A Matter of Degrees

"What do you want to do during your career? If you’re thinking about applying to a graduate program, you should know the answer to this question first—or at least have a good sense of your preferred direction."

Engineers and engineering students who are considering pursuit of a graduate degree often consider the obvious options: A master of science in engineering (M.S.), a master of business administration (M.B.A), or a master of engineering and man­agement (M.E.M). None is inherently better than the others, but each provides a skill set tailored to prepare you for a particular career path.

Colin Drummond, Professor and Assistant Chair in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, holds both a Ph.D. and an M.B.A.. He is also the Faculty Director of The Institute for Management and Engi­neering (TiME) and teaches several M.E.M courses. With these academic credentials and many years of experience in research and industry, he has deep insight into the appropriateness of different graduate degrees as they relate to career goals.

He suggests that students graduating with a bachelor of science (B.S.) degree go through a classic “T” comparative exercise to determine whether to enter the workforce directly or to postpone entry in order to create a strategic advantage through higher education. Considerations on the “work” side of the “T” might include:

  • The need to earn money in the near term
  • A desire to use skills already acquired
  • A preference to solve specific problems
  • Not feeling ready/no desire to become a leader.

The “higher education” side of the “T” might include:

  • The desire to lead
  • The person can postpone earning a salary
  • Aptitude
  • Initiative (including taking the Graduate Record Exam and other formalized testing required).

Drummond thinks it’s unfortunate when graduating students opt for an advanced degree because they perceive there are no jobs, noting that this demonstrates a failure to network—a con­dition that won’t be helped by an additional degree. “Too many students view universities as vocational schools, with the expec­tation that graduation will provide them with jobs,” he says. “People who don’t set meaningful career goals have the educa­tion process backwards.” He notes that many times companies can’t tell applicants the real reasons why they aren’t hired, but human resources professionals have shared with him their frustration with graduates who have no career objectives. “HR people tell me too many new graduates are clueless and say they aren’t there to reparent them, that applicants should be coming to that com­pany to solve its problems.”If higher education is chosen, the next question a student should decide is whether he or she wants to pursue sci­entific research or management. Those strictly interested in research would be best served by earning an M.S. degree and perhaps a Ph.D. Others who know they’re not researchers and want to be tagged for leadership upon entering a company may opt for an M.B.A.. Or, they may choose a hybrid graduate degree, M.E.M., which prepares students to become leaders in technology and its management.

The M.E.M., which is a one-year (three-semester) program that provides core integrated curriculum of engineer­ing and management along with gradu­ate-level business and engineering courses, also is appropriate for students who are still unsure about the research versus management decision. Drum­mond suggests they get exposure to both through the M.E.M. and can always get an M.B.A. later, if they find they’re drawn more to the details of business. The M.E.M. can fast-track pursuit of an M.B.A. or position a student to become a technical leader in his or her field. M.E.M. programs take highly qualified technical people, expose them to refined pro­cesses of product development, and sprinkle in enough financial knowledge to be a leader—but he stresses that the degree is not a substitute for an M.B.A..For example, M.B.A. programs typi­cally require a minimum of two courses in accounting, compared to four weeks required for an M.E.M.. An M.E.M. grad­uate is trained to utilize and understand financial statements for decision-making, such as 10k reports, cash flow cycles, generally accepted accounting practices, and Sarbanes-Oxley requirements. An M.B.A. graduate, on the other hand, has had the opportunity to do a “deeper dive” into a broader range of subjects and becomes proficient in, for instance, creating ledger entries and audit proce­dures. Drummond sums up the differ­ence by saying, “The M.E.M. teaches financial skills at the practitioner level, while the M.B.A. teaches them at the cre­ator level.”

