MBA Programs Expand Career Prospects For Cross-Trained Scientists


Mixing Business with Science

Traditionally, the master of business administration (MBA) degree is pursued soon after the bachelor's degree by individuals whose primary interests are in business careers. But there's evidence that a growing number of scientists are finding the MBA valuable in the pursuit of their career aspirations, as well.

Young scientists are facing an era in which the traditional academic career is becoming a rarity. A recent National Research Council report, for example, found that less than a third of the scientists awarded Ph.D.'s between 1983 and 1986 found themselves in tenured or tenure-track positions by 1991. And many beginning researchers are being forced to look beyond academia to exploit their skills, according to the report, entitled Reshaping the Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers (Washington, D.C., National Academy Press, April 1995; for information on obtaining the report, call (800) 624-6242).

Simultaneously, the technology-driven world of business is finding itself in greater need of managers with scientific training. With an eye toward both phenomena, some scientists interested in business are pursuing degrees in traditional MBA programs. And this summer, two specialized programs are being inaugurated, each designed to match industry's demand with a supply of scientists and engineers trained in business.

The result of both programs--one at Cornell University and the other at Pennsylvania State University--is the same: Individuals with scientific training will complete the programs having earned an MBA. The two programs start from very different places, however. At Cornell this month, the Johnson Graduate School of Management admitted 32 students--each of whom has already earned at least one advanced degree in science or engineering--to an accelerated MBA program. Penn State's program, on the other hand, will be starting this September with 10 or 12 raw freshmen. Five years from now each of them will emerge with two degrees: a bachelor's degree in general science and an MBA.

There's apparently something in the air that's making this career course an attractive and necessary one, says Donald W. Genson, a former chemist with Dow Chemical Co., Midland, Mich., who recently signed on with Penn State as executive director of its science B.S./MBA program: "I think that what's in the air is [that] corporate America, in response to global competitiveness, is asking for more than one set of skills in its management workers."

'Gold-Collar' Workers

Sheila Tobias, a writer and critic of science education, notes that people who have dual specialties--in science and business, for example--are so valuable to industry that a new term has been coined to describe them. They're known as "gold-collar workers."

Tobias believes that training scientists to be businesspeople may prove as much a benefit to science as to industry. Tobias is coauthor--along with Daryl Chubin, a National Science Foundation sociologist and science policy analyst, and Kevin Aylesworth, a theoretical physicist and founder of the Young Scientists Network, an Internet resource for discussion of scientific career issues--of Rethinking Science as a Career: Perceptions and Realities in the Physical Sciences, scheduled to be published by the Research Corporation in Tucson, Ariz., next month.

"Scientists and the community that trains them should consider distributing science-trained professionals into a variety of sectors of the economy, both because it will add to the numbers of students willing to major in science and, more importantly, because it will place people who have experienced science positively into the power centers," she advises. "It just seems obvious to me that it's in the interest of the scientific community not to lock up everybody into a single research mode, but to train a wide variety of people for a wide variety of occupations."

While science may benefit by planting its apostles in the business sector, industry will certainly be happy to receive their message, predicts Genson. "Companies in the era of downsizing and restructuring are asking more and more out of their managers," he observes. "Those companies that are technology-driven are asking that those managers be competent in making decisions about how to do product development, how to spend money to meet technical challenges. We think having an understanding, a base, in the sciences will afford managers the opportunity to make better decisions. This is one way of broadening the MBA."

Paul G. Abrams is president and chief executive officer of NeoRx, a Seattle-based biotechnology company that employs 17 Ph.D.'s, two of whom also have MBAs. He contends that it's critical for managers in technology-driven companies to have both business and scientific training. "I think American management created an impression in the '70s and '80s that a good manager can manage anything," Abrams says. "But I firmly believe that if you're in a technical business you need to have a very clear understanding of the technical details involved in the field."

And, of the scientists with MBA training in his company, Abrams observes, "In general it's been very helpful both to them and to the organization as a whole, because they have the ability to look at what they're doing in a comprehensive way. They have a larger perspective on what they're doing and how it fits in, not only with this company, but with the competitive industry as a whole." Robert Schroff, for example, started with a Ph.D. in immunology, went on to get an MBA, and is now general manager of NeoRx's cardiovascular products program. In addition to being in close touch with the technical aspects of developing new products, Schroff is heavily involved in business development, negotiating collaborations with other corporations, Abrams notes.

