As Virginia Tech constructs its Innovation Campus, ECE faculty members and administrators are preparing for a massive expansion of ECE’s Master of Engineering (M.Eng.) program.

The M.Eng. program offers students the chance to acquire the skills needed to take on more advanced roles in industry. Employers increasingly want engineers with graduate degrees, who are capable of working on challenging team projects under demanding time constraints.

Tim Talty, director of admissions for the M.Eng. program, explains that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “The number of electrical and computer engineers that go on to get a master’s degree is on the order of 40%.”

When Amazon opens its proposed new headquarters in Crystal City, it will bring up to 25,000 tech industry jobs to the state. To meet the increased demand for highly qualified engineers, Virginia has committed to rapidly increasing the number of students graduating with bachelor’s and master’s in key disciplines, which is a major force propelling the expansion of ECE’s M.Eng. program.

Virginia is requiring that at least 50% of the new graduates be Virginia residents. “It’s really the working professionals in Northern Virginia that will enable us to get to that 50%,” explains Talty, which means that Virginia Tech will have to dramatically expand its M.Eng. program.

Teamwork and Community

The structure of the M.Eng. degree offers working professionals several advantages. For one, it can be adapted to fit their schedules. Students can choose either to finish it in a 12-month sprint (consecutive summer, spring, and fall semesters), or stretch it out over several years, taking courses part-time while they work.

The M.S. program, by contrast is more geared towards students interested in research, publishing, and eventually earning a Ph.D.. As such, it requires a thesis, whereas the M.Eng. is capped by a final project.

“Our M.Eng students are put on teams and assigned a faculty advisor,” explains Talty. “A thesis is very open-ended and requires a lot of individual work and research. The M.Eng. projects are based on difficult, but well-defined engineering problems that a group of students will work together to solve.”

Employers in industry particularly value employees with experience working on teams, and the M.Eng. final project requirement will help students improve “soft skills,” Talty explains, adding “they’re really the hard skills: how to work in teams, how to communicate. They’re so important for working professionals.”

With its final project, focus on teamwork, and opportunities for in-person networking and mentorship, ECE’s M.Eng. program stands out among comparable programs because it offers engineers a campus culture—similar degrees are often completed entirely online. Facilities distributed throughout Northern Virginia will make it easier for students to incorporate their coursework into their work and personal lives without long commutes. Also, Talty explains, “All of our courses will be recorded, so if students are on business travel or just tired that day, they can watch the video another time. But we really want them, over the course of their curriculum, to interact on a personal basis with their cohort and faculty members.”

Tangible Professional Advantages

The results of the program speak for themselves: M.Eng. exit surveys report significant median starting salary gains for engineers with graduate degrees . In general, Talty says, “engineers with a master’s degree get about a 10% premium on their starting salary over those with a bachelor’s degree, and over the course of a career, the gap increases to approximately 20% more than someone with just a bachelor’s by the time they’re 59.”

In addition to the benefits of having more knowledgeable and professional employees, companies also support graduate work because it encourages worker loyalty and retention. Talty, who spent nearly 20 years at General Motors managing research and design projects, explains that “the best days were when an employee said they were going to get a master’s. I knew I had that employee for the next three to four years, and that they’d be very dedicated to their work.”

“Employers see the benefit of having employees with the additional training and skills that a graduate degree gives,” Talty continues. “Almost universally, large companies provide $5,000 to $6,000 a year for their employees to take one or two classes and work part time.”

He and the M.Eng. team are hoping to convince large companies to send cohorts of 20 or more employees to get their graduate degree at the same time. “These 20 individuals might be across multiple business units and have few opportunities to interact normally,” he says. “Virginia Tech is going to help these employees develop a new network beyond their business units that will lead to the corporate efficiencies that create tremendous value beyond education and skills.”