Is Graduate Study Now Required?

In my last blog, I lamented that not enough engineers pursue graduate education (as well as the fact that there are not enough engineers eligible to pursue graduate education!). I often get asked: Why should I consider graduate school? There is an easy answer: you should never stop learning, especially in Engineering. Technology continues to move at a brisk pace and the only way to stay ahead of the game is to be continuously learning. Does it always have to be formal? No – one can stay abreast of changes by reading journals and trade magazines or attending technical conferences. But if you need to take a deep dive into a topic area, then perhaps a certificate or a master’s degree is ideal. The added benefit of these formal procedures is that they provide a credential that is widely recognized in the workplace.

An interesting discussion on the topic of graduate education has been ongoing for years. The question being asked is whether the master’s degree is the “new” bachelor’s degree. That is, is the master’s degree the new required degree of entry into the workplace? The direct answer for Engineering is no, or at least not yet. That said, there are a lot of industries that are clearly looking for advanced degrees for “entry” level positions.

A summary of a survey this past spring from CareerBuilder stated that “… 33% of employers are hiring more workers with master’s degrees for positions that had been primarily held by those with a four-year degree ….” Last year, the amount was 27%. The article noted that educational requirements are increasing across the spectrum, such as bachelor’s degrees being required for jobs previously held by those with only a high school education.

The survey also noted that 41% of the employers surveyed (over 2,300 in total) are sending employees back to school for advanced training and over half of the employers are providing in-house training.

A fair question to ask is, what has changed? According to the survey, a majority of the respondents say that the skills required for the job have evolved.

The field of Engineering, regardless of specialty, also continues to evolve. However, one still has to learn the basics. For example, while one may want to learn about 5G technology in an Electrical Engineering undergraduate program, there are a number of fundamental topics that have to be mastered first – from basics such as Calculus and Physics to area specialties including power, circuits, electromagnetics, optics, and data communications. As a typical, accredited Engineering degree consists of roughly 130 credits, there is simply no time to add advanced material into the undergraduate curriculum.

ABET, the leading accrediting body for Engineering programs, prescribes 1.5 years of “Engineering Topics,” including Engineering Science and Engineering Design courses, for a typical 4-year undergraduate curriculum. This amounts to about 15 courses – including basics such as (in Electrical) computer programming, circuits, and materials. For civil or mechanical engineering, these basics may include statics, dynamics, strength of materials, thermodynamics, and fluid mechanics. For materials or chemical engineering, basic topics include organic chemistry, heat transfer and transport phenomena.

The point is, that by the time the “basic foundation” has been covered, there is not a lot of space in the curriculum to study what are considered today’s “advanced topics”. That is why a technical master’s degree can be very appealing to companies (and one’s career) – especially those in high tech industries – because one can take 10 courses covering truly advanced topics. And if a master’s degree seems like a lot to take on, especially part time, then one should consider a certificate – often the bundling of 3-5 courses in an area of interest.

The key takeaway here is that one must continue to learn, because the field of Engineering will continue to advance.