Not long ago, many employers in the United States used the title 'network engineer' to refer to several different and distinct roles in the computer networking hierarchy. Fast forward to the present, and there are now numerous specialty titles for network engineers in addition to the traditional network administrator, engineer and architect roles. As physical LANs and WANs give way to Software Defined Networking, mobile networks and networks hosted in the cloud, employers are creating positions for cloud network architects, mobility solutions architects, automation engineers, network programmers and wireless network engineers. Whereas the traditional network engineer's career path might be linear, the current engineering career path has many twists and turns.
Some experienced engineers are excited to see computer networking become a multidisciplinary field with several emerging subfields. Others – mainly those newer to the discipline – may find this new landscape challenging to navigate. The association between specific domain knowledge and skills and advancement is increasingly ambiguous.
Networking technology is evolving at a dizzying pace. Networking professionals need core network engineering skills and a firm grasp of how new technologies and changing employer expectations affect network engineering jobs. However, that doesn't mean that the best place to reskill is in a graduate degree program focused exclusively on leading-edge technology and trends in the field. The core principles of network engineering are always relevant, and the top Master of Science in Network Engineering programs such as SMU Lyle's online MSNE teach real-world network engineering skills that meet today's needs as well as skills that align with shifts taking place in the industry.
This guide looks at why you might need a master's in network engineering, how enrolling in a full-time or part-time MSNE can advance your career, and the networking roles most likely to go to engineers with graduate degrees.
The Factors Pushing More Network Engineers Toward Graduate School
Certifications and an associate's degree were once all it took to become a network engineer. Today's computer networking landscape is much more competitive. Nearly half of all networking professionals have bachelor's degrees, and almost a quarter have master's degrees.
Some network engineers go to graduate school to develop the most in-demand skills and compete more effectively in tough job markets. Others enroll in on-campus and online MSNE programs to enhance their existing technical abilities while also gaining new skills and specialized knowledge.
Some are looking for credentials that pay off in promotions and higher wages – and the Master of Science in Network Engineering is undoubtedly one of them. Network engineers with bachelor's degrees typically earn about $77,000, while MSNE holders earn about $100,000.
Still others who enroll in graduate degree programs do so because they want to bulk up their professional networks and gain access to more and better professional opportunities.
And the experienced network engineers in MSNE programs often want to reskill to transition into specialty areas such as automation, cloud networking, data center networking, mobile networking, network programming, virtualization or wireless networking.
Whatever brought you to this guide, know that there will probably always be some network engineers who advance into specialty- and management-focused network engineering roles simply by being in the right place at the right time. It's much more common now, however, for ambitious engineers to put in the work to learn new skills in programs such as SMU Lyle's online MSNE.
An MSNE Is a Big Asset in These Five Network Engineering Jobs
Do network engineers need master's degrees? The answer depends on whom you ask. Some employers hire network engineers with the most in-demand skills, e.g., Python programming skills, software development skills, DevOps skills, cybersecurity skills and solution architecture skills, regardless of whether they have degrees. Other companies – particularly large enterprise-level organizations in tech – are more selective when hiring and giving out promotions. That may be why engineers in the roles below are the most likely to have and benefit from master's degrees.
Average salary: $122,000
Network architects spend less time deploying and maintaining systems than admins and engineers and more on strategic technical planning, network infrastructure design, interdependent technology integration and technical migration management. Engineers with this title are more likely to have master's degrees than engineers in other senior-level roles. Network architects often work closely with managers and executives, creating technology standards to meet specific business goals and planning future strategies for enhancement.
While this is a tech-focused role, network architects are also managers. They need a broad understanding of everything from network topology and segmentation to network function virtualization plus communication, administrative and people management skills. The next step up on the network engineering advancement path for network architects may be Chief Infrastructure Architect or Chief Network Engineer – two of the highest-paying network engineering jobs.
