Pursuing a Graduate Degree: One YP’s Experience & Perspective

Vanda Ametlli, Henry Ford Health System, IIE Great Lakes Region Vice President

It seems like every week, there is some new commentary discussing the value of pursuing graduate education.   Pursuing a graduate degree has turned into the Million Dollar question, because after all it could be worth millions. The competitive global environment is a constant reminder to young professionals to evaluate if an advanced degree will fit with long-term career goals.

As part of an accelerated Bachelor’s/Master’s program, I was fortunate to be part of a program from Wayne State University where I received both degrees in 5 years. The decision to pursue these type of programs was quite a leap as the decision had to be made early on junior year.  Looking back at my education and through the interactions with friends and colleagues, these are some factors to consider in considering a graduate degree. 

It’s easy to get blinded by the pressure to keep up and have a graduate degree and forget the basic question on why even pursue? While increased income is a benefit gained from advanced degrees, it shouldn’t be your foundation because if you’re not able to leverage as you move forward, it will not help. Does the industry you want to pursue require a Master’s for advanced engineering positions? Do you see an opportunity to continue research? Academia role? Would pursuing later in your career be more beneficial?  What would be short/long term financial returns?  Are there certifications that would assist you in strengthening your role more effectively? What financial support does your institution offer? Employing a 5-Why diagram does not hurt the quest in determining “Why”?

Type of Program – I’ve always admired the “crazy” ones that take their engineering 4 year education and decide to pursue something completely different like an MD, PhD or both.  The engineers turned lawyers are also a breed that takes their technical expertise to law.  MBA programs across the countries offer joint programs with other areas such as MBA/MPH (Master’s in Public Health). Going back to the why is what drives what you want to pursue. I have constantly heard that an MBA will get you the most value after a strong work experiences.  All the arrays of degrees will give you a different perspective when you’re a bit older and “wiser” but it’s not a discouragement to not pursue while early on the career.  Strategic and planning roles benefit from a business/engineering combination.  As IEs, we encourage production flexibility and the same principle follows – your goals are the ones that determine how specialized your graduate degree will be. Specialization opens opportunities to become a subject matter expert but has risks when changing industries.

Return on Investment –School is already expensive without pursuing a Master’s. As a YP, it’s easy to struggle in seeing the ROI early on.  The financial ROI might not be apparent right away but opportunity to be part of more complex level work presents available as experience strengthens the individual.

Employer – 3 years ago in the job market, I recall many HR recruiters being confused on why a 22 year old had a Master’s degree.  I was happy to explain that I wanted to leverage my strong internship/research experience to start at an advanced position not entry-level engineer. This was well understood but the payscale with the years of experience caused hesitation. As I expressed this to one of my early mentors, I was given some great advice that companies that do not value your educational background might not be where you want to work.   A master’s can be purused right after college or 4-5 years after but understand the value that your employer places on education. It may simplify your decision to pursue a Master’s.

Learning should never end.  A degree doesn’t mark the completion of your learning. There really is not a magic number on how many years after a bachelor’s, should you pursue an advanced degree. No formula to predict your specialization. Evaluation of what you want short and long-terms makes it easier. Don’t be hard on yourself.  Explore.  Just don’t fall under the pressure of having a piece of paper because “Everyone is doing it”.