Continuing Education: Which Programs Work, Which Don’t, and What Does the Industry Find Valuable and Useful?

Exploring the value and impact of a graduate degree and how to find the right program for your career objectives.

Lifelong learning

Erwin Kroemer of ExxonMobil and Steven Burton, a University of Texas director of MBA programs, discuss continuing education programs that work, what doesn't work, and what is valued and useful to the industry.

For a Young Professional (YP) with an undergraduate engineering degree and a few years’ experience, what additional qualification would have the most immediate career impact? 

EK: Any student who is enthusiastic about work and can quickly adjust to the company demands for a specific project will create an impact. You will need to develop a sense of which knowledge level is required. Above all, you need to be known as trustworthy.

SB: Career success is determined by many factors. Early in an engineering professional’s career, it is very important to gain as much exposure as possible to his/her area’s management and technical leaders. She/he should seek any opportunities to present work products, or assist on high-profile projects within the organization.

What is the relationship between earning an advanced degree and new opportunities?

EK: Because knowledge and experience are the most important factors for success, an advanced degree will support the basis for new opportunities, either within your company or outside.

SB: Earning a relevant advanced degree can equip a YP with new skill sets and critical thinking abilities to use these new, and other existing skills. This, in turn, can position the individual as a higher value contributor, which results in new opportunities. It is common for a direct relationship to exist between earning an advanced degree and new opportunities.

For a graduate technical position, does it help to have a master’s degree or is a bachelor’s degree enough? 

EK: If you do limited technical work, a bachelor’s degree plus sufficient relevant on-the-job training may work well. More and more jobs like this are currently available, and many students prefer this to gain earlier entrance to the job market. However, if you strive to do more in-depth work (for example, if you want to become a simulation expert), the training received during the master’s classes is still invaluable. I am a firm believer that in the end, a master’s degree will offer more opportunities than a lesser degree.

SB: This depends on the organization and the individual, but having a master’s degree will almost always help a YP be more proficient in an advanced technical position.

What can a doctorate bring vs. a master’s degree? Is it worthwhile to pursue a doctorate in mid-career?

EK: The doctorate, of course, further deepens one’s qualifications and direction. I believe that a good part of my analytical thinking and understanding of “the bigger picture” was acquired during my own doctorate experiences. Most probably though, I would not pursue this in the middle of a career—but if you do, it should only be if sponsored by your company and if you have found out that you would rather spend the rest of your life in the company’s research center.

SB:  I would suggest that doctorate degrees are generally designed to prepare for specific advanced technical positions or for academic research/teaching careers. For more general technical/business leadership progressions, a master’s degree will serve a YP well.

Does an advanced (technical) degree “pigeon-hole” your future options?

EK: No, I believe your approach to work, willingness to learn on the job, and job experience are the key elements, while the degree will neither necessarily support nor limit your future options. Today, I probably would take a few classes in economics and business if I wanted to increase my future options.

SB: Not necessarily. The career decisions and projects pursued are as much, or more of, a driver in “pigeon-holing” a YP.

How do you choose a program and a university?

EK: I believe you have to research what is available, which classes are offered, and what your work would look like after a particular program. Select the subject you REALLY like, but don’t be shy to change either. Choosing a university? Again research what you are good at, and then try to get to the best, and only “choose lower” if you do not get into your first choice. It is unbelievable how different the quality of universities can be!

SB: First, you must understand the goals/objectives in pursuing advanced education. This is usually the most difficult step. With objectives outlined, evaluate which programs, MS, MBA, or other, will be best suited to achieving the goals. Talk with colleagues, managers, or mentors if there’s uncertainty about programs. Look for the specific program and university that meets your needs, with schedule, cost, program objectives, alumni base, etc. considered. Seek recommendations, and visit as many campuses and classes as possible. Meet or talk with current students and alumni.

What about nonuniversity continuing-education opportunities?

EK: On-the-job training, especially when one can get into new, cutting-edge project teams, is very valuable, and almost any expatriate assignment, likewise.

