MSE or MBA – Which degree is best for leadership?

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An engineer reviews performance data

Engineering is one of the most popular fields for both master’s and doctorate degrees. Aspiring engineers have strong incentive to go beyond a bachelor’s degree, since a Master of Science in Engineering (MSE) can provide a substantial wage premium for many positions.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, civil and mechanical engineers, along with engineering managers, receive 9 to 13 percent more in salary than their peers who have only a BS. Environmental scientists (29 percent) and chemical scientists (20 percent) saw even better returns.

In this regard, the MSE compares favorably with the similarly popular Master of Business Administration (MBA). Students often pursue MBAs to boost their earning potentials and abilities to compete for higher-level positions.

While business and engineering might seem like very different fields, they attract many of the same candidates, namely individuals looking to move into leadership and managerial roles within STEM fields. The technical expertise provided by an MSE is appealing to these students, as is the prestige of the MBA. Both degree tracks train for leadership through a combination of technical (e.g., quantitative subjects) and managerial courses

Deciding which degree is the best for you depends on your unique interests and career goals. Let’s see how the two stack up.


MBA curricula vary considerably between programs, with some taking a more general approach to business education and others providing a narrower focus on select topics such as healthcare. Nevertheless, most require their candidates to complete a similar set of core requirements pertaining to topics such as:

  • Managerial accounting
  • Financial accounting
  • Operations management
  • Global economic perspectives
  • Business ethics
  • Data analysis
  • Marketing
  • Managerial statistics
  • Strategic management
  • Business analytics
  • Micro/macro economics

Moreover, MBA programs may require or offer leadership development courses and workshops. Students may take advantage of these options to hone their skills as negotiators and influencers within organizational contexts. In this way, the leadership dimension of an MBA track can help build practical skills to complement the theoretical knowledge developed by all of the coursework in finance and economics.


Today’s MSE programs provide multidimensional backgrounds in how engineers function within modern organizations. Engineers are not simply people who handle the technical implementations of projects handed down by executives and project managers; they are frequently managers themselves, with extensive responsibilities for strategic initiatives.

As such, an MSE track may have a blended focus on both technical skills and managerial expertise. That’s the case for the fully online Master of Science in Engineering (MSE) degree at the University of California Riverside (UCR). By earning an MSE from UCR, students will:

  • Understand how globalization affects the development of engineering technologies and practices.
  • Become competent cross-functional managers capable of leading multidisciplinary engineering teams.
  • Exhibit high-level leadership skills that attract respect from others within the organization as well as peers in the industry at large.

To ensure all students develop these capacities, the UCR MSE requires a quarter of 4-credit core courses, regardless of chosen specialization. These classes are:

Engineering in the Global Environment

In this required course, MSE candidates hone essential capacities such as team communication and collaboration. By synthesizing these “soft skills” with their technical abilities, engineers can better lead diverse teams that may include workers from a wide variety of backgrounds, experience levels, and locations.

Technology Innovation and Strategy for Engineers

Engineers are at the forefront of developing the pivotal technologies underpinning everything from electric cars to more sophisticated weather modeling systems. After completing this class, students will have valuable insights into the roots of key technological innovations, as well as what organizations do in order to turn them into viable products and services.

Introduction to Systems Engineering

True to its title, this class explores highly technical topics related to modern engineering systems. MSE students will survey the common systems, with an in-depth look at how each one is designed, implemented and evaluated in the real world.

Principles of Engineering Management

As we noted above, an online engineering degree from UCR is meant to strike a balance between engineering and management, so that graduates will be skilled engineers capable of succeeding in leadership roles. To that end, this course examines how managers organize and motivate the groups under their leadership.

Overall, the MSE covers much of the same ground on leadership as the MBA, albeit through the primary lens of engineering rather than finance. For students trying to choose between the two program tracks, the question, then, is whether they are more interested in financial or engineering leadership, and which – if any – specific careers they have in mind when commencing their studies.

Developing your leadership potential with an online engineering degree

The UCR MSE is 100 percent online, matching the flexible formats offered by some but not all MBA programs. With expedited completion possible in only 13 months without ever setting foot in a classroom, the UCR MSE is uniquely beneficial for working professionals looking to advance their engineering careers without the traditional (and frequently costly) commitments to regular travel and/or on-campus housing. Plus, there are seven concentrations and multiple start dates to choose from.

While there’s more than one way to develop your leadership skills, earning an MSE is a viable route if you are interested in an advanced STEM career. Get started today by viewing our main program page, which includes an overview of the program details and specializations, as well as a questionnaire you can fill out to receive our free informational brochure.

Recommended Readings:

Salary Benefits of Earning a Master’s in Engineering
The Growing Presence of Women in Engineering


Graduate Degree Fields

Should I Get A Master’s Degree