Why engineers need a master's degree

I think every undergraduate engineering student should seriously consider pursuing a master’s degree. A graduate degree hasn’t always been necessary for engineers, but the evolution of engineering education over the past decades has changed the professional outlook. Below, I would like to outline why I believe this is such a beneficial move for the latest generation of engineers, the greater profession, and the public.

3x Technical Background

A master’s degree will significantly increase your technical background. An aspiring structural engineer will graduate with a BS in civil engineering having taken roughly 5-6 courses covering the very basics of structural analysis and design. A master’s degree will add 10 courses precisely in your focus area. These ten courses aren’t fringe explorations – they cover fundamental required knowledge in mechanics, structural analysis/modeling, structural dynamics, earthquake engineering, and advanced steel/RC design.

Do Interesting Work

A master’s degree will distinguish you from peers and provide you the opportunity to do really interesting work. New graduates with a BSCE will only initially be qualified for “cut and paste” type engineering analysis and design, whereas graduates with an MS will be the obvious choice for more intellectually challenging projects. Many high-level engineering firms are only interested in candidates with an MS – not only because of better technical qualifications, but also because these positions are highly competitive. Why should they settle for a candidate with limited advanced training?

Exposure to Research

For many, a master’s degree will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to conduct research and publish a thesis. You may even secure funding and earn a stipend while attaining this degree (this is a GREAT deal). Completing a research project and publishing it demonstrates a level of proactivity that will distinguish you. You will gain valuable analytical skills as well as the technical ability to understand research articles. Furthermore, you are likely to develop deeper relationships with faculty that will last for your entire career.

Evolve with the Field

Organizations like the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) have suggested a master’s degree should be the baseline professional qualification for structural engineers. Consider the following quote from ASCE Policy Statement 465 - “Academic Prerequisites for Licensure and Professional Practice”:

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) supports the attainment of a Body of Knowledge (BOK) for entry into the practice of civil engineering at the professional level. … The Body of Knowledge includes (1) the fundamentals of math, science, and engineering science, (2) technical breadth, (3) breadth in the humanities and social sciences, (4) professional practice breadth, and (5) technical depth or specialization. Fulfillment of the Body of Knowledge requires additional education beyond the bachelor’s degree for the practice of civil engineering at the professional level.

Current baccalaureate programs, while constantly undergoing reform, still retain a nominal four-year education process. This length of time limits the ability of these programs to provide a formal education consistent with the increasing demands of the practice of civil engineering at the professional level. There are diametrically opposed forces trying to squeeze more content into the baccalaureate curriculum while at the same time reducing the credit hours necessary for the baccalaureate degree. The result is a baccalaureate civil engineering degree satisfactory for an entry-level position, but becoming inadequate for the professional practice of civil engineering. The four-year internship period (engineer-intern) after receipt of the baccalaureate degree cannot make up for the formal educational material i.e. the expanded Body of Knowledge that would be gained from additional education.

Relatively Low Investment

A master’s degree in engineering can be easily completed during one year of full time study (longer if you write a thesis). Furthermore, most engineering programs offer a BS/MS program where the two degrees can be combined. In many schools, several hours of course credit can be applied toward both degrees. This additional year requires a great deal of hard work, but is certainly achievable for anyone who can gain admission to such a program (important caveat). It is much more difficult to return for an MS after working in the field since your lifestyle will have adjusted to your income, so there is truly no time like the present if you are still completing your undergraduate degree.

Ethical Responsibility

I remember an impacting experience during my undergraduate steel design course. Dr. Leon stated that by awarding us a passing grade in the course, he was issuing a license to kill. His point was obvious: the safety of the public lies in the technical competence of engineers. The technical gains made in pursuit of a master’s degree will reveal the assumptions and limits of engineering analysis and design techniques, making you a more reasoned, cautious, and ethical engineer. Along these lines, the ASCE Code of Ethics represents an engineering version of the Hippocratic Oath.

In conclusion…

I feel these reasons provide compelling support for completing a master’s degree immediately upon completion of a bachelor of science. After completing this master’s program myself, I can’t imagine entering the field without this training.

Update—July 2012

Due to the popularity of this post, I am not always able to respond to inquiries seeking advice regarding how, where, or whether you should go to grad school. Also, if you leave a comment, please ask a general question that everyone can benefit from discussing—otherwise I would prefer you to email me if you are seeking personal advice for a very detailed scenario. Thanks!