Drummond notes that another key difference between the M.B.A. and M.E.M. degrees is that M.B.A. programs are not generally designed to offer per­sonal experience in refining technology and applying it, thus it’s easier to move from a technical background to business management than it is to go from busi­ness to managing technology. M.E.M. programs usually include real-world experiences that can help shape career directions. Students in the TiME M.E.M. program can try out hands-on experiences to see what they like through several avenues. Many work as commercialization associ­ates in paid internships, solving real companies’ problems. All students work in multidisciplinary teams on real-world projects submitted by companies in a two-semester Product and Process Design and Development course. Team-based learning exercises give practice in applying critical thinking and reasoning skills to problems, and class practicums also provide exercises such as hiring and firing employees. “These are fairly unique classes that allow students to try out business skills within a technical environment,” Drummond says. “And the safety of the university setting encourages them to stretch out of their comfort zones, which is a key attribute employers are seeking today.”


Universities offering M.E.M. programs

M.E.M.programs are still relatively new. TiME, a joint program between the Case School of Engineering and the Weatherhead School of Management, was one of the first. It was established at CWRU in 2000 with a US $4.2 million endowment from The Timken Founda­tion and continues to evolve to meet the needs of students and industry. Several TiME alumni have shared their reasons for choosing the M.E.M. program, and the benefits they’ve gained from it.

Avoiding the corporate cube

Michael Spence (M.E.M. 2010) was exposed to the M.E.M. concept from the time he arrived at CWRU, as he lived with a student in the program. Always drawn to technology commercialization, he took several economics classes in his freshman and sophomore years that dealt with some of the same concepts that his M.E.M. roommate was utilizing in projects. He feels lucky to have had this early introduction, as none of his core courses in electrical engineering included a focus on business. When he graduated with his B.S.E.E. in 2009, his interest in business had attracted him to courses that earned him minors in bio­medical engineering and economics. Spence chose the M.E.M. Early Entry Program to insure a productive summer after his junior year. By taking the first semester of M.E.M. courses during that period, he qualified for a graduate-level internship the following summer that helped him shape his career goals. TiME’s Early Entry Program is open to junior-year students enrolled in accred­ited engineering programs at any institu­tion. Those who are accepted take the summer semester M.E.M. courses, then complete their senior year. Following graduation, they work at an M.E.M. internship, then begin the fall semester coursework in their selected track.

After receiving his B.S.E.E. degree, Spence began a two-month full-time paid internship at The Entrepreneurs EDGE’s CEOs for NEO program, work­ing on a new business idea submitted by The EBO Group, based in Sharon Center, Ohio. Teamed with another intern, he conducted market research and devel­oped a business case for a lift system that will allow full-time wheelchair users to retrofit regular production vehicles, such as pick-up trucks, crossovers, and SUVs.

That internship showed him what he wants to do in his career and that North­east Ohio offers lots of opportunity. “I don’t want to be a cubical engineer,” he says. “I want to talk to potential users about product designs and perform market analysis.” He is interested in options such as becoming a consultant, working for a small business where he could play multiple roles, or starting in sales with a path to product develop­ment and operations management. His long-term goal is to start a technology-based business.

Quality and Control

A graduate of Ohio University, Jenni­fer Miller (M.E.M. 2010) always wanted to take more business courses to learn additional skills that would make her more marketable and expand her career opportunities. When researching gradu­ate program options, she originally wanted an M.B.A., but realized she didn’t have enough business background. Instead, she decided on an M.E.M. and plans to work for a couple of years and then pursue the M.B.A.. “I’m better suited now; the M.E.M. provides a good foun­dation,” she says. “The classes are very similar to an M.B.A., and have given me more skills beyond my technical ones.” She considered programs at The Ohio State University and The University of Akron, but chose CWRU because of the accelerated pace of its M.E.M. and its interesting curriculum. Miller says that although she’s not an expert, the Six Sigma course prepared her to step in and work on a project. In the two-semester Product and Pro­cess Design and Development course, Miller and her team worked on a park­ing reservation pod project for Cleveland startup Recharge Power LLC. The pods will be installed in urban garages in pre­mium spaces to be reserved and paid for through an online service. Proprietary software will recognize the car. The team performed market analysis, talking with garage owners to learn what it would take to install the pods and politics that would be involved. They also did some technical design on the pod and sourced the operating system of its computer. Working with the owner and a product design firm, their goal was to produce a working prototype for a garage that was interested in testing the product. “This was a perfect example of using technical and business skills,” she says. In the short term, Miller wants to work in a company where she can use all of her skills. Her long-term career goal is to be a manager involved in con­sulting or quality control in the technical field. She feels that the M.E.M. has broad­ened her opportunities. “I applied for a marketing job in a software company—I wouldn’t have been able to do that before,” she says. “I would’ve been qual­ified as a developer or design engineer with my EE only.”

