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Experience vs. Grad school: Is a Masters degree worth it?

  • 1.  Experience vs. Grad school: Is a Masters degree worth it?

    Posted 07-20-2021 03:43 PM
    Hello, I am a graduate structural engineer with ~2 years of experience, weighing the pros and cons of getting a masters degree and looking for advice from more experienced professionals.

    I have been told repeatedly by more senior engineers to prioritize my experience in the field over a formal degree. However, everyone giving this advice already has a master's degree on their resume. I understand that at some point when I become a PE, my experience may speak louder than my degree, but I am hesitant to gamble my future marketability on experience alone. And in general, it seems a masters degree is just one more thing to make myself marketable.  

    On the flip side, the process of going back for a masters degree is exhausting, time-consuming and expensive. It is entirely possible that the material covered won't directly relate to my line of work. And if experience truly IS more important, I would be sacrificing valuable time spent in the field to fulfil my degree requirements. 

    Is there anyone who can speak on this in the long-term? Once I have my PE/SE, will anyone care what my education level is?

    Thank you for your advice.

    Colleen Maluda EIT, A.M.ASCE
    Graduate Structural Engineer
    Saint Paul MN

  • 2.  RE: Experience vs. Grad school: Is a Masters degree worth it?

    Posted 07-21-2021 11:59 AM
    One of my structural friends at work is getting her Masters one class at a time while working. That might be something to consider if you're unsure about giving up that experience building time to get your masters.
    I will say I know very successful structural engineers without Masters degrees, but it also may depend on what type of projects you're interested in.

    Heidi C. Wallace, P.E., M.ASCE
    Tulsa, OK

  • 3.  RE: Experience vs. Grad school: Is a Masters degree worth it?

    Posted 07-21-2021 12:01 PM
    Edited by Tirza Austin 07-21-2021 12:00 PM

    I believe what you are hearing from others that a master's degree is not worth it is probably because some companies believe experience is worth more than education.  Individuals are different and some learn by experience whereas others could learn by applying what they have learned in school.  Based on my own experience, a major difference I found during my master's education is I was taught how to learn in my own rather than teaching everything.  It went long way in resolving problems.  If you are pursuing a master's education, then find a company which values that education rather than getting a job anywhere regardless of company's culture. 

    Vanaja Rajah P.E., M.ASCE
    Util Engr
    City of Bellevue
    Bellevue WA

  • 4.  RE: Experience vs. Grad school: Is a Masters degree worth it?

    Posted 07-21-2021 03:17 PM

    Good question. While experience is very valuable (in fact irreplaceable) – sometime one may feel inadequacy in his or her professional understanding of certain things. There comes the necessity of Graduate Studies. But then, it all depends on one's personal ambition, expectation, and perhaps professional satisfaction (thinking that things could have been planned, designed and implemented better; although one should be aware of some practical constraints, such as societal attitude of appreciation and matching remuneration, etc).

    The 21st century Science and Technology is poised to embark upon a system that may require an engineering education – higher than Bachelors Degree – simply because the horizon of knowledge is expanding – and the requirement for higher education is being felt across the board. In this regard, perhaps NAP documents 25038 and 25284 are useful.





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    Dr. Dilip Barua, Ph.D, P.Eng, M. ASCE
    Vancouver, BC, Canada

  • 5.  RE: Experience vs. Grad school: Is a Masters degree worth it?

    Posted 07-22-2021 09:34 AM
    Hi everybody!

    Good question!, I hope my opinion be useful.

