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The Master’s Degree

The November 2007 edition of Civil Engineering magazine contained two excerpted chapters from Patricia Galloway’s new book, The 21st-Century Engineer: A Proposal for Engineering Education Reform.  The text directly addresses some of the educational challenges facing the engineering profession and suggested some means to improve education and the public perception of engineers in the United States.  The two primary topics are the adequacy (or lack thereof) of today’s four-year bachelor degree and a proposed Master of Professional Engineering Management (PEM) degree to fill in the gaps and provide a comprehensive academic foundation for future Professional Engineers.

Galloway presents a variety of course styles and topics to fulfill the need to ensure competent engineers in our advanced, global economy.  The notion of a master’s degree to obtain professional licensure may appear daunting to those current students or even engineers in training that may not be in line for the exam for several years.  However, the curriculum that Galloway proposes is already in place at several universities, and it fits neatly into a working professional’s schedule.  I am fortunate to have had such a program at Montana Tech that allowed me to earn a master’s degree, while applying what I had learned to my day job.

The concept of an online degree is often regarded as something akin to a cheap correspondence course or, worse, a degree mill that doesn’t require actual work.  While such situations no doubt exist, the Montana Tech program and others like it provide a very real learning environment and the ability to “meet” a variety of people through real-time chat rooms and, sometimes, in person.  Also, like any other degree, you get out of it what you put into it.  Online learning is strongly dependent on individual commitment and the ability to apply the subject matter in the real world.  Don’t expect to get your money’s worth if you have any trouble with time management.  And while Tech’s courses are all computer-based, the capstone “final” is an in-person presentation and interview with the advisor and instructors to review the whole curriculum and demonstrate your new knowledge.

I have often described my MPEM degree as being like an MBA for engineers.  It is designed to provide the professional with business, project management, and advanced engineering topics that are rarely found in undergraduate education or on the job.  With a good mix of core and elective courses in management accounting, legal issues, risk management, ethics, and entrepreneurship, one can establish a much broader business foundation for the future.  All of Tech’s courses have been adapted from on-campus curricula, with modifications for the online environment.  With a few technological hurdles, the translation works well.  To my knowledge, cheating has not been a problem in the seven years since inception.  Remember, these students want to be here; it is not merely another hoop to jump through for the PE certificate.

Another factor for a successful online degree is the work experience of the students prior to beginning classes.  I was about average, having been out of school for about 10 years.  Some were more recent graduates, but many had much more work experience, in a variety of industries and job descriptions.  From technicians to managers to military, everyone brought unique backgrounds to the classes, and the insights gained from years on the job greatly enhanced what was gained from the course material.  In short, these types of programs may be more challenging for a typical engineer with less than 4 or 5 years’ experience.

Whatever your motivation to earn an advanced degree, the online programs can be a very convenient and rewarding experience.  In fact, if you are contemplating such a leap, I encourage you to go ahead and get started.  My 30 credits took nearly three years, including summers.  If you wait until an advanced degree is a requirement for licensure, your efforts will simply be another commodity.  If you do it on your own, you are demonstrating initiative and commitment that will add that much more value to the extra initials after your name.


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