Principal Network Engineer
Average salary: $122,000
Principal engineers are the highest-ranking network engineers and are almost as likely to have master's degrees as network architects. Some do technical work with large, complex networks, massive data center networks, or specific leading-edge telecommunications technology, while others have managerial or supervisory responsibilities. The latter group may oversee projects related to physical or virtual network infrastructure implementation and large-scale migrations. Principal network engineers are also typically responsible for training junior network administrators and network engineers. They're rarely involved in troubleshooting projects or projects related to basic connectivity but may manage the employees who do that work.
Senior Network Engineer
Average salary: $103,000
Senior network engineers may have responsibilities identical to those of network architects (i.e., designing and configuring networks) or network managers (i.e., overseeing network operations). Whether a senior network engineer does technical or supervisory work often depends on how employers structure their network engineering departments. In larger companies with highly structured team-based hierarchies, senior network engineers may spend most of their time managing junior network engineers and creating network enhancement strategies. Companies without a network operations director or principal network engineer may treat this as a terminal position – and pay senior network engineers accordingly. In addition to technical skills, senior network engineers need network performance analysis skills, well-developed leadership skills and strong project management skills.
Senior Network Consultant
Average salary: $113,000
Network consultants do everything network architects and senior network engineers do, but for multiple client organizations. Whereas the typical network engineer works for one company, network consultants oversee network design, network enhancements and integrations for firms without fully staffed IT departments. A senior network consultant's responsibilities will vary based on the needs of their clients. Some companies hire network consultants to set up new networks, address specific business or technology challenges, address compliance or functionality issues, or oversee network upgrades. Client companies often prefer to hire network consultants with advanced credentials such as the MSNE because they need to be sure those consultants can deliver value in a time-limited period.
Senior Network Manager/Director of Network Operations
Average salary: $122,000
Senior network managers almost always spend more time training and overseeing admins, engineers and architects who work directly with crucial network resources than hands-on technical work with routers and switches. They leverage deep technological expertise to ensure the network engineers on their teams have the knowledge and tools to build stable and secure networks and oversee asset management, performance enhancement and capacity tuning. They also manage relationships with vendors, suppliers and telecommunications consultants so network implementation, updates and migrations happen in a timely way. Senior network managers are as likely to have master's degrees as network architects and other engineers in top-level roles because many employers prefer that professionals in director-level networking positions have advanced education along with significant experience.
These aren't the only network engineer jobs that benefit from the Master of Science in Network Engineering. Engineers in specialty-area roles who configure and troubleshoot next-generation cloud and datacenter networks also benefit from graduate-level education, though employers may not yet expect or require applicants for those positions to have master's degrees.
Do I Really Need a Master's in Network Engineering?
The question isn't whether you need a master's degree to land a network engineering job but rather whether you will eventually need one to advance or stay competitive. Trends in computer networking suggest that even if you don't need a master's degree right now, you almost certainly will in the future. Educational standards in the field are changing as information technology, computer science and networking technology evolve. Advancement in network engineering is no longer a matter of moving from network administration into engineering and then from engineering into network architecture. There are network engineering jobs for principal VoIP engineers, network analytics engineers, network security officers and cloud architects, and employers filling those positions look for qualified applicants with advanced knowledge, skills and degrees.
Pursuing a Master of Science in Network Engineering is one way you can stay competitive in this rapidly changing field and move more quickly into the best-paying subfields. It's also a way to show potential employers that you are willing and able to adapt to expanding networks, changing technology and evolving requirements. The classes in SMU Lyle's online MSNE program will hone your understanding of networking and help you learn how to grow in specialty- and management-focused network engineering positions. Hands-on coursework will sharpen your automation, virtualization, software-defined networking, SD-WAN, network security and cloud architecture skills. Upon graduation, you'll have the kind of broad, cross-functional skills useful in the network engineering jobs above and in numerous other areas of organizational IT.
Ready to learn more about where SMU Lyle's online M.S. in Network Engineering program can take you? Read up on the admissions and application requirements, course content, online student experience and MSNE career outcomes.