    Experience and knowledge are important, in fact, I consider that they are the perfect match for a good professional development as an engineer. I agree with Dilip Barua in relation to the fact that at sometimes one may feel inadequate in understanding certain things, and to try to put what has been commented into perspective we could ask ourselves the following question:
    Where do they come from or what is the origin of the differences between the design requirements of a certain design code (I mean equations and the resulting dimensions when designing) for an ordinary reinforced concrete structural element and another classified as special?
    Surely a structural engineer with a bachelor's level (at least it is the level of knowledge for common engineers in Mexico) could only identify that there are differences in the design of both elements and the requirements of each are indicated by the code of design (could be said as a sequel to design).
    On the other hand, a structural engineer with a master's degree could explain and understand the theoretical / experimental / practical reasons about the requirements set out in the design code, not just apply them as a design guide.
    And ... what is the usefulness of this? There are occasions (depending on the level of projects in which you are involved) during the exercise of the profession there will be situations to solve that are not completely established in the design codes and have more knowledge Advanced can give you the opportunity to solve more specific problems, for example, in Mexico the scope of the NTC-2004 design code is lesser than NTC-2017 version and, I consider that the same happens with all codes in the world.

    So, a master's degree (is my opinion) is closely linked to the level of professional development that you want, it is not a conditioning factor but I consider it to be like runners, if you need a higher performance you not only need to run more time or distance.

    Horacio Galicia-Gaona Ing., S.E., M.ASCE

  • 6.  RE: Experience vs. Grad school: Is a Masters degree worth it?

    Posted 07-22-2021 11:54 AM
    Some companies prefer to hire people with a master's degree. A PE/SE is essential.  As a woman, I found that having a master's degree and my PE are invaluable in establishing my credibility. My three children and I all got our master's degree while working. It used to be called night school but is now more flexible but still a lot of work.

    Martha Vangeem P.E., M.ASCE
    Principal Engineer
    Mount Prospect IL

  • 7.  RE: Experience vs. Grad school: Is a Masters degree worth it?

    Posted 07-22-2021 02:16 PM
    If your motivation for a Master's degree is marketability, then I'm not sure that's a good reason to get a MS.  Two more years of experience will probably provide similar marketability, which seems to be the message you are receiving from the senior engineers you have spoken with.   But if your motivation is to learn and understand at a deeper level, I think it's a great idea, especially if you get a research or teaching assistantship.    The depth of understanding I had after my masters gave me more confidence and I feel made me a better engineer (I'm water resources, not structural).  Much of what we do as working engineers is business-driven and process-driven.  Efficiency requires following procedures developed over the years by the company's experts.  But following these procedures doesn't leave a lot of time for reflection on why we are doing them.  We do them because our mentors and supervisors taught us how to do them.  I do feel that my Master's degree gave me the level of understanding of these proceedures and steps that I would not have had with just my undergraduate degree.   As a hydraulic modeler, I understand how models use finite difference approximations to solve the partial differential forms of the St. Venant equations.  I think that helped me understand the limitation of the model more clearly and helped me understand if they results didn't seem right.  There is very little chance I would understand that without my Masters degree.  I'm sure with just a BS, I still could have learned how to run those models and produce quality work, but I don't think I would have understood it as much.   For me, knowledge > marketability.

    Timothy Murphy P.E., M.ASCE
    Trine University
    Angola IN

  • 8.  RE: Experience vs. Grad school: Is a Masters degree worth it?

    Posted 07-26-2021 10:11 AM
    It depends on what type of industry/consulting you desire to work in.  If you want to be a general consultant that works on a variety of projects, then a Masters is important.  I started my own structural consulting office over 44 years ago, had my Masters and would not consider hiring anyone without a Masters.  However, if you want to work in a specific industry using one material then a Masters is less important.  But just experience is not good enough, you need experience directly related to the job you are applying for.   So a Masters expands your options but is not necessary if you work in one area.  Once you work for several years in one industry it is hard to get a job in another industry.  An example is if you work for 15 years designing Metal Buildings and then want to get a job designing concrete parking garages, your experience does not apply much.

    David Isbell, PE, Life member ASCE
    Valley View, Texas

    David Isbell P.E., L.S., M.ASCE
    D.K. Isbell, P.E.
    Valley View TX

  • 9.  RE: Experience vs. Grad school: Is a Masters degree worth it?

