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Career changes: Open for business

A master's in business can offer scientists extra flexibility or whole new career paths.

In June 2011, Karen Havenstrite graduated from Stanford University in California with a PhD in chemical engineering. A few months later, she had invented a coating that makes contact lenses more comfortable and had co-founded a company to sell it.

Credit: Robin Jareaux/Getty

She soon discovered that starting a business is tough. “In the process of taking science from the lab into the marketplace, I realized how much I didn't know,” she says. She is learning it all now. In 2015, she will graduate from Stanford again — this time with a master's in business administration (MBA). At about the same time, her company — Ocular Dynamics in Menlo Park, California — will begin to market her invention.

Data from the US National Center for Education Statistics in Washington DC suggest that Havenstrite's MBA will be one of about 194,000 advanced business degrees awarded next June in the United States alone. Scientists make up a minority of MBA enrolment, but the degree is something that researchers should consider: it could facilitate advancement in their existing careers, or open up prospects by helping them to turn an idea into a business plan and then into a profitable venture (see 'Start-ups').

Many working scientists feel that they have already racked up enough years — and debt — getting PhDs. Yet for some, 'B-school' might be just the ticket, and there are ways to mitigate what can be formidable costs. Some employers will pay the tuition fees and promote the researchers when they complete the degree. And weekend classes offer a way to keep full-time jobs while completing the course. Time and money can also be saved by choosing a one-year programme instead of the more-traditional two-year stint. Online MBAs are usually the least expensive choice.

Potential rewards

The degree can offer returns on the investment, however. The Graduate Management Admission Council, a non-profit organization based in Reston, Virginia, has found consistently high percentages of alumni who report that their degrees have paid off in terms of income and job satisfaction. In a survey of nearly 21,000 alumni of 132 business schools around the world, all graduating between 1959 and 2013, most said that their education had been rewarding personally (94%), professionally (90%) and financially (77%).

There is no dearth of programmes to choose from — 13,000 worldwide, according to the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business in Tampa, Florida. And for vetting, an abundance of organizations and publications rank programmes according to various criteria, including cost, peer and recruiter assessment, starting salary and bonus, employment rates and test scores. The location of the university and the length of the programme are likely to be crucial in making the choice.

The MBA degree was created in the United States in 1908, and US universities have tended to dominate both in enrolments and in rankings. But institutions such as the London Business School; INSEAD in France, Singapore and Abu Dhabi; and the IE Business School in Spain have also found their ways onto some elite lists. People wanting a one-year programme are likely to have better luck looking in Europe, because shorter programmes are more popular there than in the United States.

A one-year programme is often the best option for people who want to accelerate their careers, rather than switch them, says Douglas Stayman, former associate dean of MBA programmes at Cornell University's Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management in Ithaca, New York, which offers both one- and two-year programmes. Stayman is now overseeing the MBA programme at Cornell Tech, which in 2017 will move to a new campus in New York City.

The IE Business School is one of a few high-rated schools to offer online MBAs. The online degree has the same admission requirements as the full-time on-campus programme (online students tend to be a few years older and have a couple more years of work experience).

Earlier this year, the Graduate Management Admission Council surveyed more than 3,000 students in their final year of business school at 111 universities around the world and found that nearly 60% already had job offers. About one-quarter of the offers were in finance and accounting, one-fifth each in consulting and products and services (such as supply-chain management, or getting goods to market) and 15% in technology. Only 5% of the offers were in health care or pharmaceutical drug development — prime possibilities for scientists — but students seeking jobs in those areas were among the most likely to get offers. Many schools say that 80–90% of their students will be employed by three months after their graduation.

“An MBA is the only advanced degree I know of that expands your opportunities rather than shrinks them,” says Dan Madden, senior manager for strategic planning at Zoetis, an animal-health company in Florham Park, New Jersey. Before earning his MBA, Madden was a chemist for Schering-Plough (now part of Merck).

Costs vary from university to university and from nation to nation. In 2013, the US business and technology news website Business Insider compared the costs for the first year of an MBA programme at 11 US schools. Tuition alone ranged from about US$53,000 to $65,000, but total costs, including room and board, insurance, supplies and miscellaneous fees ranged from about $81,000 to nearly $100,000.

At the London Business School, tuition — including reading materials but no other expenses — was £64,200 (US$102,000) for the 15–21 month programme that started in August. At INSEAD, tuition fees for the class graduating in 2015 were €62,500 ($79,000), but mandatory health-insurance and administration fees add another €800, and living expenses are estimated at €22,300 in Singapore and at €23,600 in France.

