, operations management, product development, systems engineering and other related fields. MBA professors come from a range of experiences in entrepreneurship and business. They could be start-up experts or financial management whizzes, but their experience may not be relevant to engineering project management.
THERE ARE SEVERAL WAYS TO COMPARE M.ENG VS. MBA PROGRAMS
The key differences between these academic pathways revolve around focus, student profiles, curriculum and outcomes.
WHAT IS AN M.ENG IN ENGINEERING MANAGEMENT?
The Master of Engineering in Engineering Management is a graduate-level professional degree geared toward engineers who want to lead teams and take on higher-level job responsibilities. This degree program is typically overseen and administered by a university’s college of engineering. This degree is fine-tuned for specialization and best for engineers who know they want to stay in engineering or in related technology disciplines such as computer science.
Students learn to blend interpersonal and technical skills to effectively lead technology strategy and product innovation immediately upon graduation. They are prepared to leverage advanced analysis to estimate costs and use cost information in decision-making; form and manage effective engineering design teams in business environments; and design, program, implement and use computers to solve complex systems and product analysis problems.
Engineering management graduate students typically have several years of work experience, though some enroll in programs immediately after earning a bachelor’s degree. Students come from all engineering branches, from civil to manufacturing to chemical, and may even come from other highly technical fields, but they share similar career goals. Candidates are often high-achieving engineers who want to advance out of technical roles, though some are already team leads or in senior engineer roles that involve less hands-on technical work.
All M.Eng.EM candidates have a background in science, engineering, mathematics or technology that lets them meet the demands of the coursework. The ideal M.Eng.EM applicant at Stevens has an undergraduate GPA of 3.0 or higher and three to five years of experience in civil engineering, industrial engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, software engineering or another branch of the field.
The coursework in engineering management graduate programs combines management competencies with technical skills. Core courses in the StevensOnline Master of Engineering in Engineering Management program cover decision and risk analysis, engineering economics and cost analysis, modeling and simulation and informatics for engineering management, which utilizes Python. Instructors emphasize the human element of project management in class work and project work, helping students understand how financial and interpersonal necessities affect project design and operationalization. Some programs offer concentration tracks. Online M. Eng. ME students at Stevens choose between two program concentrations: Managerial Analytics or Supply Chain and Logistics Management.
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, demand for master’s in engineering management program graduates is growing. This is likely because M.Eng. in Engineering Management graduates bring a blend of interpersonal and technical skills to various engineering and engineering leadership roles across branches. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the career outlook for engineering managers is strong, particularly in areas of the field such as civil engineering, mechanical engineering and structural engineering. Median salaries in engineering management are close to $150,000.
WHAT IS AN MBA?
The traditional MBA is one of the most popular master’s degree programs in the United States, and American institutions award about 200,000 MBAs each year. Primarily offered through university business schools, the MBA is internationally recognized, which means graduates can work in business administration anywhere in the world. Most full-time and part-time programs are geared toward generalists because, according to common wisdom, the fundamentals of business management are the same across disciplines. However, concentration-based MBA programs are growing more popular as professionals realize the benefits of specialization.
Students in MBA programs come from many fields, but most students who graduate from graduate business school programs work in finance, marketing, supply chain management or operations. Budding entrepreneurs enroll in MBA programs with the specific goal of bringing their start-up visions to life. MBA candidates typically have about four years of professional experience in fields such as general business operations or data analysis, but sometimes in energy, healthcare, information systems or education.
Coursework in traditional MBA programs generally covers accounting, business analytics, ethics, marketing, statistics, operations and other foundational topics. Internships are often a graduation requirement in full-time programs, but part-time and online MBA programs geared toward working professionals usually relax this requirement. Many traditional MBA programs have fixed curricula, and entire cohorts take the same classes on the same lockstep course schedule.
The career impact of this degree is hard to predict because the MBA is so broadly applicable. One Graduate Management Admission Council found that demand for MBA graduates among corporate recruiters is high — 91% of recruiters planned to hire MBA holders in 2021, and median salaries clocked in at about $115,000. However, that figure varies by field. According to one National Association of Colleges and Employers salary survey, recent MBA graduates who specialize in strategy, engineering, science or general management earn about $85,000 to $100,000. MBA graduates who work in healthcare or human resources management may earn considerably less.
WILL CHOOSING ONE DEGREE OVER THE OTHER AFFECT MY EARNING POTENTIAL?
The frustrating answer is maybe. Getting an accurate picture of MBA salaries versus M.Eng.EM salaries in engineering fields is challenging because most sources collect data for “engineering managers with master’s degrees” (a group that includes MBAs and engineering management degrees) or similarly broad categories.
Plus, the average salaries associated with each master’s degree pathway don’t tell a complete story. The typical MBA holder earns about $83,000 and the typical engineering management master’s holder earns about $116,000, suggesting that M.Eng.EM holders have a higher earning potential than MBAs. On the other hand, students in top-ranked MBA programs may earn more than $170,000 right after graduation, but titles may have a much bigger impact on salaries than degrees or degree provenance after a few years. And as illustrated above, salaries vary significantly by industry.
That said, talented M.Eng.EM graduates may earn more than their peers with MBAs simply because they received a clearer picture of how business and technology intertwine. “Many of the subjects frequently offered as concentrations [in engineering management programs] are associated with higher salaries,” according to U.S. News & World Report.
HOW CAN I IDENTIFY THE PATH THAT WILL BEST SUPPORT MY CAREER GOALS?
Only you can assess your career goals and determine which degree best aligns with your interests, aptitudes and ambitions. Do not make the mistake of choosing an MBA program over an engineering management master’s program simply because you assume the former is the more recognizable degree. Increased demand for technical skills in management — and management skills in tech — has enhanced the visibility, reputation and value of master’s in engineering management programs.
If you want to lead in engineering, strongly consider a master of science in engineering management instead. The value of this degree will only increase as employers become more familiar with the breadth of technical skills necessary to keep pace with advancements in science, data and technology. As organizations build out their engineering teams to meet changing technological demands, they will be looking for skilled leaders to guide decision-making. Consider, too, the value of learning with and from other engineering professionals, as you will in a management program for engineers such as Stevens’ online M.Eng. in Engineering Management. The M.Eng.EM curriculum specifically covers management processes that inspire innovation and drive success in engineering and tech for an audience of technical leaders.
Stevens Institute of Technology professor Carlo Lipizzi summarizes the value of an M.Eng. in Engineering Management using a clever analogy: If you direct a movie, you need management skills that an MBA program can provide. But if you direct a Pixar movie specifically, you need a different set of technology-related skills, because technology is essential to the development of those movies. “You need traditional management skills — budgeting, people management, all of that — but on top of that, there’s a technical component you don’t need for live-action movies,” he said. “That’s why you get an engineering management degree instead of an MBA.”