    Posted 07-26-2021 10:12 AM

    I agree the concept of knowledge is a benefit both being learned and also experienced. This can be completed concurrently as others have noted above.  I too took one class at a time while helping raise my two sons and at times being away from home for work assignments. All of things help mold the individual. Many continue on to graduate school after attaining a BS which is fine for some, but I feel in the vast number of engineers' experience helps them grasp the concepts of what is possible for them and will help direct you on your career path.  Getting an MS, MBA or PHD for marketing purposes is a step upward but you need to know how to use that knowledge through additional experience to work for the individual.

    William Doherty P.E., M.ASCE
    WSP USA Inc.
    Worcester MA

  • 10.  RE: Experience vs. Grad school: Is a Masters degree worth it?

    Posted 07-27-2021 11:03 AM
    I had understood that a Master's was becoming the entry level requirement in many cases.  In my own case, I got my Master's while working, and in my opinion it had several critical assets.  First, I had been out of the profession for several years in military service, during which time the CWA, SDWA, CERCLA, and TOSCA were all enacted.  So, while the technical part of my Master's studies were largely a slightly more detailed review of my undergraduate environmental engineering education, the regulatory part was entirely new.  I also took electives as part of that program which were useful in understanding the statistical, management, and social aspects of the profession.  Finally, there was also a good bit of networking with other engineers including those working for municipal clients which was valuable.  While this was going on, I was learning the detailed design and project management aspects on the job, at a time when there were no formal programs in project management.  I think most engineers are introverted enough that studying the social aspects of the profession is not at all as effective as practice.

    William Forbes MASCE, PE, ME, BCEE
    Senior Principal Engineer/Vice President of Engineering
    Forensic Analysis & Engineering Corporation
    Virginia Beach, Virginia

  • 11.  RE: Experience vs. Grad school: Is a Masters degree worth it?

    Posted 07-27-2021 11:04 AM
    Good morning.  I do not have a master degree and have successfully practiced in consulting for 33 years.  I own a small firm [past 20 years].   You can be very successful without a masters degree in a variety of consulting careers. The key is to always build your resume with experience and classroom [can be college, trade programs, other].  My experience is that a higher degree [masters, Phd] is more valuable to academia, government and some specialized consulting paths.  In closing. Will anyone care if you have a masters after you have your PE?  Maybe, depending on the path you choose. Fortunately the market is strong for engineers so if you want to build the experience side of the balance now you can and then decide later the path you want to walk upon.

    Steve Frenette P.E., M.ASCE
    Sali Group
    Ann Arbor MI

  • 12.  RE: Experience vs. Grad school: Is a Masters degree worth it?

    Posted 07-28-2021 08:10 AM
    I got my Master's Degree a bit late in life (61) and I consider it priceless. While experience matters, academic work enables you to get a much better theoretical foundation for your work. Also, it gave me a broader view of engineering that I didn't have. What I also noticed is the way people interact with me now that I have a Master's Degree. I obtained my degree online at Columbia University, New York and it wasn't cheap. It was also very difficult with the time commitment, and self discipline to get the work done.  Four years later, I'm very glad I did it. It's allowed me to work on a lot more advanced projects than I had worked on before.

    George Runkle P.E., M.ASCE
    Lawrenceville GA

  • 13.  RE: Experience vs. Grad school: Is a Masters degree worth it?

    Posted 07-28-2021 05:14 PM
    I went to school for my BS, MS and PhD all while working Full time. I LOVED my MS degree. I found it interesting and applicable to what I was working on in my job the very next day sometimes. I would do the MS all over again. The PhD...eh...I'm not so sure I would do it again.

    FWIW, I require an Masters ( I don't care what it's in) for all senior department heads regardless of experience, it shows me dedication and a drive to learn new things and self-educate.

    Jesse Kamm PhD, PMP, A.M.ASCE
    Senior Vice President of Construction Management

  • 14.  RE: Experience vs. Grad school: Is a Masters degree worth it?

