Two Roads: MS ChE or MBA?

The protagonist in Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken is confronted with two diverging roads. Forced to make a choice in order to progress forward, they famously choose the road less traveled. Many of us are confronted with such a choice throughout our lives. The point of divergence may come for you, like it did for me, when you realize your undergraduate degree is no longer adequate for achieving your goals. While you could choose from numerous paths, including a master’s degree in a different engineering discipline, most chemical engineers grapple with the choice of pursuing a Master of Science in Chemical Engineering (MS ChE) or a Master in Business Administration (MBA).

I chose to earn my MBA, not because I had fallen out of love with chemical engineering, but because I found its advantages relevant for my career track. This was the right choice for me, but the advantages and disadvantages of an MS ChE and MBA can vary depending on where you want to go.

Why choose an MS ChE?

If, for example, you would like to be a technical subject matter expert in a certain area of chemical engineering, then an MS ChE is the obvious choice. The degree would provide you with the specialized knowledge and skills you need, as well as allow you to perform research that could inform your work in industry. Perhaps during your MS research you work to optimize a specific membrane for wastewater treatment — knowledge that could later be applied to processes or technology at your company. You could provide valuable guidance that is supported by empirical evidence.

The result of earning your MS ChE may be a new product or technology that could be commercially viable. You could become an entrepreneur and develop a company focused on producing, marketing, selling, and servicing the technology. While you do not need an MBA to run a successful business, you should know the basics, such as marketing, production planning, logistics, etc. Many business schools offer short courses that teach you these skills.

If you do not want to take on the responsibility of starting your own company, you could partner with a company to sell the product or technology or license it to a third party. These options require far less business acumen and could be pursued successfully without any business training.

You might also develop a predictive model while working toward your MS ChE and, although this may not be directly saleable, it could be incorporated into software. If you decide not to take on this endeavor, you could still use this work to create value for your employer and clients as a subject matter expert.

What advantages come with an MBA?

On the other hand, if you want to manage an organization or already know that you want to be an entrepreneur, then an MBA may be your best option. As an engineer with an MBA, you can pursue a managerial position that frees you from the nitty-gritty technical details of engineering. Although you will be less responsible for technical information, you will be more responsible for helping to define and direct the goals of the company, which requires both hard and soft skills. This is not to say that your technical background will no longer be of use to you. Managers still need to manage projects and operations that are technical in nature, as well as communicate with technical experts.

One benefit of earning my MBA that I didn’t foresee was becoming a better engineer. The training taught me to zoom out and look at the bigger picture, which is valuable in solving any problem. I learned how to critically analyze engineering problems from a strategic viewpoint, prioritizing design issues to determine an effective course of action. For example, when considering a process improvement, I am able to strike a balance between capital expenditures and operating expenditures. For some clients, a higher capital expenditure might be more appropriate if it can be offset by savings in operating costs in the long term. In addition, earning my MBA taught me systems thinking, which is helpful in understanding the complexity of dependencies in process systems. This has helped me to eliminate bottlenecks during process design.

 I found application of the courses I took in probability in my work as a process engineer. I was able to understand and apply Monte Carlo simulation — a technique used to understand the impact of risk and uncertainty — to processes, and found these simulations to be superior to others based only on the maximum, normal, and minimum flow cases. Moreover, in my current work as lead proposal/process engineer, the game theory that I learned in economics classes helped my organization win more bids.

My MBA complemented my chemical engineering degree in ways I never imagined. Although I did not have the opportunity to develop a novel product, technology, or model that an MS ChE may have afforded, I became a better engineer. Each individual will find distinct advantages and disadvantages in each path, but what is most important is choosing the course you find most rewarding.

This article originally appeared in the Young Professionals Point of View column in the March issue of CEP. Members have access online to complete issues, including a vast, searchable archive of back-issues found at