SB: These programs can be very valuable to fill specific voids in knowledge and capabilities, or to stay current with new technologies, methodologies, and practices. In some cases, they may not be as portable as a degree program.

What advice do you have for balancing work and part-time study?

EK: Again, this depends strongly on the company; in particular, larger ones would more easily support a combination and have more flexible programs. But as advanced studies and knowledge gains are always important, the best approach would be to develop a schedule that allows for compact breaks of a few months of intense study. I believe that such an alternating schedule would be more successful than anticipating regular 16-or-more-hour days for any length of time.

SB: Setting realistic expectations with an individual’s job stakeholders is critical to a successful work/life/study balance. Clearly understanding the expected time commitment, and designing a schedule around it, is required.

Many YPs want to progress to management, and therefore choose the MBA path. What are your thoughts on this vs. a technical degree?

EK: With an MBA, your career may be positively impacted if you are at the right place at the right time. Even if you think today that you are only interested in a management path over a technical path, this may leave you with limited options in later years and decades, because depth of technical knowledge in management positions is still highly valued, and a combination of both will always be a plus.

SB: Defined objectives are required to decide which type of program should be pursued. An MBA is a very valuable educational experience for technical professionals looking to move toward the management career track. It can also be a valuable option for professionals choosing a technical career path. As a professional moves up a technical career ladder, it becomes important to manage larger projects, build and lead effective teams, evaluate the fiscal prudency of projects, sell ideas, drive innovation throughout a team, and think beyond pure technical elegance.

What differences do you see among the advanced-study options available across the world?

EK: There are significant differences in the educational and post-graduate system of the US and other countries. The opportunities in North America are far greater than in other parts of the world. Within Europe, the UK is probably the most comparable to the US. The German and Dutch systems are often more geared toward reaching high academic proficiency with a more theoretical focus. Besides this, there are very strong cultural differences. Consequently, final grades and the level of experience when entering the industry are often difficult to compare.

Many companies offer internal training programs  that they push over gaining external degrees. Is one better than the other? What are the pros and cons of each?

EK: Both have good sides. I went through several company-provided programs; they were all excellent and could be directly applied, especially with bigger, multinational oil companies. The outside opportunity is more independent and might be more objective, and wider, but may also be less advantageous, if not well-enough organized and/or too impractical to have real “on-the-job” applications (i.e., too academic, not dealing with the industry-standard tools or processes). Outside programs may be more important for smaller companies, or if you need to develop skills unavailable in your own company.

SB: Internal training programs can be very valuable in helping an employee develop. The topics, objectives, and curriculum will be specific and likely immediately applicable to the current environment. However, they are less portable than a degree program, or than nondegree academic programs or courses. Internal programs can also further a set of internal thought processes, which can have a side effect of hindering noninternal thinking/problem solving.

What can be learned in an advanced-study program that can’t be learned on the job?

EK: The above answer is relevant: skills not available, sometimes new solutions and out-of-the-box ways to do things. But there is no guarantee. Quite often, along with the training, you need to sharpen your math/physics skills in advanced-study programs because many company programs do tend to be rather more pragmatic than purely academic.

SB: Many learning opportunities arise from advanced-study programs. Leading external research can be introduced in a course of study. Additionally, and very important too, is exposure to a wide variety of colleagues from varying backgrounds, companies, and industries—which on-the-job learning does not provide.

It seems that many people earning degrees while working feel they have to leave their current company to progress. Do you feel that companies sufficiently value the time and effort certain employees put into earning these extra qualifications?

EK: I would clearly discuss with my current employer what kind of positive impact such increased skills would have before I would consider either way. I have seen several examples with the company I work for, where improved skills have been fully supported and recognized.

SB:  Many employers do recognize the efforts and increased capabilities of team members pursuing an advanced degree. This recognition, however, depends on a number of factors, including relevancy of the degree pursued to opportunities/needs in the company, ability of individuals to rebrand themselves internally, and ability of individuals to demonstrate that they are contributing in a different capacity and/or creating higher value with their new capabilities. In some circumstances, it can be difficult to rebrand oneself, and moving to another opportunity at another employer is not necessarily negative.