    Posted 08-02-2021 09:18 AM
    Getting an MS can help in terms of marketability more so than enhancing your competence and technical capability. My experience is that if you have a PE and work for yourself, an MS is not essential. An MS however, may be more important to landing a job.

    Yes, going to school while working full-time is difficult, but worth it if you can devote the time. I would consider going to a public/state college to save on tuition. I had an employer who paid for my MS  from a private college while working full time. But when it came time to get my MBA, my employer at the time would only pay enough for a degree at a state college. The degree from the state college was just as good as from most private colleges in the area. 

    Lawrence DiPietro, PE, MS, MBA MASCE

    Lawrence Dipietro P.E., M.ASCE
    Professional Engineer
    Wakefield MA

  • 15.  RE: Experience vs. Grad school: Is a Masters degree worth it?

    Posted 08-09-2021 08:33 PM

    I find having the MS gives me quite a bit more credibility with my clients, so it does help me in working for myself with the type of work I do. The main advantage though was what i taught me. Going to school while working was really hard though. It took a lot of self-discipline. As far as schools, it was very, very expensive for me to go to Columbia. There are plenty of state schools out there with excellent programs that are not nearly as expensive. A good part of my tuition was paid for by the Post 911 GI Bill, so it wasn't so painful there.

    George W. Runkle III, MS, P.E., M.ASCE
    Runkle Consulting, Inc

    George Runkle P.E., M.ASCE
    Lawrenceville GA

  • 16.  RE: Experience vs. Grad school: Is a Masters degree worth it?

    Posted 08-02-2021 09:19 AM

    My father had a lot of practical experience before getting his Doctorate, which I would look back and say it blazzoned me because my generation was entirely different my parents having just two kids, and he was in a family of five.  So my bachelor's degree was somewhat expatriated from my young mind and the people that were from business owner family who attended my college.  

    I had good ideas in my mind, but was flat-listed to get my first job in the occupation.  I got the chance at the Master's degree from the other side of the family and my concepts were rewarded with good intellectual power situating for the Master's degree.  The slowdown that a Masters Degree enabled me to see the piece wise progress of engineering constancy.  

    Take it with a grain of salt… that is what research allows. But for working in the Career itself, unless you are all research, hone down on engineering projects with the government or with private owners and you will find success.  If you have the insight I suggest knowing your family and the disciplines each has supported.  In the end you will have a close-knit family and esteem no regrets.

    Refugio Rochin P.E., M.ASCE
    Civil Engineer V
    NAXUTL, Inc.
    Riverdale GA

  • 17.  RE: Experience vs. Grad school: Is a Masters degree worth it?

    Posted 08-09-2021 10:32 AM
    My answer to your question is NO.
    Engineering, like medicine, is practical applied science.
    What's important is to master the fundamentals.
    The fundamentals are
    1. mastering engineering mechanics and base courses in one's preferred track, but most importantly 
    2. ingraining the problem-solving process in one's personality:
      a. Define correctly what IS the problem.
      b. Don't try to solve the problem!  Gather all the information one can about it.
      c. Identify alternative ways to solve the problem.
      d. Evaluate the different alternatives
      e. Pick the best one.
    These fundamentals come from a BS in engineering, not other sciences or majors.  Without the BSCE a masters is useless. 
    2 is important because one will likely never see a problem like one solved in undergraduate school.  Ones value is the ability to solve problems one has never seen before.
    Consequently, experience is necessary, learning from others on the job, finding out what doesn't work, etc.
    As an employer, i would look askance at a MSCE, as it implies one lacks the necessary practical experience to be valuable to my company, and appears more likely to be resume padding.
    Continuing education is absolutely necessary to keep abreast of developments in the field, but a MSCE doesn't do that.  Some of those in academia with advanced degrees have had embarrassing, even laughable, experiences when moving into the practical world.
    Unless one wants to pursue a career in academia, a MSCE is of limited value.  If one were to pursue a Masters, in engineering or business or law, do it only after gaining several years of practical experience.

