What are some useful directions for grad school?
October 5, 2013 9:42 AM   Subscribe

I'm an engineer with a career in software and I recently finished an MBA from a good school. I'd like to keep the learning going, preferably in something that complements my background, but I don't have any specific direction in mind. I guess I'm hoping that someone might suggest something that's entirely off my radar. What should I be thinking about?

My MBA was great. It was a part-time program, so I didn't have much time for the social aspect, but I gained broad knowledge in a bunch of useful fields: accounting, finance, econometrics, economics, operations, marketing. I knew little about all of these before I started, so the benefit for me was really that it circumscribed the depth of my ignorance -- it converted some unknown unknowns into known unknowns, so to speak. I highly recommend the experience, even though it was expensive.

I want to let it ride, but I don't know what direction I should take. A few qualifications:
  • The goal isn't to make me more valuable to the company I work for -- or any other company -- but to make me more generally capable and informed. That said, I'm looking for a degree program, not a "go to the library and read books" program.
  • I'm probably only interested in programs that can be pursued part-time, at least for now. Opportunity cost of full-time school is too high. (But if there's something really cool that is full-time only, it'd still be nice to hear about it.)
  • I thought I'd maybe like to learn more about law, but I don't see a practical way to pursue worthwhile credentialed education.
My current thought is to try for an MS in statistics, as the wide applicability of stats was the biggest eye-opener for me during my MBA, and I know I'd enjoy it. But that's depth rather than breadth. And it feels like an unimaginative choice for an engineer.

Also: I know the refrain that you should figure out what you want to do, and then get the schooling to allow you to do it. It is sage advice, but I'm not sure it applies in this case. Maybe it does.
posted by mf_ss to Education (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Software engineers can sometimes benefit from studying graphic design, user interface design, industrial design, or even art.

Another idea would be electrical engineering.

I don't think law would be of much value to you.
posted by Dansaman at 10:23 AM on October 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

Okay, two things.

One: non-professional grad programs are gonna be about learning a specific research or problem-solving technique. So don't ask yourself "What topic do I want to study?" Ask "What technique do I want to acquire?" or "What tool do I want to master?"

Two: non-professional grad programs are always gonna be about depth rather than breadth. To keep going with the "tool" analogy: it's not like getting a tour of a big new toolkit. You really just pick one tool — ideally one that you're already basically competent with — and spend a year or two practicing and studying and learning and honing your skills until you're really damn good at using it.

If you want this to be a "breadth" thing, the best way to do that is to pick a tool with universal applicability: a knife or a lever or a balance rather than, like, a tire pressure gauge or an earwax scraper. Stats would actually be a pretty good choice, since it can be used on literally any problem that involves prediction, estimation or pattern-recognition.

Or if you want to go farther outside what you already know, maybe look for something where you'll be able to pick up some qualitative research methods? (That's social-scientist-speak for "Finding things out about about people by watching, surveying or interviewing them, without specifically counting or measuring anything.") That would mean probably sociology, maybe psych or possibly anthropology.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 10:59 AM on October 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I was going to say stats and / or communication. Your ability to persuade management et al will be much improved.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:23 AM on October 5, 2013

This may sound totally out of left field, but if you're going for breadth and creativity, I think you should look into applied anthropology.

I'm in such a program myself. Despite the sort of convoluted title of my academic concentration ("Globalization, Development, and Culture") much of what we do has a surprisingly large scope of applicability. Like Now there are two suggested, you'll learn how to use qualitative methods in a systematic way to solve any number of real-world problems. Aside from the more marketable skills, the most personally valuable thing I've gotten from the program is the ability to understand how people's everyday lives (behaviors/objects/environments/ad infinitum) are impacted by the complex web of macro systems at play in any given moment/place. To me (and I am admittedly biased) it's a set of critical thinking tools that surpasses that of most other disciplines.

See also: Business Anthropology, Design Anthropology, Urban Anthropology

It's a wonder to me that there aren't more engineering/anthropology partnerships. One of my colleagues is working with an engineer on a dam maintenance project in a local neighborhood, and it seems to be a great complementary relationship. I recommend finding a program which emphasizes methods over theory. Here is a list of schools which offer programs in applied anthropology. Best of luck on your continued education!
posted by a.steele at 1:03 PM on October 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

how about project management? a PMP goes well with engineering and an MBA
posted by seawallrunner at 2:49 PM on October 5, 2013

quantitative social science degree like psychology or sociology. there are schools that focus on qualitative or quantitative areas of the discipline. within a quantitative focus, there is a distinction between survey focused and experiment focused.

under-grad degrees are for breadth, grad degrees are for depth.
posted by cupcake1337 at 8:03 PM on October 5, 2013

How about international marketing? It would certainly involve aspects of both software engineering and business. There were some really interesting grad-level international business progams out of Portland a few years back... might be worth looking at though of course the most value in such grad programs lies in the networking component and, as with your MBA, you'd likely miss out on a lot if you're limited to part time.

Also: strategic communications. Or something that builds on your writing skills. I keep rounding back to marketing-related subjects because those are mad skills to have.
posted by AnOrigamiLife at 4:02 AM on October 6, 2013

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