PRISM Magazine - Exploring the future of engineering education

Should we mandate the master's?

The master's degree as the first professional degree for engineers is an idea that has come and gone many times in the profession's history. Recently, complicated issues such as improving the public perception of engineers and combating overstuffed bachelor's degree requirements have produced renewed calls for a higher entry-level degree as a solution.

The for and against line is not drawn squarely between the "producers" and "consumers" of engineering graduates, and industry and academe often agree (to different extents) on both the practical difficulties and the ideological benefits. Prism's Ray Bert asked a cautious supporter and a sympathetic opponent for their thoughts.

Howard Epstein

is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Connecticut.

William Ballhaus

is corporate vice-president of science and engineering at Lockheed Martin.

What are the benefits of adopting the master's degree as the first professional degree?

    Howard Epstein: Many believe, myself included, that the bachelor's degree is no longer adequate preparation for the majority of future practitioners. If well thought out, a professional master's might not take as long to finish as obtaining a B.S. and M.S. separately. Other benefits include increasing the competence of the graduates; increasing the stature of the profession; increasing compensation, partially due to less training required from industry; creating a distinction between engineers and technicians; and integrating more practice-oriented subjects into the curriculum.

    William Ballhaus: The main benefit from an industry perspective would be a broader and deeper level of education in new hires. There would be a bit more of a weeding out process, too. The amount of engineering course work in that (typically) one year beyond the bachelor's degree to get a master's really provides a student with a deeper understanding of engineering theory. Of course, as you continue toward the Ph.D. you reach a point of diminishing returns from an industry perspective, where the time might be better spent on other disciplines such as business or on gaining on-the-job experience.

What are the most significant obstacles to the idea?

    Epstein: If a poll were taken, I believe that the vast majority of educators would favor an extended program, but the vast majority of practitioners would not. The negative opinions are certainly in evidence on an American Society of Civil Engineers Forum website, where the responses to this issue are mainly from practitioners.

    Obstacles cited include fears that a five-year program might deter students from pursuing engineering, especially if a five-year program really means six or more to many students. Added cost to students and taxpayers, as well as inadequate classroom space and facilities, are also common worries. Others note that the marketplace seems very accepting of current programs, that the push from educators for an additional year appears to be self-serving, and that the master's degree might be "watered down" without current undergraduate GPA entrance requirements.

    Ballhaus: Students currently are very marketable when they get their bachelor's degree, and of course their parents get tired of paying tuition, too, which is also important. From the perspective of our industry, we don't need 90 percent of our new hires to have master's degrees. Most of our entry-level hiring is at the bachelor's level, with some at the master's and a smaller amount at the Ph.D. level. So it would limit that flexibility from both the student standpoint and the industry standpoint.


Could industry (as "consumers" of engineering graduates) accomplish the same basic goals of their own accord? Would they, and under what conditions?

    Epstein: Many companies already accomplish these goals by encouraging their employees to pursue additional coursework. Some pay tuition and reward employees who obtain advanced degrees, but the practice is not widespread. Some companies have programs that are equivalent to apprenticeships. So industry could certainly accomplish the same basic goals.

    Would they? Probably not. Many engineers are very mobile during the early stages of their careers. Therefore, adopting programs to accomplish these goals is probably not financially prudent, even for companies that recognize the benefits of having employees with advanced training.

    If a master's degree were required for licensure, and if the industrial product required work by licensed engineers, this could encourage more engineering "consumers" to promote enhanced education. Any condition, however, would necessarily have to be financially beneficial to the industry. Unless there was a serious shortage of properly trained engineers, those companies requiring enhanced education would be able to get them from existing programs.

    Ballhaus: I think the answer is really in the question as stated. Industry has the flexibility now by policy to make the decision that they'll only hire at the master's level.