    Karl Sieg P.E., M.ASCE
    Sieg & Associates Inc
    Venice FL

  • 18.  RE: Experience vs. Grad school: Is a Masters degree worth it?

    Posted 08-09-2021 06:14 PM
    Having a Master's Degree and experience doesn't have to be mutually exclusive. There are so many ways to get the Master's degree while working, in particular, online curriculums. I obtained my Master's degree online from Columbia University, and it really was worthwhile. I had a lot of "AHA!" experiences, which came from working in my real world experience with academic experience. The other issue I found is some areas of Civil Engineering do require a Masters. My original specialty was Geotechnical, and I found I was not able to get a good position in that field without the Master's degree.  I'm now in Structural, and honestly, I needed the extra coursework to be effective.

    George Runkle P.E., M.ASCE
    President, Runkle Consulting, Inc.
    Lawrenceville GA

  • 19.  RE: Experience vs. Grad school: Is a Masters degree worth it?

    Posted 08-10-2021 09:21 AM
    I respectfully disagree.   My Master's degree helped me immensely to better understand the fundamental concepts necessary to do my job well.  The company I worked for favored MS degree candidates.   It wasn't seen as resume padding or marketing, but something that made us more qualified for some of the complex problem-solving we did as professional engineers.
    I don't discount your opinion, since there are certainly cases where more experience might be more useful than more education, but I don't think that's a universal opinion.

    This thread has shown that there is no good answer to this question, since everyone has different experiences.   But I still contend that people should choose to pursue a master's degree for the purpose of learning more, and not for the purpose of self-marketing.

    Timothy Murphy P.E., M.ASCE
    Trine University
    Angola IN

  • 20.  RE: Experience vs. Grad school: Is a Masters degree worth it?

    Posted 08-13-2021 06:04 PM

    Hi Colleen, thanks for the opportunity to share my opinions on your questions.

    "I am a graduate structural engineer with ~2 years of experience, weighing the pros and cons of getting a master's degree and looking for advice from more experienced professionals."

    Q.1. " Is there anyone who can speak on this in the long-term?"

    Colleen, with 20/20 hindsight, reasons to obtain an MS in engineering may be due to any one or more of the following:

    • Employer pays for all or part of the tuition and fees;
    • Employer allows your work schedule to flex around some semester-specific requirements; and,
    • Employer's internal career path requires it.
    • II. Your Personal Career-Path Plan
    • You wish to build capabilities that position you to become an expert to

    consult as either a "Big Frog" in a little pond, or a "Little Frog" in a very big pond.

    1. 'Big Frog' provides unique service to a specific, narrow potential client base.
    2. 'Little Frog' provides more common services to a potential larger client base.

    Q.2. "Once I have my PE/SE, will anyone care what my education level is?"

    Based on what kind of frog you decide to be known as, those in your pond will!

    Stay Healthy!



    William M. Hayden Jr., Ph.D., P.E., CMQ/OE, F.ASCE
    Buffalo, N.Y.

    "It is never too late to be what you might have been." -- George Eliot 1819 - 1880

  • 21.  RE: Experience vs. Grad school: Is a Masters degree worth it?

    Posted 08-16-2021 01:38 PM
    I graduated from Ga Tech in 1953 and went on to get a MSCE from Cal Tech in 1960 and a Dr.-Ing from the University of Karlsruhe in 1964.  Those degrees were like puberty rites that allowed me to pursue a career in hydromechanics.  After 27 years with the UBBR and 2 years with the Ecole Polytechnique  in Lausanne Switzerland, I formed my own international consulting firm.  I still enjoy consulting after 62 years!  When people ask what kind of work I do, I tell them I never worked a day in my life, it has all been fun.  I owe it all to having a firm grounding in both the practical and the theoretical disciplines that began with advanced degrees and then having the opportunity to be mentored by experienced engineers in a field that I love.

    Henry Falvey Ph.D., Hon.D.WRE, M.ASCE
    Henry T Falvey & Associates, Inc
    Conifer CO