How to Leverage a Network Engineering Master's Degree in (Almost) Any Industry

A 3D model of the International Space Station (ISS) orbiting Earth at sunset.

A network engineer's role is changing as networks grow more complicated, but what hasn't changed is the demand for qualified information technology professionals. You'll still find them in businesses and organizations in nearly every industry, where they build, configure and maintain classic network infrastructures like routers, switches, hubs and bridges. However, network engineers also design intent-based controller-led networks, find novel ways to reduce latency with edge computing and work with experimental technology like nanomachines.

As a result of these and other innovations in computer networking technology, breaking into and advancing in network engineering has become more difficult. Companies were once content to fill networking positions with tech-savvy laypeople. Those same companies prefer to invest in network engineers with certifications, experience and degrees who can incorporate new technology into existing networks or migrate local systems onto cloud-based networks.

Most networking jobs still go to bachelor's degree holders, but bachelor's degrees are becoming common in the field and may be less valuable than they once were. These days, a graduate degree like the Online Masters in Network Engineering offered by SMU Lyle School of Engineering helps networking professionals transition out of entry-level administrator and technician roles into more senior engineer positions.

Why should you earn a master's degree in network engineering?

This is a question you'll often see in forums frequented by networking professionals, and the answers posted in response vary a great deal. That's because when demand for network engineers first exploded in the early 2000s, few people in the field had bachelor's degrees and almost none had advanced degrees. Computer networking was relatively simple, and many people treated it more like a trade than a specialized subdiscipline of information systems management. Today, job postings for network engineers still require applicants to be familiar with firewalls, switching, Wide Area Networks (WAN) and Local Area Networks (LAN)—but the top skills requested by employers now include VPN, wireless networking, information security and more. Additionally, some employers expect applicants to be familiar with software-defined networking, network automation and multi-cloud technology.

Many network engineers are drawn to aerospace and defense, working on lunar and deep-space network design, supercomputing, and robotic and autonomous systems.

Earning a Master of Science in Network Engineering (MSNE) is one way IT professionals can stay competitive in this changing marketplace. It's also a way to move your career forward in the field. You'll advance more quickly along common career paths, like the one that leads from roles in network administration and network engineering to titles like senior network engineer to network architect. You may also forge a unique path leading to roles in IT management and operations, systems administration, and project management. A master's-level network engineering degree can even help you achieve your c-suite ambitions. Network engineers with advanced degrees hold titles like chief network architect, chief information officer and chief technology officer.

That's probably why network engineers with bachelor's degrees earn about $74,000 while MSNE holders earn closer to $99,000. A master's degree on your resume can help you transition into high-paying networking roles like:

Where do network engineers typically work?

It should come as no surprise that the largest employers of network engineers are the telecommunications and big tech companies that develop networking and communication infrastructures and provide technology services. Companies that hire a lot of network engineers include:

  • Amazon
  • AT&T
  • Cisco Systems
  • Comcast
  • Google
  • NVIDIA
  • Salesforce
  • Sprint
  • Verizon

Plenty of network engineers don't work in technology or communications, however. You'll find openings for network administrators, engineers and architects at companies in fields as diverse as retail, healthcare, entertainment and finance. Government agencies, nonprofit organizations and universities also employ network engineers to keep increasingly complicated computer systems up and running.

Employers across industries report that IT roles like network engineer and network administrator are consistently hard to fill due to skill shortages, especially in tech hubs where the demand for computer networking professionals is highest.

Don't make the mistake of assuming the abundance of open positions for network engineers has driven down the minimum educational requirements in this discipline. If anything, the training you'll receive in a Masters in Network Engineering program is now even more critical for career advancement. Companies are increasingly looking for full-stack networking engineers with skills beyond switching and routing to reduce information technology expenditures. Networking professionals with knowledge and skills related to automation, virtualization, cyber security, wireless networking and data-driven networking field more job offers and earn more money.

Downtime isn't an option in entertainment, so network engineers in this industry need rapid-fire troubleshooting and problem-solving skills.

An MSNE shows you the future of networking. Virtualization is a core focus of SMU Lyle's current Online Masters in Network Engineering curriculum, which is updated regularly by the program faculty. Electives, independent study courses and real-world projects round out the curriculum and cover everything from wireless networks and network security to emerging technologies. Students graduate from this master's-level network engineering degree program with the skills and knowledge to employ cutting-edge networking tech and IT strategies in different industries and to adapt when computer networking undergoes its next significant transformation.

How to Leverage an MSNE in Almost Any Industry

Some elements of network engineering vary from field to field while others don't, but the advanced foundational skills and knowledge you'll pick up in SMU Lyle's Online Masters in Network Engineering program are as applicable in aerospace as they are in entertainment. Understanding the role of network engineers in various fields and the distinct expectations is still important, though, because you'll make smarter career decisions armed with that knowledge. Here's a breakdown of what it's like to be a network engineer in different industries and the top employers in those fields:

Network Engineering in Aerospace & Defense

Many network engineers with master's degrees and an active security clearance are drawn to the aerospace and defense sectors because they're looking for excitement. There are opportunities in these industries to work on cutting-edge technologies related to lunar and deep-space network design, supercomputing and robotic and autonomous systems. One thing network engineers in these sectors typically don't have to worry about is funding. There are research and practical positions in both realms at companies like:

Network Engineering in Consulting

Landing a job at one of the world's best consulting firms isn't easy. Hiring managers at these companies want to see top-tier certifications, degrees, and work experience, including SOC2 and PCI-DSS compliance. They also tend to prefer hires with security clearance because that can streamline pre-sales discussions with huge government clients that keep the lights on. You'll love working in consulting if you enjoy working on many different projects for a lot of different organizations.

