The Value of an Engineering Management Degree

The Master of Engineering Management degree is on the rise. On the surface it might seem the degree is meant for engineers eager to climb a few rungs in their career, hone their business skills, or flex their leadership skills.
But Jeffrey Glass, faculty director of Duke University’s Master of Engineering Management Program and a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the university, believes that any engineer could benefit from the degree. On the one hand, it’s more common for engineers to find themselves in management positions early in their careers. More important is the changing nature of engineering jobs at any level.
“What I think is a bigger driver for the Master of Engineering Management degrees that are coming up—and there are so many more than there were even five or ten years ago—is this idea that we no longer do engineering in a vacuum,” Glass says.
The traditional engineer of yesterday was given an engineering problem to solve and then did it.  In school, the approach is often underscored with problems that have clearly defined answers. That’s not how it works in the real world anymore.
In earning an MEM degree, students learn the systems perspective, “where you look at an organization and the problems you’re trying to solve in a broader sense, not just from the simple engineering solution,” Glass says. “Now you have to solve a customer problem, an engineering problem, an organizational problem, and a stakeholder problem.”
It’s not only that engineers must now know the context of the problems they’re working on. They are also faced with blurry end-zones and fuzzy data. “You’re going to have to decide when enough is enough and make a decision based on ambiguous information,” Glass says, “I think that’s a huge shift in the mindset.”
While the MEM program trains engineers for the leadership skills and business acumen needed in managerial roles, the skills gained through the degree can be applied to many aspects of a job. Engineers with this broader outlook are more and more sought after, whatever the position they are being sought to fill.
“Companies are going to see them as much more highly valued because they understand some of the decisions that maybe can’t be explained with the principles and the knowledge that a conventional engineer would have,” Glass says. “If they have this knowledge of the organizational context and the business context, they understand that, ‘OK, there are things here that are not related to the technology or engineering. I can accept that.’ ”
It might seem, at first glance, that dealing with such ambiguity is antithetical to the typical engineering frame of mind. But this isn’t necessarily the case. “I’ve managed a lot of engineers, and what I love about it is that they are very analytical and willing to learn anything, anytime,” Glass says. “So that makes them very good in terms of management. The ambiguity problem is just a matter of practice, it’s a matter of skill sets applied to a different environment.”
The bottom line is that an MEM degree not only helps engineers be better managers, but trains them to be better overall employees. “It’s not to set them up to be a manger right away, but to be the most effective engineer right away,” Glass says.
Michael Abrams is an independent writer.
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