Is there a difference between service companies, majors, and independents in assignments/opportunities for advanced-degree holders?

EK: Absolutely. I believe it is very important to recognize the very different demands and how one’s skills and degrees can be fitted to make the correct selections of qualifications and compatible employers. Majors hire a wider range of degree holders. They maintain their workforce by recruiting new hires form university level, but will also hire specialists for their research groups and particular jobs, demanding a higher degree of formal education or expertise. Holding a higher degree can be very valuable, but as in most cases is no guarantee for a steep career.

A service company typically needs bright and highly trained staff that can work independently and possibly under harsh conditions. In these conditions, business-related education may help less, but an advanced technical degree and demonstrated independent and innovative thinking, e.g., through a well-worked PhD thesis, could be of high interest. It could also be a ticket to enter the research side for the development of new products.

Big independents will not be very different from majors and small ones more like small service companies. In general, it will be good and often more rewarding to have a stronger business understanding, especially if the company is mostly working as joint-venture partners and not, or less, as an operator. Smaller independents tend to buy experience and expertise by attracting highly skilled and qualified staff from other companies, e.g., majors, rather than training such individuals themselves. This view may also open a new dimension of thinking and planning, if you change your goals during your career.

Should one pursue further study in one’s original field, to specialize, or should one preferably diversify? For instance, should a petroleum engineer do further study in petroleum engineering, or consider studying geology or mechanical engineering instead?

EK: It will certainly help if you can look “over the fence” and are able to have an intelligent and equal-partner-level discussion with your colleagues of related disciplines. One of the reasons why I am well recognized in my position is that I can find the best solutions together with the geologists, drillers, and facility engineers—because I can understand and talk their language. I could even sit in for several of them when they cannot attend a meeting. Today, you cannot participate on the right level with an insufficient, general education.

SB: This is very dependent on an individual’s interests and objectives. An individual should initially identify his/her objectives, and then seek the educational path that best helps achieve these objectives.

How would you compare online and classroom-based training? Are there disadvantages to online programs?

EK: Some online classes are very well done, but the potential for distraction is also very high.

SB: I believe that the classroom interaction, networking opportunities, and opportunity to focus more singularly make in-class experiences richer. Online training programs certainly do have valuable and attractive components, but the one-on-one interaction with fellow classmates and faculty cannot be replicated online.

Erwin Kroemer is subsurface and joint-interest consultant for all ExxonMobil assets in the Netherlands. This includes more than 180 fields operated by NAM, among them the giant Groningen gas field. He started his career in 1976 as a uranium exploration geochemist in eastern Canada and joined Mobil Oil in 1981, moving through a series of positions in various countries in reservoir engineering, research, and field development. After Mobil’s merger with Exxon, Kroemer was based in London as a company technology consultant in reservoir development, including various enhanced-oil-recovery applications. Between 2004 and 2008, he worked in Norway as a senior adviser in field management, development, and recovery optimization for ExxonMobil assets not operated by the company, before assuming his current position in 2009.  Kroemer participates in several mentoring initiatives and has been significantly involved in recruiting fresh and experienced new hires for ExxonMobil. He has written a variety of papers, has given numerous presentations throughout his career, and has been an active participant in conferences—including those of SPE and the International Quality and Productivity Center. Kroemer holds MSc and PhD degrees in geochemistry and reservoir engineering from the Technical University of Aachen, Germany.

Steven Burton is director of the Texas MBA programs in Dallas and Houston for the University of Texas at Austin. He received his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from Texas A&M University and his MBA from the executive program at the McCombs School of Business, University of Texas. In his current position, Burton is responsible for marketing, recruiting, and execution of the Dallas and Houston Texas MBA programs. He previously was director of Career Services for the working-professional MBA program at McCombs, holding that position since the program’s inception and having earlier worked with faculty and administration to develop its curriculum while still an executive MBA student. Before joining the university administration, Burton spent 6 years as an executive recruiter. Previously, he was a regional sales manager for MTS Systems, an industrial equipment manufacturer, and an engineering manager for IBM.