Once you have one of these prestigious companies on your resume, you'll be in demand for life:

Network Engineering in Entertainment

Entertainment companies employ thousands of network engineers to move vast quantities of data seamlessly. The complex computer networks and information systems that deliver movies, shows and user-created videos to our devices have to be capable of fielding millions of requests adding up to trillions of bytes of data flowing per second. Large teams of network engineers monitor and maintain global content delivery networks designed to handle unprecedented loads and stay up and running even when attacked. Downtime isn't an option, so network engineers in this industry need rapid-fire troubleshooting and problem-solving skills.

If working with vast networks sounds exciting, check out the network engineering positions at companies like Netflix and Walt Disney.

Network Engineering in Financial Services

The financial services industry was one of the first to embrace computer technology to streamline processes and reduce costs. Today, banks and brokerage firms do just about everything digitally and have complex networking and security requirements similar to those of large enterprises. Network engineers in the financial services sector have to be very comfortable with third-party connections, SEC/FINRA regulations, compliance requirements, asset management and merging tech stacks. The most successful networking professionals in finance create fail-safe systems, are meticulous when it comes to back-ups and document everything.

There are jobs for network engineers at companies like:

Network Engineering in Healthcare

IT budgets tend to be sizable in the healthcare sector for two reasons. One, networks have to be 100 percent HIPAA compliant, and two, network outages can result in loss of life. It sounds hyperbolic, but consider the impact of downtime on doctors who use internet-based video services to diagnose strokes after hours or the effect unexpected outages might have in facilities where surgeons regularly use robotic surgical systems. Network engineers in this industry have to deal with planned updates in the middle of the night, being on-call around the clock and a whole lot of bureaucracy, but they get to work with the latest tech.

You might work for HCA Healthcare or Kaiser Permanente, to name just a few healthcare companies hiring network engineers.

Network Engineering in Big Tech

Working for a top tech company can be stressful—be ready to be on call 24/7—but the tradeoff is that having a high-profile firm on your resume will open doors throughout your career. Be aware the competition for network engineering jobs at these firms is fierce. Highly qualified networking professionals sometimes discover they can't land an interview because they don't have a master's degree. If you have what it takes to impress hiring managers who interview some of the top engineers on the planet, however, you can learn a lot and earn a lot at companies like:

Network Engineering in Retail

When you work in brick-and-mortar retail, there's always something to do because your responsibilities involve managing systems that support multiple locations with lots of devices, protocols and applications. The biggest downside of working in retail may be that IT is treated as business overhead. You may end up maintaining older, stripped-back systems that don't have proper redundancy and are barely PCI compliant because companies don't have the funds necessary to invest in newer technologies. On the other hand, the retail environment is a relatively low-stress one. You can take down the network for maintenance on a regular schedule and the pace of change is slow so deadlines tend to be reasonable.

Top employers in this industry include:

There are also research positions related to network engineering and data communications at universities, though you'll likely need a PhD in addition to a Masters in Network Engineering to land one of them. They typically don't pay as well as jobs at the Big Five FAANG firms (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google) and are nowhere near as glamorous, but they're often more interesting. If you become a researcher, you'll spend your days working on the kinds of problems most network engineers can only daydream about while configuring devices for new hires.

The Value of an MSNE Transcends Industry

Having a network engineering master's will help you land roles at companies like those above, but that's just one of many reasons to consider SMU Lyle's Online M.S. in Network Engineering program.

Having up-to-date cross-functional skills plus a specialty that sets you apart is the key to success in modern network engineering—regardless of your chosen field. No one is just a network engineer these days, even if they work for a small company with relatively simple networking needs. IT costs are going up, organizations are integrating more technology into their networks and those networks have to support more devices. As a result, more companies in industries as diverse as manufacturing and mobile gaming are looking for professionals who can leverage the latest technologies to keep networks running and costs down. The network engineers poised to advance the fastest may be those with degrees plus server engineering skills, software development skills, telecom skills, wireless engineering skills and a few years of experience working with the cloud.

If the cost of an MSNE has kept you from going back to graduate school, take another look at the ROI of this degree. You'll earn more with a master's-level network engineering degree and the additional income can add up to tens of millions of dollars over your career. More importantly, however, a master's degree can help you stay current in a rapidly changing networking landscape thanks to automation and virtualization. There will always be jobs for network engineers, but whether you're qualified to step into one of them may ultimately depend on whether your education has prepared you to adapt to what's around the bend.

Ready to learn more about SMU Lyle's Online M.S. in Network Engineering program? Here's what you need to know about our admissions and application requirements.