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Degree Shopping for Engineers

Engineers planning CNC machinery

A generation ago, ambitious and naturally skilled engineers could launch a career with a bachelor’s degree, sometimes even less. Not so any more. Aspiring engineers are entering a marketplace where a bachelor’s degree is table stakes and advanced degrees are quickly becoming a must-have for a successful engineering career.

A question of if and when

Swee Mok has built a rewarding engineering career as an Aerotek contractor around his passion and expertise in advanced robotics. We asked him for his take on the best approach when it comes to pursuing an advanced degree.

“To be marketable in a world of advanced technologies like robotics, machine learning and artificial intelligence, I recommend aspiring engineers get as much formal education under their belt, as early as they can. Real world experience is valuable, but in the world of engineering, formal education and the degrees that come with it offer an engineer significant competitive advantage in the jobs marketplace.”

Still, many engineers build successful careers by adding skills and degrees as they go. We found one engineer on Reddit offering his strategy for the “if and when” of adding degrees.

“I am always working on some project (or MOOC). Always learning and improving. I really feel that my skills and knowledge are improving at a fast pace. So, I am not 100% convinced that getting a CS degree is going to help me learn more efficiently, but I do think it may be worth it just for the opportunities it could provide. If I do go for a degree, I would only do it online.”

Online vs. traditional

Like the poster quote above, engineers are increasingly opting for more flexible and often less expensive online degrees. In one forum post, a user with a BS in mechanical engineering, asked for advice about returning to school for another degree, and whether to do it online or traditional. One poster hailed the benefits of traditional over online.

Another disagreed: “I did a second degree the hard way, not at an online school. The career fair alone was worth more than the $28k [I spent on tuition]. It’s not just about learning material, a good CS school will have a department dedicated to bringing in companies to career fairs to hire their students.

Master’s or not

One engineer was seeking career advice for his younger brother who was having a hard time finding a job with his recent bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. He posted: “how can an electrical engineer build up his marketability without going to a master’s program?”

Helpful advice included, “You can work on smart energy applications where you analyze power consumption by each device or different households in general at different times.” And: “I am electrical engineer and I worked as a data scientist. There are a lot of use cases and applications to make a project with your brother. The main area is Internet of Things. You can make great things in order to collect a huge amount of data. With that data, you use software (databases, distributed systems as Hadoop) and apply easy algorithms to learn how your device works.” Consider it equivalent to the lessons learned in all those extracurricular activities through high school and college.

Switching smarts

Engineers seek advice about switching their engineering specialty, often in the popular subreddit, r/AskEngineer. One electrical engineering graduate set to work as a software test engineer asked the group whether his on the job experience would qualify him for a software engineering (SE) job in the future without having to get a formal SE degree.

Many engineers offered support, and even personal examples of how they changed paths post-grad. “My career basically started that way. Went from testing to guy who would build, maintain, design testing systems. Read some books, get a cert[ification] or two. There are actually some decent software testing books out there right now.” And this: “If you can [learn to] write tight code it really doesn't matter what your degree is in. Learn the MVC design pattern and you can write app code almost anywhere.”

Our key take-away is that making the strategic calculation about the timing and type of degrees — along with considerations like location, compensation requirements and life passions — is critical for career success. Aerotek is uniquely positioned to help. Please check our current engineering opportunities or open your free Aerotek career account today.

Swee Mok appears courtesy of Recruiters Kelsie Mellor and McVicar.