Published: Nov. 9, 2018

Old Main building on main campus with Flatirons in the backgroundOver the course of the last several decades, the path ahead for those who aspire to manage and lead organizations across the spectrum of business and industry was understood and clear: earn a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree.

But in recent years a new path has emerged for individuals whose professional pursuits are more focused on scientific and technical fields: the masters in engineering management. As the degree continues to grow in popularity, it raises a question that more and more prospective graduate students are encountering: What are the benefits of a masters in engineering management vs. an MBA? And how do you choose the best option?

As one would expect, both degree paths offer distinct benefits. Typically, either of the graduate degrees will position you for elevated professional opportunities and career advancement. The simple truth is that for higher positions of leadership, most companies and organizations may highly consider candidates who have earned a master’s degree.

But there are also a number of key differences between the two degrees in terms of areas of programmatic focus, group-based learning activities, and the specific types of outcomes each is designed to prepare graduates to achieve. For some, the more traditional route of an MBA may deliver a better range of career options, while for many others, the more recent masters in engineering management is the better choice.

“Deciding between the two is largely going to depend on the industry you’re working in, your role within that industry, and where you aspire to go from there,” says John Svoboda, who has both a Master of Science in Telecommunications and an MBA and is an instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Master of Engineering Management Program. “The MBA will have a somewhat broader application, while the Master of Engineering (ME) in Engineering Management degree would be a better transition tool for someone working in one particular engineering field who’s looking to move into another area of engineering.”

The first step to truly understand the choice between a master of engineering management vs. MBA is to take a closer look at each.

Understanding the MBA Degree

The MBA was first offered during the early 20th century, when Harvard College established the first-of-its-kind program in 1908. Industrialization and the growth of heavy industry and manufacturing companies required a new kind of manager who could effectively oversee and lead large operations with divided areas of specialization and labor tasks, and successfully bridge the divide between management and employees.

From the beginning, MBA programs evolved to reflect the needs of business and industry of the times. While early programs focused exclusively on serving younger students coming straight out of undergraduate programs, in 1940 the University of Chicago launched the first MBA program designed to meet the needs of professionals already working in business. This led to the eventual offering of what came to be known as Executive MBA programs.

In the 1950s and 1960s, research indicated that MBA programs at the time weren’t broad enough and needed to incorporate more study of theoretical concepts and research opportunities. In the 1990s, schools started shifting the focus of their MBA programs once again. This time, they aimed to balance out theoretical learning with more active, group-based project learning initiatives.

With all of the changes and evolution of MBA programs, however, there have been some constants. The purpose of the program, from the beginning, hasn’t wavered — to create a graduate business program that would be considered on the same level as degrees in medicine or law, but for business executives and leaders.

Another aspect of the MBA that has stayed relatively constant over the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st century, albeit with some new twists, are the core areas of concentration within the curriculum. These typically include the study of:

  • Accounting
  • Management
  • Economics
  • Finance
  • Marketing

But again, as global commerce continues to evolve at such a rapid pace, so too have the areas of concentration for most MBA programs. Students today, as opposed to their counterparts from decades past, pursue study in additional areas such as health care management, entrepreneurship, international business, social media and enterprise, and innovation, among others.

In addition to newer and emerging areas of specialization within MBA programs, another obvious evolution over the years has been how courses, and programs in general, are delivered.

Today’s MBA students are afforded highly flexible scheduling options, which in many cases include online courses, evening and weekend courses, and part-time programs for working professionals who want to achieve the impressive credential, but won’t be able to complete the program in the typical two-year timeframe of full-time students.

To review, the key distinctive characteristics of a high-quality MBA program include:

  • Broad Applications. An MBA degree can be applied to upper-management positions across a broad spectrum of business and industry.
  • Opportunities to Focus. Within virtually any MBA program, students have opportunities to specialize their studies and develop focused expertise to make themselves more marketable in areas that interest them.
  • Name Recognition and Established Reputation. The MBA is seen as the gold standard of credentials that can position individuals for the highest levels of leadership in business.

