Worth it to pay the bills to get the skills?
January 9, 2012 8:08 PM   Subscribe

Engineering master's degree: worth it in my special situation? I have an engineering BS, the MS would be in the same sort of engineering, and it would be free (sort of). I've been working in non-engineering academic research, but I want to get into industry R&D.

(Sock puppet because basically no one knows I'm looking to switch jobs.)

I have an undergrad degree in engineering from a good school; graduated five-ish years ago with average grades. After graduating, I continued working at said school in a science field tangentially related to my undergrad education. I've moved up the ranks of non-doctorate academic research, but I've always thought about leaving academia. I'm not sure I have the engineering skills to pay the bills, though. I'd like to get a position that's a bit better than fresh-out-of-undergrad entry-level, hopefully focusing on R&D in a startup-like environment.

(I don't want to do a Ph.D., engineering or otherwise, at this point, but it is a possibility down the road. I know that would be even better for getting into this line of work, but I can't currently take the pay cut going to a Ph.D. student's stipend.)

For family reasons, I now will be at least in the same city for another 3+ years. I could try to find an engineering job here, but they're pretty thin on the ground, especially smaller companies. That makes me think I should leverage the tuition benefits at my school to tack on a master's in the same engineering field to compensate for my lack of industry experience-- experience that I'm not likely to be able to get for some time.

If it were as easy as that, I would totally do it. But "free" unfortunately isn't free. It would get taxed as a benefit to the tune of $3800 a semester. Since it would be job-related enough for the IRS (man I hope it would be), I'd get it back in my return. (I have meetings with HR and the department lined up to hammer this out.) I don't have that kind of money in savings, or room in my budget for it. Since it's short-term, I could probably borrow the money from family, but there might also be loans of some sort in my future. (Also a bridge I'll build when I get to the river.)

Bottom line: master's degree-- is it worth it for working as an engineer in smaller, more cutting-edge, startup-type companies, given that I have limited engineering experience? (I plan on spinning the more engineering-related parts of my current job as sort-of experience.) Does the fact that the degree would be free-ish make a difference?

If the specific field matters, I'll chime in with that info or can give it over MeMail.
posted by your mom's a sock puppet to Work & Money (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
To be clear: I'd be getting the master's part time while working full time. $3800 is just the tax from the tuition benefits of two courses per semester. With a 10-course requirement to graduate, I'd finish in under two years. But that also means I could theoretically push enrolling back another year.
posted by your mom's a sock puppet at 8:20 PM on January 9, 2012

Are you absolutely sure that you'd owe $3800 in taxes? I take two courses a semester with help from tuition remission (I work for a university). According to IRS rules (in my case, at least), graduate tuition paid by an employer counts as taxable income once you reach about $5200 in benefits. Tuition being something around $500 per credit, the benefit does add up. I do pay several hundred dollars in additional taxes over the course of a year, but it's nowhere near $3800.
posted by Nomyte at 8:26 PM on January 9, 2012

Unfortunately, yes, I'm fairly sure. But I'm meeting with someone in tuition benefits to be certain.

It's a bit convoluted. Cost for two classes is X, which is covered as a benefit. The university applies (X - X*a) to my tuition/fee bill, where a is the maximum tax rate. I'm then responsible for X*a. It just so happens that X and a are both extremely high (private university).

I omitted the 5200/year part, though I am aware of it-- that would apply to one semester per calendar year, but unfortunately doesn't take a big chunk out of the total.
posted by your mom's a sock puppet at 8:37 PM on January 9, 2012

This really is field-dependent - If you are in a more theoretical field of engineering this may not apply. In my field (mechanical design contracting), a master's degree is helpful but it needs to be pretty targeted and I like to see at least some work experience (co-ops, internships, even a significant masters thesis). Basically I want some assurance that you can problem-solve in a real-world environment. At my company, a master's degree will not get you out of entry-level tasking, but it does speed up your track towards more responsibilities.

A master's degree may be free-ish but you really need to factor in the time investment as well - if you are working 40 hours a week it is difficult to take more than one engineering class a semester, which means your degree track is close to 6 years.
posted by muddgirl at 8:41 PM on January 9, 2012

From '99 to '03 I worked in R&D for a pretty large SBIR with my Computer Engineering BS. I worked with a mix of Mechanical, Materials, Electrical, Industrial and Computer Engineers in my division. I can't say that every company works like this, nor that this is the way every company should work. I can say that a masters does not guarantee more research, nor that you would wind up doing the type of work that you might be expecting. Also, there is a limited number of roles in research at the Masters level and it in no way guarantees your future.

