Education Engineering

Their Graduates in Demand, Engineering-Management Programs Gain in Popularity

Graduates of the Johns Hopkins U.'s master's program in engineering management celebrate receiving their degrees. The degrees are in strong demand "because they teach engineers to translate the projects they’re working on into business."

How do you market tiny sensors showing the comparative ripeness of grapes in various parts of a vineyard? Who are the potential users of sustainable passive solar heating units that dry herbs in shipping containers? Which geographic markets are most promising for a saturated-fat replacement for ground meat? What competitors are there for a new detector of food-borne pathogens, allergens, and contaminants?

Undergraduates in engineering might study how to create such products but probably not how to write and carry out a business plan for prototyping, producing, and selling them. That’s why master’s programs in engineering management (MEM’s or MSEM’s) have become increasingly popular, particularly over the last decade.

“There’s not a single company that isn’t touched by engineering and technology,” says Ross Gortner, associate director of Dartmouth’s master-of-engineering-management program.

Mark Allen, senior director of programs and engineering at Viant Medical, a medical-device manufacturer, says, “These programs are really valuable because they teach engineers to translate the projects they’re working on into business.” Allen hired interns from Dartmouth’s program and then moved some of them into full-time jobs. Now he’s part of its corporate collaboration council. He says some positions call for more of a pure business background, and for those an MBA might be better suited. But when he’s scouting for someone to oversee a technical undertaking, seeing the MEM or MSEM degree on a résumé “perks me up because I think they’ll be able to make that transition relatively quickly.”

With the Great Recession, academic jobs for engineers grew scarcer and industry jobs more popular. A straight engineering master’s degree is generally regarded as part of a doctoral pursuit. The engineering-management master’s, however, is valuable as a terminal degree — a specialized hybrid with an engineering focus but incorporating some MBA-type skills.

Dartmouth and the Johns Hopkins University are part of a consortium of nine institutions offering similar training, but there are close to 100 master-of-engineering-management programs nationwide, says Pamela Sheff, who directs the Hopkins program and the university’s Center for Leadership Education. The programs are revenue generators for universities, even with the scholarships they offer, and a good investment for students, who can expect starting salaries between $75,000 and $105,000 when they graduate. According to the job and recruiting site Glassdoor, average base pay for engineers is $89,179 a year, while engineering management pays $116,898.

The projects involving grapes, shipping-containers, the fat substitute, and food pathogens were among those that Hopkins MSEM students have been involved in as part of three-week immersive stints during January intersessions at the Iberian Nanotechnology Laboratory in Braga, Portugal. Others in the Hopkins program are introduced to startups at the Technion—Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa; to social-entrepreneurship ventures at the Technical University of Denmark, north of Copenhagen; or to tech consulting for Hopkins health facilities.

Some 270 students have enrolled in the Hopkins master’s program since it began in 2009. In recent years, each has participated in the mandatory winter immersives, most of those abroad. Hopkins pioneered those international high-intensity stints, says Sheff.

“We really want our students to be globally literate,” she says, “because they’ll be working all over the world.”

For students, the foreign immersion programs are pressure cookers, says Trevor Mackesey, a lecturer who coordinates the Portugal trips. Students at that point have had a mixture of technical and business courses and consulted at Johns Hopkins Hospital facilities, but the January trips are “the first time they’re sitting across the table from actual clients” beyond the Hopkins realm. He says it is “magical” watching them gain confidence and put their theoretical knowledge into action.

Bringing Classroom Ideas to Life

Half the classes in the Hopkins program are technical in the student’s engineering subfield: for instance, civil, operations research and optimization, or applied mathematics and statistics. The other half are business-strategy courses on innovation, growth, accounting, and finance; Python and Tableau business software; making presentations; and group dynamics and leadership.

The whole point of the degree, however, is to bridge classrooms with the outside world — “from lab to life,” as Hopkins puts it — so the immersion programs and follow-up work are all about putting science and engineering skills into practice.

That’s how Thomas Reilly, as a student in 2015 and as a teaching assistant in 2016, ended up in the Portugal immersion session studying the potential markets for the grape-ripeness sensors and the solar-heating units for shipping containers.

Reilly is from Australia and had undergraduate degrees in environmental engineering and commerce from the University of Melbourne. He had some substantial work experience with a mining company. Still, he feared that his background would limit him to technical jobs, and so he enrolled at Hopkins.

He’s now a senior analyst at Tuscany Strategy Consulting in Baltimore, and he helps recruit other Hopkins engineering master’s students like Carolyn Ma, a biomedical engineer who will graduate in December before starting at Tuscany herself. Last year in Portugal, she studied market entry for the saturated-fat substitute, and she will return there this year as a teaching assistant. She and her classmate Jenna O’Neil also attended a Technion three-day start-up competition in March.

O’Neil, after earning her bachelor’s in biochemistry and molecular biology at Connecticut College, worked for three years doing research at Rockefeller University in New York and wants to transition to industry. The Hopkins master’s program is a good fit, she says, because it gives her business skills while deepening her knowledge as a scientist.

O’Neil went on the Portugal trip last year and at Technion, she, Ma, another Hopkins student, and four Israeli teammates explored the creation of an imaging device to monitor circulation in the thin tissue beneath a patient’s tongue. That can help gauge septic shock, a cause of organ failure. In January, O’Neil will be a teaching assistant monitoring the progress of nine graduate students on the Denmark trip.

Gortner, the associate director of Dartmouth’s program, says that over its three decades it has evolved along with industry demands. At first, it drew mostly from Dartmouth College graduates and emphasized engineering. Then it pulled from a more national pool and stressed operations management. After the financial crisis, it started recruiting more internationally and turning its attention to data analytics and the kind of platforms research necessary for businesses like Uber and Facebook. Over the Dartmouth program’s history, its cohorts have grown from 20 to 50.

However engineering specialties evolve, the management programs will evolve with them while finding their own niches in the marketplace, he says. “There’s no doubt that companies are salivating for this talent.”

Alexander C. Kafka is a Chronicle senior editor. Follow him on Twitter @AlexanderKafka, or email him at alexander.kafka@chronicle.com.

Originally Posted on The Chronicles of Higher Education

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Ravikiran Annaswamy

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