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By Richard M. Todaro
A plan by the University of Florida to introduce a new Master of Business Administration (MBA) geared specifically toward scientists and engineers is the latest example of an ongoing effort by academic institutions to expand the scope of their business education programs.
The move by the University of Florida brings it into line with other universities that have instituted Masters degree-level programs in business education for scientists and engineers, and it reflects a growing sense that such training is necessary in today's high-tech economy.
The University of Florida's new executive MBA degree program is intended specifically for scientists and engineers who "feel they need a business degree in order to further their careers" in research laboratories or private industry, according to Erik Gordon, Director of MBA Programs in the University of Florida's Warrington College of Business.
The program, which will take 20 months to finish, is referred to as an executive, as opposed to a standard, MBA because it is geared toward people who are otherwise employed full-time and hence can only commit a few days a month to participating in the class.
Gordon said significant numbers of scientists and engineers are finding that they need a business education to compete.
"The genesis of the new program is that I and our MBA Programs have strong ties to several of the science departments and to the engineering school at UF (University of Florida)," Gordon stated.
"For better or worse (and I have mixed feelings about this), it appears that a decent number of scientists and engineers, mainly in industry but also a few in academe, feel that they need a business education in order to further their careers, presumably in management of larger laboratories or because they are moving into positions such as Chief Scientist or Chief Technical Officer at large or start-up companies."
Other schools around the country have instituted or are instituting masters-level business programs for scientists and engineers. Besides MBA degrees, which are intended for those with at least a few years of real-world experience, many business schools offer Masters of Science (MS) degrees, for students who want to learn business graduate school basics even though they may lack job experience.
Cornell University instituted its "Twelve-Month Option MBA" in 1995, aimed specifically at scientists and engineers. The program was created following a comprehensive survey of 500 of the Forbes 1000 companies by the university's Johnson Graduate School of Management.
In the survey, two-thirds of the senior managers polled agreed that a "cultural divide exists between employees with technical training (such as those in research and development positions) and those without (such as those typically found in sales and marketing positions) and that this cultural divide is a significant problem."
Alan G. Merten, former dean of the Johnson School, stated at the time, "Professionals who combine scientific or other technical knowledge with business training could become the so-called 'gold-collar' workers, a new generation of business elite with several distinct areas of expertise."
Just this past fall, Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland inaugurated a new degree called a Masters of Science in Physics - Entrepreneurship Track. The degree is part of the Physics Entrepreneurship Program.
Run by the physics department in collaboration with the business school, the program was created as the result of surveys of alumni that found there was a need for such a program.
"[In 1993-94] we began surveying our alumni and found that many had become entrepreneurs," said program director Cyrus Taylor. "The feedback we got from alumni was that they felt their physics background and thinking as a physicist had been extremely important.but there were many lessons they had to learn in the school of hard knocks."
In addition, the department brought in physicists-turned-entrepreneurs as guest speakers and sought out their advice.
The business school part of the program is overseen by Robert Hisrich, chair of the Division of Entrepreneurship in the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western.
Hisrich said there are plans to recreate versions of the Physics Entrepreneurship Program in the chemistry, biology, and mathematics departments, among others. Each will offer its own MS degree.
In addition, Hisrich oversees the Technology Entrepreneurship program, which is run jointly with the university's engineering school and offers yet another MS degree. In this program, an engineering professor and a business professor jointly teach each course in order to help students navigate in both worlds.
"The goal is to produce engineers who have an understanding of the relationship between engineering and business and who have a much better capability of being involved in a company. I think the marriage between science and entrepreneurship is a perfect one," Hisrich said.
Brian Schwartz, a vice president for research and a professor of physics at the City University of New York, said the new University of Florida program and the Case Western programs already underway represent "a continuation of ideas that are in the wind."
Under a National Science Foundation grant, Schwartz developed three career-related courses for doctoral science students.
"These courses were designed to help such students enhance skills they ordinarily don't get in graduate school, such as resume-writing, communication skills for a non-scientist audience, and business and economic skills of how the world of high technology operates," Schwartz said.
He said that physics graduate students should take at least some business courses and have two career paths in mind — an ideal one and a more practical one.
"My advice to many physics graduate students who are interested in business [is] to take a course or two in the school of business, or even audit a course or two," Schwartz said. "I tell students to have two career paths in parallel simultaneously. One is their fantasy, and the second is one that they are interested in and that offers perhaps better employment opportunities."
The University of Maryland, College Park is another school that offers students either the option of an MS degree or an MBA degree with a specialized concentration in an area of interest to people with science or engineering backgrounds.
Erik Gordon said Florida's new program will focus on scientists and engineers who want to work in businesses "driven by science or technology" rather than "trivial marketing tricks or financial wizardry that fill many MBA programs."
He said the program's curriculum is being modified to incorporate topics such as intellectual property management and innovation, while the core MBA courses are being directed "to include applications relevant to science or technology-driven operations."
"Of course, they (students) will get the core marketing, finance, etc., if only to know how to defend against it."
Although specific numbers of slots for particular disciplines have not been allocated, Gordon said his office is expecting scientists in physics, chemistry, and biology, and engineers in electrical and chemical engineering to take part in the program. Others expected include individuals in material science and the medical device industry.
"We expect it to be one of our most interesting programs. We are already getting inquiries not only from the U.S. but also from Asia and Europe," Gordon said. "The program will meet one weekend per month, so it would be a long flight from Tokyo but I would not be surprised if we have someone from Japan."
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