While it may be good for science, industry, and even society as a whole to have people with scientific training entering the business world, the students beginning Cornell's new MBA program are far more focused on how business training will diversify and enhance their career options. Typical is Christopher D. Faraday, a plant physiologist who for years has listed his occupation as "migrant scientist" on his tax returns. He spent six years as a research associate at Cornell before enrolling in the MBA program. (Faraday, by the way, is first cousin, five times removed, of Michael Faraday, the famed 19th-century British physicist and chemist.)

"I'm absolutely, totally, completely fed up--not with science, but with the system of science research in [the United States]," explains Faraday. "My entire adult life I've lived on soft money. I've had essentially three postdoc positions over a 10-year period. I'm 37 years old. I've been married for 16 years. I have two children. My salary has never gone above $25,000 a year, and I just can't afford to live like this any longer."

Faraday has had no luck finding a traditional academic position. "I've applied for close to 300 jobs. I got one interview. The job market is flat. I'm not a bozo, I'm not a loser. I have a number of publications and an NSF [National Science Foundation] fellowship, but I just can't get a job."

Faraday conducted extensive research before deciding to make his career change. He spoke to scientists in a variety of industries, as well as to brokers, investment analysts, and chief executive officers of technology-based companies. Most were supportive of the idea of getting an MBA, although a few said that it was unnecessary and would be a waste of his time. Ultimately, though, while Faraday recognized that an MBA wasn't a sine qua non, he concluded that the degree would bestow an air of legitimacy on his new career aspirations, which include the possibility of launching entrepreneurial ventures.

An Entry Ticket

Dru Willey is typical of scientists who decide to make the switch to business. A viral immunologist with a Ph.D. from the University of Montana, Willey was conducting research on the herpes simplex virus at the City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte, Calif., when he entered an evening MBA program at California State University, Northridge. "I made the switch for a lot of reasons," Willey explains. "One of the main ones was that I found that bench science was too confining. I wasn't interacting with people, and I came to find out that interacting with people was a major thing I enjoyed in life."

When officials at the City of Hope learned that Willey had marketing manager in their technology transfer office. Within a year he accepted a job as senior licensing associate at Amgen Inc., the biotech giant based in Thousand Oaks, Calif. After five years of evening classes he was recently awarded his MBA, and now he's manager of Amgen's university licensing and relations department.

Willey hopes one day to be the vice president in charge of research or business development for a biotech company. Of his new degree, he says, "I think the MBA is going to allow me to have more flexibility and to at least gain entry into areas that may not have been open in the past. All an MBA is is a ticket in. Once you're in there you have to prove what you can do."

"The MBA creates [for scientists], in a sense, the 'science' of business," says Alan G. Merten, the Anne and Elmer Lindseth Dean of Cornell's Johnson Graduate School of Management. "It says there is a common body of knowledge that will help you be a successful leader and manager. We package this body of knowledge for the students in an MBA program, and we provide not only that knowledge but a set of skills and experiences around it to make people better leaders and managers."

Starting Up

Typical full-time MBA programs take two academic years, with the summer between them reserved for internships. In the new Cornell program, students will cover the entire first year in an intensive 10-week summer session, after which they'll be integrated with the regular second-year class. Such an accelerated program is possible, says Merten, because scientists tend to have highly developed quantitative and problem-solving skills, and so should be able to breeze through most of the first-year courses.

One potential problem is that these students will have to make some very quick decisions on what area of business they wish to specialize in and what kind of company they wish to work for. Merten notes that recruiters typically come to campus in early September to look over the second-year class, and the students in the new program will have been there only three months by then. Also, they will have missed out on the summer internship, which for an increasing proportion of MBA students amounts to an extended audition for future employment. While there's not much that can be done about the lack of an internship, Merten says that part of the summer will be spent giving the students an intensive orientation to the world of business, so they'll have a better idea of what area they'll wish to specialize in and with what kinds of companies they'll want to interview.

It's unclear whether the emergence of the scientist-MBA will become a full-blown trend. Amgen's Willey notes, for example, that "it's more traditional for scientists in molecular biology to go into patent law." But NeoRx's Abrams, who himself is a scientist with a law degree, expects to see an increasing number of business-trained scientists.

Robert Finn is a freelance science writer based in Long Beach, Calif.

(The Scientist, Vol:9, #13, pg.14, June 26, 1995)
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