Tailor made

Vijit Jain (M.E.M. 2006) is the head of sales for Oregon Sys­tems, a systems integrator and autho­rized reseller for Cisco Systems in the Kingdom of Bahrain. His responsibilities include planning and executing go-to­market strategies. With his team, he maintains relationships with clients and fulfills the complete sales cycle for sell­ing, installing, and commissioning Cisco solutions for their organizations. He began his career with Cisco USA as an associate account manager in August 2006. A year later, he took an internal transfer to Cisco India, where he held account manager roles with multiple teams, and joined Oregon in July 2009. Jain received a B.S. degree in elec­tronics engineering with a major in tele­communications from the D.J. Sanghvi College of Engineering at the University of Mumbai in India. He had always wanted to learn about the business side of things, but when he began exploring M.B.A. courses, he realized that at least four years of work experience was required by any good institution. He was considering an MSc degree as an alterna­tive, but then he found the M.E.M. pro­gram at CWRU. “It is a course designed specifically for engineers who are keen to acquire business acumen and at the same time does not require extensive work experience,” he explains. “The course work is carefully tailored to meet today’s corporate world requirements and it seemed perfect for me.”

About a month after graduation, Jain joined Cisco and believes that the M.E.M. degree gave him an advantage in the job market. “M.E.M.s have an edge over engineers and MScs and compete directly with M.B.A.s,” he says.

Jain would like to move soon to the management and strategy side of sales, where he can leverage his skills and experience and continue to hone them. His long-term career goal is to have a company of his own, and feels his M.E.M. experiences are helping him to achieve his goals. He particularly recom­mends the M.E.M. program for graduates who want to work as business or finan­cial analysts or in the consulting industry but don’t want to wait for four to five years of getting work experience before applying for an M.B.A.

Bridging the gap

Anthony Morton (M.E.M. 2006) was halfway through his B.S. degree in elec­trical and computer engineering at Carn­egie Mellon University when he realized that wasn’t the right career path for him. “I had internships at software companies that showed me I didn’t want to be a computer engineer, so I added a double major in economics,” he says. Believing that an M.B.A. loses some of its validity without workplace experience, he con­sidered working for a couple of years and then pursuing that degree. Then a professor in his fraternity told him about the M.E.M.. “I see it as a mini M.B.A. for engineers,” he says. “It bridges the gap between engineering and academ­ics and work in the business world, and it takes only one calendar year to com­plete.” At the time, only CWRU and Duke offered M.E.M. programs. Morton had considered the Case School of Engineer­ing for his undergraduate education, so he entered its M.E.M. program in the summer of 2005. He describes his courses as being primarily oriented toward man­ufacturing. Several have been particu­larly helpful since graduation, especially the Materials and Manufacturing Pro­cesses class, which provided real-world experience through visits to facilities in the area. The Product and Process Design and Development course project gave him additional hands-on experience, and Design for Manufacturing gave him the comfort level to go into that industry. As soon as he entered the M.E.M. program, he had job interviews set up by CWRU and had a position secured by Christmas with his current employer, Precision Castparts Corporation (PCC).

