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MBA vs MS for Engineers: Which Route Should You Follow?

MBA vs MS for Engineers: Which Route Should You Follow?

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In the rapidly evolving landscape of the tech industry, professionals are often faced with pivotal decisions that can shape their careers. One such crucial choice is the selection of advanced education. For engineers standing at this juncture, there is a big dilemma: MBA vs MS.

The world-renowned MBA is known for its business prowess, whereas the MS is celebrated for its deep technical dive. Each offers its unique set of opportunities and challenges, and the choice MBA vs MS is rarely straightforward.

I hold both an MBA and an MS degree. Both of them have been tremendously helpful during different stages of my professional career. Having both degrees has allowed me to achieve different goals at different times in my life. However, very often I see others trying to get one of these degrees for the wrong reasons. This article delves into the intricacies of both these esteemed degrees, as my goal is to equip engineers with the insights they need to make informed decisions.


The MBA Route for Engineers

The allure of an MBA is undeniable. Touted as the golden ticket to high-profile corporate roles, it promises both prestige and lucrative paychecks. However, is it the right choice for engineers?

The answer is “It depends. What is your goal after the MBA?

1. When is An MBA Worth It?

Consider the MBA, if you want to:

  1. Switch from SWE to Product Manager
  2. Switch from SWE to a non-technical role within a tech company (e.g. Product Marketing Manager, Finance Manager, Business Development Manager, etc)
  3. Switch to a sector outside of high-tech (e.g. consulting, banking, retail, healthcare, etc)

Typically, after the MBA you’ll get hired at the following levels:

  • Google/Facebook: L4
  • Microsoft: L60-62
  • Amazon: L6 (i.e. gives higher title), but pays them the same as (or less than) the other companies.

In general, around 80% of the MBA graduates go into investment banking, consulting and technology (the exact percentages vary among each program). The rest is a bunch of areas, e.g. nonprofits, retail, etc.

From the MBA grads, who go into tech, Product Management is a very popular destination. There are others as well (e.g. finance, operations, supply chain, marketing, business development, etc). Think of the MBA as something that levels the playing field for everybody. It doesn’t matter what you did before the MBA. As long as you interview well, you’ll get the PM job offer.

For more information, take a look at my post “Is an MBA Worth It for Software Engineers?“.

2. When Is An MBA Not worth it?

The MBA is not worth it, when your goal is one of the following:

  1. Stay as a SWE (e.g. get promoted to a Senior SWE, Principal SWE)
  2. Transition from SWE to a Managerial role: E.g. an Engineering Manager or Engineering Director, etc
  3. Transition from SWE to TPM

3. Personal Considerations

Before diving into an MBA, introspect:

  • Post-MBA Goals: Visualize your career trajectory. Where do you see yourself after the MBA? Is it aligned with your long-term objectives?
  • Current Standing: Assess your current position, responsibilities, and compensation. Will an MBA offer a substantial leap?
  • Juggling Professional Commitments: An MBA, especially an executive or part-time one, requires balancing work and study. Are you prepared for this?
  • Geographical Flexibility: If your dream MBA college is in a different city or even country, relocation might be necessary. Is that feasible?

4. The Intangible Benefits of an MBA

Beyond the classroom and the curriculum, an MBA offers:

  • Recruitment Opportunities: Top-tier MBA programs often have dedicated recruitment phases where multinational corporations scout for potential hires, offering a golden chance to land interviews with your dream company.
  • Diverse Exposure: Break the coding bubble. An MBA classroom is a melting pot of professionals from diverse fields, providing a fresh perspective and broadening your horizon.
  • Networking: An often-underestimated perk, the alumni network of premier MBA institutions is a treasure trove. These connections can open doors to opportunities you never knew existed.

The MS Route for Engineers

1. When is An MS Worth It?

While the MBA is a generalist degree, an MS is a specialist. It delves deep, offering expertise in niche areas. Consider an MS for the following reasons:

  • Specialized Knowledge: If domains like Machine Learning, IoT, or Computer Vision fascinate you, an MS provides the depth you need. For those looking to cement their expertise in a particular sub-domain of technology, an MS can be a game-changer.
  • Strengthening Basics: For those who feel their foundational knowledge in computer science is wobbly, an MS can be a savior, offering rigorous training in fundamentals. For example, if you want to deep dive into databases, networks, embedded systems, etc, then an MS is the best option.
  • U.S. Work Visa: For many international students, an MS in the U.S. is a straightforward route to securing a work visa, and subsequently, employment.

2. When Is An MS Not Worth It?

  • Your goal is to get promoted as a SWE: An MS is not a magic wand. It won’t automatically guarantee promotions or transitions. It doesn’t even guarantee a pay raise in most companies.
  • Your goal is to transition to a non-SWE role: If you’re a Software Engineer (SWE) eyeing roles like Engineering Manager, TPM, or even Product Manager, your existing technical prowess is often sufficient. An MS will not provide a significant edge.
MBA vs MS for Engineers: Summary

MBA vs MS: A Summarized View

The following matrix summarizes the MBA vs MS comparison:

Professional GoalMBAMS
Senior SWE
Principal SWE
Engineering Manager
Engineering Director
Product ManagerX
Technical Program Manager
Machine Learning EngineerX
Embedded Systems EngineerX
IoT EngineerX
Database EngineerX
Non-technical/Business Manager, e.g. Product Marketing Manager, Finance Manager, Business Development Manager, etcX
Switch from tech to a non-tech sector e.g. consulting, banking, retail, healthcare, etcX

Conclusion: The Road Ahead

Both the MBA and MS have their merits. The decision hinges on your personal aspirations, current professional standing, and long-term goals. An MBA offers a broader business perspective, ideal for those looking to diversify or transition into managerial roles. In contrast, an MS is perfect for those wanting to dive deep into a technical specialty.

Remember, degrees are just one part of the equation. Continuous learning, networking, and on-the-job performance play equally crucial roles in shaping your career.

In the ever-evolving world of technology, the key is to remain adaptable, curious, and open to new experiences. Regardless of the decision whether to pursue MBA vs MS vs another path altogether, your journey of learning and growth never truly ends.

For more insights and detailed discussions on this topic, review the article “Is an MBA Worth It for Software Engineers?” and get all the required knowledge to make informed academic choices in the tech world.

About Me

I am an engineer with 15+ years in the tech industry, including roles at Google, Amazon, and Microsoft. I've been a Software Engineer, Product Manager, and Technical Program Manager. I also have an MBA from Kellogg School of Management with Majors in Finance and Marketing.

What drives me? A passion for empowering engineers to achieve Financial Independence and Retire Early (FIRE). I reached FIRE, when I turned 40 years old. Whether it's through personal finance strategies or career insights, I'm here to guide you on this path. Have questions or need advice? Feel free to reach out!

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