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The New Ph.D. - Student entrepreneurship and a dearth of academic jobs prompt schools to re-engineer doctoral programs for the business world. + By Beryl Lieff Benderly + Illustration By Bruno Mallart

When university engineering departments advertise vacancies these days, they can expect “100 to many hundred applications for every tenure-track faculty opening. That’s true in engineering nationally,” says Joseph Helble, dean of Dartmouth College’s Thayer School of Engineering. Where a doctorate once served as a passport to a comfortable faculty career, the majority of today’s new Ph.D. engineers face a tough choice: They can seek temporary and comparatively low-paid postdoctoral fellowships, or look to industry, which has tended to view research-trained doctoral graduates as destined for academe and therefore an unlikely fit. “There’s always been this hesitation in business — ‘Do we really want to take a Ph.D. right off the bat, [when] we have to train them for three or four years?’ ” says Steven Casper, dean of faculty development at the Keck Graduate Institute in Claremont, Calif.

But now, a number of institutions have begun to prepare Ph.D. engineers to grasp opportunities and thrive in the industrial, commercial, and business worlds, either as employees of large or small enterprises or as entrepreneurs seeking to turn their own research into marketable products. They include both Dartmouth and Keck, a specialized graduate school that has pioneered preparation of engineers and scientists for the biomedical industry, along with Purdue, Georgia Tech, and the University of California, Davis.

More schools may follow, responding both to the demands of a knowledge economy powered by research-based innovation and to the dynamic career aspirations of people like Shaili Sharma, one of a new generation of highly trained, entrepreneurial engineers. “I knew from the first day I started [graduate school] that I was never going to be in academia,” says Sharma, now on the verge of completing a bioengineering doctorate at Purdue. Still, she saw a Ph.D. as essential to her goal of leading the development of new products. She hopes eventually to help patients susceptible to arthritis, including her own father.

“With a Ph.D. you gain a new set of skills,” Sharma says. “You think about a problem, think about designing solutions that nobody has actually looked at before.” She hopes the solid academic grounding of a doctorate will enable her to move quickly into a leadership role, “heading organizations or departments or research offices that solve problems. That is key. I wanted to be at that position; I could not have done that with just a bachelor’s.”


Shaili Sharma, Purdue University graduate student.
“I knew from the first day I started [graduate school] that I was never going to be in academia.”
– Shaili Sharma, Purdue University graduate student.
Photograph courtesy of Purdue University


A Range of Models

Offerings that teach industry and business skills to Ph.D. engineers vary widely in scope, goals, and content, ranging from multiday intensives, through yearlong fellowships and degrees, to an entire Ph.D. program. All, however, aim to retain the special advantages of research-based doctoral studies while providing additional elements appropriate to business and industry.

Among the most important of those often-missing skills, Casper says, is effective teamwork. When Casper and his Keck colleagues began planning to train Ph.D.’s, however, they initially thought that the doctoral graduates “would be great on teamwork because they collaborate all the time on publications,” he says. Yet while researchers are organized to work in groups at university labs, “everybody in the group has their own responsibility and they each own something fundamentally, and they need to get credit for it on publication.” Ph.D.’s fresh from academe find it difficult “to delegate something that is important to a project” to someone else. Teamwork involves a far greater division of labor and sharing of credit. “There’s more of a reliance on others to brainstorm and figure out what they have to do fundamentally,” Casper continues. Functions are much more likely to be delegated and credit for a project’s merits to accrue to the group at large rather than to any individual member. Team projects with participants of differing backgrounds and degree status are a major element in Keck programs, along with company internships and coursework that can include management, finance, law, intellectual property, regulatory affairs, and more.


Business and Research Skills

U.S. universities are not the only ones looking to prepare Ph.D.’s for working lives outside the academy. Germany, Ireland, and other European countries have begun offering newly designed “structured” Ph.D. curricula intended to produce graduates suited to “modern business, commercial, and industrial environments as well as the more traditional careers in academia and research,” as Ireland’s Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) puts it. At DIT and Technische Universität München in Germany, students not only pursue their academic discipline but also acquire a range of “generic skills” considered relevant to a wide range of careers, including communication, ethics, leadership and teamwork, career management, and the basics of entrepreneurship and innovation.

Such specific preparation for nonacademic careers does not typically appear in American Ph.D. programs. An exception is Thayer School’s Ph.D. Innovation Program, the first of its kind in the nation, according to Helble. Its curriculum shares a common core with Thayer’s Ph.D. program: applied math and engineering coursework, a multiyear research project, professional skill-building, an oral qualifying examination, and a Ph.D. thesis defense. But it also includes courses from Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business in “corporate finance,… law, technology, and entrepreneurship, an elective such as accounting, and Thayer School’s unique Introduction to Innovation course,” Helble explains. An internship, “preferably in a start-up, which could be the student’s own venture,” completes the requirements.