Sometimes, an MBA will expand a scientist's career opportunities so much that the science aspect loses much of its attraction. That happened for Yasar Awan. Now a manager at Raytheon in Boston, Massachusetts, overseeing the flow of materials from circuit boards to wires in support of a US Navy programme, Awan is a 2014 graduate of a five-year programme at Pennsylvania State University's Smeal College of Business in University Park in which students earn a bachelor of science — his was in biology — and an MBA (see 'Highlights'). Along the way, Awan discovered possibilities that he might never have seen. “I don't really want to go into science any more,” he admits. “I fell in love with supply chain.”

Valuable skills

Scientists who get MBAs usually continue to think of themselves as scientists at some level, at least. And they are generally more comfortable explaining how a new product or technology works — whether to fellow employees or to external clients — than are non-scientists, says Mark Pauly, a health-care-management researcher at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School in Philadelphia.

In fact, “there are certain roles where we really request a science background”, says Beth Keeler, vice-president for global acquisition and career planning at Pfizer in New York. “It's not required, but many times it's preferred.”

Also, scientists are generally more analytical than the average business-school student, says finance manager Ian McFetridge, also at Pfizer. “They're good at breaking down problems into smaller pieces, good at seeing how different factors are related.” On the other hand, he adds, “a lot of people coming out of science are not as natural at communicating and presenting ideas. But when it does happen that a scientist can communicate well, then you have someone who can take a complicated subject and simplify it for the audience, and that's exceptional.” Such pairing of communication and science is particularly useful in consulting work, when MBA graduates need to explain to their clients how their suggestions for boosting revenue or efficiency will work.

As a research scientist in New York City, Brandan Hillerich developed new biotechnologies. He loved his work. But filing for patents and coming up with commercial strategies to market those technologies presented a whole new challenge. “To me, this was even more exciting than the bench science,” he says. And he wanted more of it. So in May, he began a one-year MBA programme at Cornell.

Some find business more exciting than science just because things can happen faster. In 2004, Ana Albir graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge with a major in physics. But the research experience she had accumulated as an undergraduate led her to decide that a career in physics was not for her. “It can take decades to see results,” she says. In 2009, she graduated from Stanford with an MBA and she is now chief executive of Moondrop Entertainment, a company she founded in 2012 to create educational tablet apps for children. She still works on challenging problems, but now she can solve them in days or weeks simply by designing a clever piece of software. “With physics, I love the field,” she explains, “but in what I do now, I love the field and the pace.”

Business requires as much creativity as science, say many PhD graduates who are pursuing MBAs. But advanced science degrees tend to be more of an individual pursuit, whereas business qualifications usually involve working as part of a team. “I like the collaboration,” says Drew Rattigan, a second-year MBA candidate at Smeal. “I like a more social environment.”

Teamwork is a big plus for Hillerich too. After he had been in the programme at Cornell for less than a month, he knew all his classmates — at around 100, at least during the summer, a much larger number than in a PhD programme. Working in groups with them is great, he says. “Everyone thinks about things so differently. It expands your own thinking.”

An MBA was always on the cards for Ally Chang, who received a PhD in biomedical science from the University of Auckland in New Zealand in 2009 and an MBA from Cornell in 2011 and is now the new-products commercial manager at Corning Life Sciences in Tewksbury, Massachusetts. Her science background is a big asset when she works with researchers to decide whether their ideas will work in the marketplace. “I've heard the comment — so many PhDs, so few professorships,” Chang says. “But even before I started my PhD, I knew I didn't want to be a professor. I wanted to do what I'm doing.” Chang has always had a passion for science — but she wants to turn her scientific ideas into commercial products.

Havenstrite and Hillerich, too, have chosen business for business's sake, because they believe it is a way to have a direct, positive impact on people's lives. “That is why I got into science in the first place,” Hillerich says. It is a sentiment expressed by many scientists who have, or are seeking, MBAs: they want to do work that has tangible, measurable effects, and soon, not in some abstract, distant future.

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Taking a risk in start-ups

Education: The PhD factory

Naturejobs blog on online education

Scitable profile on scientific recruiter Scott Canavera

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Stanford Graduate School of Business

Ocular Dynamics

National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics

Graduate Management Admission Council

Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business

History of the MBA

London Business School


IE Business School

Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management

Cornell Tech

Global Management Education Graduate Survey

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Ravn, K. Career changes: Open for business. Nature 514, 523–525 (2014).

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