Understanding the Masters in Engineering Management Degree

The masters in engineering management degree may not have the historical roots or established reputation like the MBA, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an equally powerful professional credential for the right student, looking to thrive in certain fields.

In fact, the degree itself has a deeper history than most might think; early forms of graduate-level programs focused on providing business management and leadership skills specifically for individuals looking to work at engineering and technology organizations began emerging in the 1960s.

While in the past, the MBA has enjoyed wide name recognition, the increased demand for the skills acquired in a masters in engineering program has raised the degree’s visibility and value, both for working professionals and their employers.

Today, the masters in engineering management degree is recognized as an advanced credential, gaining momentum over the past decade with more programs emerging nationwide. The trend shows no signs of slowing — the explosive growth of complex organizations and companies that are driven primarily by engineering and technology are contributing to the demand for the degree and further strengthening its name recognition.

Further, in today’s arena of business and industry, engineering isn’t done in a vacuum. Even in non-engineering companies and organizations, engineering impacts all kinds of business initiatives and endeavors in a variety of ways and more often than not is becoming the focal point of major organizational decisions.

In that sense, finding ways to develop leaders who can effectively synthesize engineering and technology expertise with skills in management, leadership, creative thinking and decision-making creates a kind of “best of both worlds” professional. Students who study engineering management at the graduate level develop knowledge in business principles and core areas, including:

  • Accounting
  • Economics
  • Finance
  • Operations management
  • Quality control
  • Human resources management
  • Operations research

Additionally, masters in engineering management programs also typically incorporate areas such as:

  • Systems engineering
  • Industrial engineering
  • Mathematical modeling
  • Management information systems
  • Management science
  • Product engineering

Given the technical nature of the masters in engineering management vs. the MBA, it’s typically a prerequisite for applicants to have earned their undergraduate degree in a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) field. In contrast, students who are admitted to MBA programs come from a wide range of undergraduate disciplines, including business, economics, engineering, humanities, hard sciences, and social science, among others.

So, to review the key distinctions that characterize the masters in engineering management program, they include:

  • Focused Applications. A masters in engineering management is typically ideal for those looking to work at organizations highly-focused on engineering and technology, but it is also a viable path ahead at non-tech organizations simply because those, too, are impacted by technology at some level.
  • Emerging Name Recognition. While not as well-known as the MBA, a masters in engineering management is generally regarded at the same level by employers in engineering and technologically related fields, and its popularity is continuing to grow.
  • Background in STEM Field. Students considering a masters in engineering management are usually required to have an undergraduate background in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics.

Masters in Engineering Management vs. MBA: A Checklist for Choosing

When it comes to deciding which graduate program is the best fit for you, your interests, and your career goals, there’s obviously a lot to consider. Here are a few important, practical considerations to think through as you weigh your options:

Educational Background

Do you have an undergraduate degree in engineering or a STEM field? Or is your bachelor’s degree in business or some other non-science field? This is important because the masters in engineering management is designed for professional engineers or applicants who’ve earned their bachelor’s in engineering or a STEM field, while the MBA can be pursued by individuals coming from business- or non-business undergraduate backgrounds, including engineering and STEM fields.

Program Entrance Requirements

Entrance requirements vary by program and institution, and both the masters in engineering management and MBA require the successful completion of graduate-level entrance exams (though in some cases applicants who have achieved a certain GPA for their undergraduate degree may be exempt from this requirement). The difference, however, is that most MBA programs accept the GMAT exam or the GRE, while a Master in Engineering Management Program like that at CU Boulder accepts the GRE.

Program Focus

This might be the most important consideration for anyone thinking about the masters of engineering management vs. the MBA. The MBA incorporates the traditional areas of study such as accounting and finance, along with new and emerging areas, in a way that positions graduates to succeed as leaders and managers across a broad spectrum of business and industry.