Ashifi Gogo, shown with former president Bill Clinton
Ashifi Gogo, shown with former president Bill Clinton at the 2010 Clinton Global Initiative
forum, graduated from Dartmouth’s Ph.D. Innovation Program and launched Sproxil Inc.
The firm uses cellphones and enlists communities, governments, and
pharmaceutical companies to combat trade in counterfeit medication.
Photograph courtesy of Clinton Global Initiative


Other institutions offer Ph.D. engineering students or postdocs a year devoted to skills relevant to commercializing research. The Purdue Realization and Entrepreneurship Ph.D. and Postdoctoral Fellows (PREPP) program, where Shaili Sharma studied, includes workshops and mentored programs exploring the realities of moving a research idea to the market as a product or service. The program, an addition to graduate work, seeks to “educate, mentor, train [candidates] so that when they finish their Ph.D., they have a head start on technology transfer,” says Candiss Vibbert, Purdue’s assistant vice president for engagement. “Even if they don’t start a company right away, they really believe that this is added value to the doctoral degree and really makes them a more attractive candidate for academic and industrial jobs.”

At the University of California-Davis, meanwhile, the year-long Business Development Certificate fellowship program at the university’s Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship “provides UC Davis science and engineering graduate and post-doctoral students hands-on experience in developing business skills for a career in industry and the opportunity to develop new business ventures,” according to the program’s website. The institute’s mission, says its director, L. Wilton Agatstein, “is to help science and engineering academics as well as other researchers go through the steps necessary to determine how to commercialize their research.”

Throughout the year, the UC-Davis innovation and entrepreneurship institute offers a number of “entrepreneurship academies,” which provide engineering graduate students, postdocs, and faculty from any university an intensive three-day introduction that starts them toward “the knowledge and the skills and the network and ultimately the confidence to commercialize their research,” Agatstein says. “Clearly they don’t complete all the steps necessary, but they get the beginning of the knowledge and the beginning of the skills so that they can determine the next steps.”

At the Keck Graduate Institute, engineers and scientists who have completed their doctorates can take a year of graduate study that culminates in an additional degree, the Postdoctoral Professional Master (PPM) in Biosciences Management. This program draws on KGI’s experience as a pioneer in developing the Professional Science Master’s (PSM) degree – now offered at more than 125 institutions – that combines a year of master’s-level science or engineering study with a year of business management, regulatory affairs, and other industry-oriented courses, an internship, and a team project. The one-year PPM provides the business and management elements of the PSM, including an industry-sponsored team project in which students collaborate to solve real problems for a real company.

Other programs take less time. This summer, KGI will launch a new “Bridging the Gap” Summer Boot Camp to provide engineers and scientists who are working on or have received their Ph.D.’s “an introduction to the transferable skills and industry experiences not afforded during their graduate studies [but] required to obtain positions in the life sciences industry.” Supported by a grant from the Burroughs-Wellcome Fund, the ambitious 12-day workshop will include “MBA-style case-based teaching,” finance, decision analysis, and even a teaching project, Casper says. Another relatively short option is Georgia Tech’s 12-credit Graduate Certificate in Engineering Entrepreneurship, in which Ph.D. candidates interested in becoming entrepreneurs or joining a start-up can take a minor consisting of courses offered by the business school.


Bridges to Industry

In both the United States and Europe, business-oriented doctoral programs generally cultivate close ties with industry. These relationships inform their students’ or fellows’ studies; help guide the design, content, and structure of the programs; and provide the students concrete opportunities for networking and employment. Advisers from industry played important roles in planning many of the programs and generally continue to provide them up-to-date information on current business conditions and needs and, in some cases, financial support both for students and elements of the program. Mentors and speakers from industry provide program content and help maintain the bonds that feed students into industrial positions, both as interns and, in many cases, as employees.

For minorities seeking business experience after completing a Ph.D. in engineering or another STEM field, ASEE and the National Science Foundation have teamed up to offer Small Business Postdoctoral Research Diversity Fellowships at firms that receive NSF Small Business Innovation Research funding.

Once hired, graduates are proving their value, say administrators of the new university programs. Helble says representatives of large corporations, such as IBM, have told him that “these are exactly the skills we’d like our engineers to have.” Keck Graduate Institute’s Casper says companies “come back for more.” Every member of Keck’s recent PPM graduating classes is employed in industry, he says, except for one 2012 alumnus who chose to travel after graduation and has just begun a job search. Vibbert, of Purdue, likewise says PREPP graduates are “quite successful in the job market.” Davis’s Entrepreneurship Academies and Business Development fellows have thus far founded more than 100 companies, 45 of which are currently in operation, according to Agatstein.

The prospect of real-world success holds strong appeal for students. More than 800 participants have attended the 19 short academies that Davis has run to date, and 57 graduate students – about one-fourth of the applicant pool – have been year-long Business Development fellows. The Keck PPM program has gone from six students in its first year to 30. Thayer’s Innovation Ph.D. is kept small by design in order to “assure that we can provide good mentorship,” Helble explains, but gets eight applications for each of five available spaces and is “the most highly selective program within Thayer school.” Purdue’s PREPP attracts several times more applicants than the program can accommodate, Vibbert says. And these students possess an entrepreneurial drive that is “not just a matter of making money, we find.” Instead, “a lot of them feel that they have an innovative technology that they’re developing that can really make a difference to people and they want to do that.” And isn’t that, after all, what engineering is all about?


Beryl Lieff Benderly is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Illustration By Bruno Mallart

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