    The conditions would really depend on the organization. For example, Lockheed Martin hires mostly at the bachelor's level, but we also send people to get master's degrees. In fact, for our most talented young people we have the Engineering Leadership Development Program. In addition to rotating through a number of different assignments within their companies, most get a master's degree during the two- to three-year program. So organizations have various policies that allow them to send employees back to school to get the kind of schooling they need to succeed, while also learning on the job.

Is this kind of decision better left to "market forces," or are there more basic considerations for the good of the profession that demand the status quo be altered?

    Epstein: ASCE board member Peter Hoadley claims that, in his experience, it is becoming more and more difficult to find one of the "movers and shakers" in the civil engineering profession without a master's degree. So, he believes that the marketplace has already responded. Current want ads, however, do not seem to reflect this. It appears that the profession is more than willing to accept the undergraduate product currently produced and provide its own training or incentives for additional training, where needed.

    I believe that the "market" would be most accepting of a better product, and would probably reward it. It cannot, however, champion the cause for change but must, necessarily, be a follower. So, yes, the considerations for the good of the profession must drive this process.

    Ballhaus: The market forces will dominate unless you can somehow put through legislation that would prevent people from practicing engineering without the requisite entry-level degree, similar to medical practice. I don't think you could get that kind of legislation—it's too tough a climb. And if you can't enforce it that way, I don't see how you could possibly make it happen because, eventually, enterprising people will find much more effective ways of providing the educational background that employees need to do their jobs effectively.

Are there other ways to improve the general public's perception of the engineering profession? Should engineers be required to gain licensure?

    Epstein: While I listed an "increased stature" for the profession as a positive in adopting increased educational requirements, I cannot envision that this change alone will dramatically elevate public perception. Few people refer to their occupations as "doctor" or "lawyer" without appropriate education and certification, yet the title of "engineer" is used by many. If that title were reserved for those with a certain amount of training and appropriate licensure, that, in combination with the master's as first professional degree, would go a long way toward elevating the profession's stature. Personally, however, I cannot advocate requiring licensure for all engineers.

    Ballhaus: That's a question that has been out there since I was a student 30 years ago. Some people have advocated, again, legislation to prohibit practicing engineering without being a certified professional engineer—but I don't think that will work. Industry will likely oppose that because it could be perceived as an artificial restriction.

    There is, however, a real danger—and I don't have a solution for it—that businesses may come to view engineering as a commodity that you can just buy when you need it and get rid of when you don't, rather than as a skill base that you have to continually nurture and train and provide with advanced tools and facilities. The temptation to "body shop" engineering is dangerous because one really good engineer is probably worth 10 mediocre ones—so enhancing the perception of engineers is extremely important in terms of the overall quality of the engineering workforce.

Any final thoughts?

    Epstein: I am not fully committed to the master's degree. I am primarily in favor of whatever it takes to improve the competency of engineering graduates, and I believe that if done properly, the master's degree could be the vehicle to help bring this about. I firmly believe that all engineering disciplines would need to be involved, and that there needs to be compromise on the part of the proponents and opponents—such as reducing the current required credits for a master's. Such a program should reasonably be finished by most students in five years, and include a substantial increase in practice-oriented courses. Finally, the new program should be gradually incorporated, with dual programs available for a period of five to ten years, and licensure should be grandfathered in for graduates of four-year programs.

    Adopting the master's as the first professional degree would be easier in those fields where licensure is either required or a recognized asset, but it makes sense for all engineering disciplines. However, unless the engineering profession as a whole promotes this change, any movement in this direction is destined to fail.

    Ballhaus: Universities are making great strides in trying to be responsive to what industry needs without sacrificing the core values of the university. I've seen schools that we have interactions with moving in a direction that recognizes that the world is changing. For example, in aeronautical engineering today the real advances are in electronics and information systems—you might think of a modern aircraft as a computer with wings on it. So what is needed in this field and others is graduates who are firmly grounded in electrical engineering and information technologies, and we've tried to make that point with the university community.

    If universities don't change fast enough, without sacrificing their core values, then I think that entrepreneurs will come along and provide that service—making their graduates very marketable while producing them much more cost effectively.

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