The engineer who gets an MBA
The engineering-MBA combination is very common to find on Indian CVs, but is it always the best option?
After school, Ankur Maroo decided to pursue a B.Tech programme in biotechnology. “It’s very common for people to take up engineering after school. Besides, it was 2004 – everyone was talking about the IT boom and huge job opportunities for engineers across all disciplines. So, I felt that it was also a safe bet.”
However, mid-way through the programme, reality struck home. “I was drawn to engineering because I aspired to discover and build new things and was drawn to genetics. But I realised that to do this kind of work I needed much more than a four-year B.Tech course. The scope for this field was limited in India and required advanced studies abroad. This was not feasible for me.
“In school, we don’t really hear much about business icons like Dhirubhai Ambani, JRD Tata, Aditya Birla. It’s more about scientists, inventors, historical figures. But, by the second year of engineering I had read a lot about India’s business leaders and was deeply inspired by their vision. I had also discovered my growing aptitude for numbers. So, I started talking to my seniors and finally decided to do an MBA.”
An engineering-MBA combination opens up a vast job pool as it equips one with technical as well as managerial knowledge. So, it’s not surprising that a large number of engineers, like Maroo, opt for an MBA every year.
Ruppal Walia Sharma, who teaches marketing and is Head of the Delhi Center at SPJIMR, says, “A lot of engineering students opt for an MBA, drawn by career prospects. They feel that it will quicken their growth within an organisation and place them in roles where they would be given greater responsibility and be able to take strategic business decisions.”
In recent years, the start-up buzz has also contributed to an increasing interest in the MBA programme, as many students are keen to understand the nuances of business before forming their own ventures.
An easy entry
Opting for the engineering-MBA combination is also relatively easy. Not only are engineering students used to the entrance exam rigmarole, most of them are also well-versed with Quantitative Aptitude and Logical Reasoning that make up a major component of MBA entrance exams like CAT, XAT, SNAP etc.
Even the Group Discussion (GD) and Personal Interview (PI) rounds are not as difficult to crack, provided students have reasonable technical understanding and communication skills.
Recounts Maroo, “In B-Schools, they are looking for managers, not engineers. While technical knowledge is important, they are also trying to understand your thought process. Communicating what you know effectively is important. Back in 2008, when I applied for an MBA, biotechnology was still quite new and I was asked to explain more about what I studied. A lot also depends on the level of your GD peers and the technical expertise of interviewers.”
Timing it right
Even though the entry is relatively easy for engineers, there is some merit in gaining a few years of work experience before pursuing an MBA.
Abhimanyu Chaudhry, who pursued an MBA in Finance from MDI Gurgaon after engineering and followed it up with a Masters in Management from MIT Sloan School of Management, corroborates, “I did my first MBA immediately after engineering and felt very dissatisfied. Management concepts like organisational behaviour or human resource management make little sense without real world experience. You may still do well in class, but you may not be able to successfully apply yourself in the job world.
“I was always interested in finance, but there are millions of jobs within finance and you cannot tell what kind of job you’ll enjoy unless you’ve actually worked in the field. My first placement was in retail banking and I didn’t enjoy the work. But I gathered a deeper understanding about the various avenues within the world of finance. I had a passion for investment banking and felt a strong need to explore the area both professionally and academically. So I appeared for GMAT and pursued a second management degree, a few years later.
“In most countries overseas, B-Schools only accept students after they’ve worked for a few years. I could feel a strong difference in the way the class was conducted and the level of discussion. The professor walked in with just a case study and at the end of the session, empty blackboards were filled with student inputs drawn from work experiences. This really helped me grow in my career.”
Students with work experience also have the advantage of opting for lateral placements instead of entry-level positions at the time of recruitment. While there is no definite consensus on the ideal amount of work experience, at least two years would be a good number.
Choosing a branch
At some B-Schools, students need to pick a specialisation at the time of admission, while at others they get to do this at the end of the first year.
Maroo feels that the latter may be a better choice for engineering students. “Engineering and MBA are very different courses and it isn’t always easy to pick a specialisation. When I started applying to different colleges, I was very confused between finance and marketing, but after a year of general MBA education at NIRMA, I realised that I enjoyed marketing more than finance.”
While Sharma understands this predicament, she says, “When students opt for an MBA, they should know what they’re getting into and not because everyone else is choosing this combination. Many students get into the programme drawn by its popularity and perceived glamour. But the ground reality is very different. Even MBA students often have to do strenuous field work at the start of their careers before climbing the ranks.”
Most interviewees recommend that students should be discerning in their choice of B-Schools.
“Brand names matter – they provide you opportunities, other B-Schools may not,” remarks Chaudhry, who is currently working as an investment banker with Evercore Partners in New York.
Prof. TT Ram Mohan, who teaches Finance and Economics at IIM Ahmedabad, finds that not only are a number of IITians going abroad for higher studies, they are also finding jobs attractive enough on campus, not wanting to pursue an IIM degree. “Several decades ago, when I pursued management at IIM Calcutta after studying engineering at IIT Bombay, about 95 percent of the class was made up of engineers, out of which 90 percent were IITians. But that has changed significantly. Today, perhaps only a quarter of the students at IIM-A are from the IITs. There is a large percentage of students from second-tier engineering colleges. This is a huge opportunity for those seeking the IIM stamp on their resumes and access to a world-class alumni network.”
Many engineering colleges have also started their own management schools. For instance, in 1993, IIT Kharagpur inaugurated its Vinod Gupta School of Management. However, for most students these are not their first choice, even though they carry a brand name and may be easier to get into.
Although it’s a popular choice, students from an engineering background often encounter teething troubles when they eventually join an MBA programme.
Sharma corroborates, “It takes some time for engineering students to settle into the MBA programme. They often need to re-orient, unlearn and become comfortable with ambiguity, especially for courses in marketing and soft skills where there may not be pre-determined specific answers to the questions raised.
“Engineers often tend to have a very logical and structured mind-set, so the desire to get to a correct answer is very strong. But not every problem has a straightforward solution. Many times, there could be several ‘correct’ answers and one needs to think out of the box.”
However, things aren’t entirely difficult. An MBA education is a combination of technical and management modules, so there is ample scope for engineers to get comfortable and do well. Besides, many of them begin to enjoy the freedom to exercise their minds.
Maroo fondly remembers his marketing classes and remarks, “Engineering tends to be hard-core theory, whereas management allows you to think creatively. There is little scope for rote-learning and many exams are open-book. I really enjoyed this.”
Looking towards the future
There was a time when one couldn’t look beyond the engineering-MBA combination in higher education. However, times have changed. Today’s catchphrase is diversity. From academic institutions to employers, everyone is on the lookout for a suitable difference.
“Diversity has certainly increased in Indian B-Schools today. Even though engineers continue to make up a big percentage, one can also find students from other disciplines such as law, economics, liberal arts. In fact, we’ve kept a separate cut-off for non-engineers,” says Ram Mohan.
Even the number of students opting for this so-called ‘classic’ combination has seen a slight fall with burgeoning career choices in fields as diverse as hospitality, tourism, journalism, architecture etc. However, as Ram Mohan contends rightly, the basic charm of the engineering-MBA combination is not expected to wear away any time in the foreseeable future.