A masters in engineering management enables students who come from an engineering or technically-related background to augment that knowledge with business skills it takes to bridge the gap and succeed as leaders and decision-makers in high-tech organizations, departments, and corporations - in a program that's designed specifically for, by and with engineers.  

Program Uniqueness

One additional aspect you should consider when weighing the choice between a masters in engineering management vs. the MBA is: which will be more effective at setting you apart in the eyes of potential employers?  Fortunately, both degrees will do just that.  

Engineering building on main campus The Lockheed Martin Engineering Management Program at CU Boulder

Once you’ve gained a more thorough understanding of the masters of engineering management vs. the MBA choice and determined that the masters in engineering management is the best path ahead for you, it’s time to carefully explore different programs to find one that will offer the best possible preparation for success in the field.

For a growing number of talented individuals who aspire to leadership positions at the highest levels, the Lockheed Martin Engineering Management Program at the University of Colorado Boulder (EMP) has been the answer to that question.

The Master of Engineering in Engineering Management at CU Boulder provides a strategic alternative to an MBA and provides a relevant intersection of areas of knowledge that better prepares students to thrive as leaders in technology and engineering fields.

“Students in our Program benefit from a very diverse classroom dynamic,” Svoboda says. “There’s a lot of group-based learning and so in any given group, you may find someone who works in software, a civil engineer, and an electrical engineer working together. It’s representative of the very interrelated nature of engineering as a whole, but even more important, it reflects the professional world we’re living in and so it really adds a lot of value to the learning experience.”

Students in the EMP encounter a carefully crafted program of study that offers a breadth of perspective and a depth of knowledge that sets graduates apart from traditional MBA graduates. Areas of study in the Program’s curriculum include:

  • Introduction to Engineering Management
  • Finance and Accounting for Engineering Managers
  • Project Management OR Software Project Management OR Fundamentals of Systems Engineering
  • Leading Oneself
  • Engineering Communication

Additionally, the Program requires the completion of up to five elective courses, which provide students with opportunities to further specialize their studies and develop highly-marketable knowledge and expertise in new and emerging areas. Some of the Program’s electives include:

  • Engineering Principles
  • Leading Technical Organizations
  • Ethical Decision Making
  • Entrepreneurship for Engineers
  • Applied Business Decisions
  • Methods for Quality Improvement
  • Advanced Topics in Quality Management/Systems
  • Advanced Topics in Value Creation
  • Product Development
  • Business Law for Engineers
  • Independent Study – Industry Sponsored Projects

The Master of Engineering in Engineering Management Program at CU Boulder effectively bridges the worlds of engineering and business. It opens up new worlds of opportunities for those with an engineering-heavy or more technical background to bolster their quantitative and problem-solving abilities with the leadership and management skills that can take them to new professional heights with their current employer or allow them to pivot to new opportunities.

“We’re very intentional with this Program about ensuring the material is applicable and useful in terms of what’s happening in business and industry. Our faculty bring substantial professional experience and are able to make assignments really authentic and relevant,” Svoboda says. “Another benefit that sets our Program apart is our setting in Boulder. I don’t think there’s a better environment for someone interested in an engineering startup or to collaborate, be mentored or get advice from a very engaged local community. Getting a coffee with a top venture capitalist is fairly easy to do in Boulder. Not a lot of places can say that.”

The Program is offered through the College of Engineering and Applied Science at CU Boulder, which was founded in 1893 and is widely recognized among the top public research institutions in the country.

As a student in the Master of Engineering in Engineering Management Program, you’ll be able to choose from both on-campus and online course offerings. In fact, more than one-third of students in the Program complete their studies entirely online, and more than 60 percent complete at least a portion of the Program online.

For more information, contact Kendra Thibeault at Kendra.Thibeault@colorado.edu or call 303.492.0954.