As part of PCC’s corporate manage­ment development program, Morton has held four jobs in two years with progres­sive levels of responsibility. Serving at three facilities, the range of his tasks have included increasing operational efficiency, maintenance planning and reduction of downtime, employee super­vision, conducting trials on forging lubri­cants, profit and loss accountability, budgeting and forecasting, and planning and production control. Having com­pleted the formal development program, Morton was promoted in January 2009 to plant operations manager at subsidiary Fatigue Technology, Inc. in Seattle. He believes the M.E.M. helps in the job market. “You can tailor it to what you want it to be,” Morton says. “It enabled me to articulate ideas and how they apply in real-world settings, and it also gave me an additional year to mature.” Since being hired, he feels the M.E.M. has set him apart from others who have undergraduate degrees. There was no flexibility in starting salaries when he was hired into the management development program, but since then,the M.E.M. has made a significant impact on his earnings. “One of the division presidents recently grilled me about get­ting an M.B.A., but I was able to explain that the M.E.M. had covered all of the concepts and to show how I’ve built on them during my work at the com­pany.”

An invitation for collaboration

When Shareef Jackson (M.E.M.2003) entered Brown University in 1998, engineers were getting six-figure salaries right out of school. By the time he grad­uated with his B.S. in electrical engineer­ing, those people were being laid off due to the dot-com bust. The job market was still tough when he graduated from the CWRU M.E.M. program a year later, but he was hired within two months and says the degree helped. “The person who interviewed me said he was tired of hiring professionals with no personal skills or knowledge of business trends and marketing,” Jackson says. “He was impressed that I had a strong technical background with business understand­ing, which was very rare.”

His first job was in IT consulting for Wipro Technology in New York City, where he worked in systems testing, requirements, and gap analysis. After two years, he joined Accenture, where he did the same type of work but with more management and leadership responsibili­ties. He dealt with operating platforms for his major client, EMC Storage Com­pany. Tired of the travel involved with consulting, he joined Shire Pharmaceuti­cals as a senior database analyst in 2007, when his wife entered the University of Pennsylvania for her doctorate. He man­ages two platforms and deals with pro­grammers, coding vendors, and creation and management of processes. Jackson says the M.E.M. has been helpful in advancing his career, as he has been able to market himself as having busi­ness experience from his graduate work. He notes that his superiors at Accenture and Shire have commented that he had an earlier start than his peers in under­standing business.

When Jackson was looking for gradu­ate schools, he initially looked at M.S. programs, but says, “After being in the lab at Brown for four years, I wanted more of a business orientation, and the M.E.M. was the only program with col­laboration between business and engi­neering.” He found some programs that combined an M.B.A. and an M.S., but it appeared that classes in the different dis­ciplines were scattered randomly, and any integration was forced. In his M.E.M. classes, he found both perspectives were included. A member of the first class of CWRU’s M.E.M. program, Shareef says internships weren’t included then, but there was close collaboration with local companies such as Timken and Royal Appliance. The main project was writing a business plan for a new product. Busi­ness people gave many of the lectures and students toured facilities. As the recipient of a partial scholarship from Alcoa, he also had a lot of contact with that firm.

His life career goal is to use technol­ogy to help people and to make it more user-friendly. “People just throw up their hands if they don’t ‘get it’ immediately,” he observes. “And most products today are designed for enthusiasts or tech geeks like me.” Whatever technology he’s involved with, he wants to make it as useful for as many people as possible. In his current job, that means helping business people to understand the data­bases at Shire. He says the M.E.M. pro­vided a good background by focusing on communicating—a skill also devel­oped through his membership in Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc. and the NJ SEEDS program. “It’s not just the tech­nology that’s important, but how you communicate it to others.”

Jackson says that being in the inaugu­ral class of the M.E.M. program had some unknowns, but that it was a great experi­ence. “There wasn’t a track record like there was for the Weatherhead School of Management and the Case School of Engineering,” he recalls. “I was taking a little risk, but I’m glad I did—issues you can’t predict arise every day, and I find I’m using what I learned in the M.E.M. program to deal with them.”