PhDs wrote grants and research proposals. When they landed a contract, they worked the theory pretty heavily with a team of PhDs and managed the project. They also would develop some pretty cool algorithms, with sub-optimal coding. I'd describe them as 80% Theoretical and 20% labwork. The labwork that they were doing was generally in the realm of "Does the result of the test reveal the phenomenon that my work was designed to demonstrate." A PhD with an oscilloscope or a soldering iron was a moment for fear.

BS engineers represented about 30% of the roles, and basically built the each item as a prototype, as well as oversaw the assigned techs, ensured testing and basically built the larger scale system in a lab setting. We would get a description of what it was that we had to build, as well as the theory behind the proposal. So we might be responsible for building a circuit which would generate a PWM at a set frequency. We might be expected to design a high speed serial routine which would translate a message securely. We might be requested to develop a mix of mechanical components to orient, to move, or to otherwise ensure proper motion of a part of a project. We might also take an algorithm from a PhD and translate that into useable code (remove nested for loops, build state machines, etc). If PhDs were 80% theoretical and 20% lab, then the BSes were 30% Theoretical and 70% lab. BSes also were responsible for AS engineer quality - meaning, we tested and reworked the boards the AS engineers built for us, and told them to put the transistors and diodes in the other way around...

AS engineers (and BS Co-Ops) represented about 15% of the roles, they built any and everything, but generally didn't know what they were building. They could debug the circuit. They could follow a circuit diagram or machine a custom part, and they may even have some hands on expertise with implementation or a specific board or what have you, but they were doers, not researchers. They were 10% theoretical and 90% lab. As such, they floated between every project and were brought in late in the project to basically assemble the final project.

MS Engineers represented about 5% of the roles in the company. They existed as subject matter experts, had some managerial roles (as they would be responsible for "Controls Systems" or "Power Electronics System" or "Health Monitoring and Self-Repairing System" or "Mechanical-Electrical Interface." Their job would be to ensure that the BS engineers were each developing their components and that the system as a whole worked properly. They were responsible for the systemic solution. So they may take the boards of one BS engineer, the software of another, the mechanical solution of another and interweave that into a single systemic aspect of the project. They worked 50% theoretical 50% lab. There was a lot of paperwork involved.
posted by Nanukthedog at 9:58 PM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

For electronics/computer engineering a masters degree is definitely worth it. It appears to be equivalent to a BS plus five years experience in my experience as an interviewer and as a job seeker.
posted by monotreme at 11:20 PM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

The best benefit may well be buying some more time to enter the private job market in this terrible economy. Also, entering the work force from academia research heads you towards more devoted research type jobs as say opposed to product development. The masters would likely have some added benefit in seeking those jobs. If you could be a bit more specific on the type of engineering and the area in which you are currently working folks with specific knowledge in that area might be able to give you some more targeted advice. My general impression is that a masters in engineering is not worth the time and money just to get better jobs, higher salary etc., but there are technology exceptions, and then there is also the personal satisfaction and growth that comes with such an endeavor.
posted by caddis at 4:15 AM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Exactly the sort of feedback I'm looking for; thanks, all.

If it makes a difference (which it seems like it does): I'm looking to go into biotech device R&D. The MSE would be in either biomedical engineering (my undergrad) or electrical engineering. I currently work in neuroscience, which is what I specialized in towards the end of undergrad.
posted by your mom's a sock puppet at 5:10 AM on January 10, 2012

Absolutely get a master's degree. Ideally, you would want to enroll full time in a research-based program where your tuition was covered by an RAship, but this would be the next best thing, having a significant amount of the tuition covered by the employer.

I've seen several situations where a mid career engineer with only a BS found his options more limited than they would have been, otherwise.

Another thing to consider-- are you taking classes as part of the university's mainstream program, or is this some kind of "Master's degree for engineering professionals" sort of program? If it is the latter, you may not feel that you are getting your money's worth, intellectually speaking. It's still worth it, though.
posted by deanc at 5:27 AM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

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