Opportunities: More School?

In this column, and in every career workshop I lead, I emphasize how Ph.D. training can prepare you to be an adaptable problem solver, capable of taking on a wide range of demanding assignments with little assistance. Developing your own research, tackling a range of technical challenges, figuring things out on your own, and pulling it all together into an original piece of scholarly research is, I argue, very similar to the real-world challenges entrepreneurs and other business leaders face when they build companies. Like the Ph.D., building a business is about doing, not learning. So, in some respects, a science Ph.D. is excellent training for people interested in starting--or leading--a business.

Yet, there's no doubt that entrepreneurship and business management require skills--accounting, law, finance, and a million other topics--that no Ph.D. program I know about teaches routinely. So, if you think you might like to start your own company, or take on a high-level role at an existing early-stage company, you're bound to consider adding an M.B.A. to your degree collection. A Ph.D. is great on fundamentals--it teaches you how to make something completely on your own--but it falls short on the practical stuff every entrepreneur has to master. Those practical skills are the specialty of the M.B.A.

So should you get one? And if you decide to get one, how can you do it as cheaply and conveniently as possible? These are the subjects of this month's "Opportunities."

M.B.A. versus Ph.D.

Each degree has its merits for entrepreneurship, and each gives you skills and experience totally missing from the other.

Most full-time M.B.A. programs take 2 years, and part-time programs usually take 3 years or more. Most of the work is coursework, with an emphasis on practical skills and "case studies": select vignettes used to illustrate specific issues in business. Full-time M.B.A. training usually involves some practical work experience--a paid internship, you might say, usually between the first and second years--which gives you some extra experience and helps pay some bills.

The Ph.D., as most of you know, is very different. Unlike any other professional degree, the Ph.D. is about doing rather than just learning. Some argue that a Ph.D. isn't a professional degree at all--not a preparation for professional practice--but, rather, an opportunity to acquire knowledge for its own sake. I think this is disingenuous and one of the problems with the Ph.D. degree--but let's save that for another column. Although there is a lot of coursework at the beginning of many Ph.D. programs, the textbooks tend to disappear after 2 years, if not sooner. After that, you drill into a single subject and work for years to produce an original piece of scholarship largely by yourself. I have described this as being marched to the edge of human knowledge and being told to take the next step on your own.

To M.B.A. or not to M.B.A. ...

If you are getting or already have a Ph.D. and you think you would like to steer your career away from the bench and toward business--especially entrepreneurship--you have two choices: Go back to school for the M.B.A., or make the transition to a start-up directly. There are advantages to both approaches.

One of the principal advantages of an M.B.A. is that the job opportunities at early-stage companies are excellent for M.B.A. grads. Not only will you have all the knowledge and experience of a Ph.D.; you'll also have the practical knowledge an M.B.A. provides. Add to this the fabulous network you'll acquire in business school--faculty members, fellow students, alumni--and the M.B.A. can be a compelling path. Many of the people you'll be learning from, and alongside, have direct experience in the technology start-up arena, so you'll have a lot of experience to tap into.

The principal downside of the M.B.A., of course, is that it takes 2 more years of expensive school--and it's not only the tuition and fees that make it expensive. The "opportunity cost" of those 2 years--the salary and experience you forgo to attend more school--are even higher than the tuition. It's a good thing these masters of business earn a lot right out of school: There would be no way to pay the cost otherwise!

Depending on your ambitions, an M.B.A. may be completely unnecessary. In some industries, such as biotech, the path to a leading business role is well established for Ph.D. scientists, even those without M.B.A.s. Because the work in biotech involves a high technical component--and because many biotech companies are started by Ph.D. scientists--you'll find Ph.D.s throughout management. Software-engineering start-ups may also recruit Ph.D.s without any business exposure. And it might be possible to join an early-stage start-up as a technical expert; if you can manage, you will have plenty of opportunity to grow into a business role.

When to get an M.B.A. is as important a question as whether to do so. Going straight from a Ph.D. to an M.B.A. is not advisable. For starters, you'll be more attractive to prospective M.B.A. programs if you have a few years of work under your belt. Second, getting multiple degrees without accumulating real-world work experience might turn off certain--although certainly not all--hiring managers. So if it's possible, work for a couple of years before going back to your M.B.A. Your training might end up being cheaper this way. Best of all, if you go to work first, you may find you don't need an M.B.A. after all to do what you want.

Having your job and eating it too

It is possible to maintain a professional career and get an M.B.A. by enrolling in a part-time program that meets evenings, weekends, or both. Part-time programs often are populated by people like you: older, often technical, steering their careers in new directions. I got my M.B.A. at the University of California, Berkeley, in the evening program, where two-thirds of my classmates were engineers who worked full-time. There are lots of part-time M.B.A. programs, including a number that teach entirely online. Just like full-time programs, the reputations of part-time programs vary widely. If you are interested in working at a start-up or an early-stage company, look for M.B.A. programs that have strong entrepreneurship focus. Not only will the curriculum be better suited for your ambitions, but the network and alumni contacts will be more fruitful as well.

If you are already employed, ask whether your employer will pay for some of your M.B.A. training. Many, especially larger, employers have programs to subsidize the cost of higher education for their employees. In my evening M.B.A. program, two-thirds of my classmates had some of their tuition paid by their employers. Nearly 20% had all their tuition paid for.

The two-column list

Here are some factors that might favor a decision to go back for an M.B.A. to support your entrepreneurial urges.

• You want to make a career transition soon.

• You want to obtain a breadth of skill that would support an entrepreneurial career.

• You have one or more excellent, and appropriate, part-time or full-time M.B.A. programs in your region--assuming you have geographical  constraints.

• Your employer may subsidize your M.B.A. education.

Here are some factors that might steer you away from an M.B.A.

• You're not in a hurry.

• You're in a field in which technical people often move into management and business roles without additional training.

• There are no good entrepreneurship programs at any of the business schools that are, realistically, available to you.

• The opportunity cost of stepping out of your career path would be too high--although you can still consider a part-time M.B.A. in this case.

Whether an M.B.A. is right for you is, of course, a function of where you want to go professionally. Neither degree is a hedging strategy for professional indecision! As with the Ph.D., the best way to ensure that your investment in an M.B.A. pays off is to know what you want out of it. That requires some vision for yourself and your professional future. That's something you need to sort out before applying.

Comments, suggestions? Please send your feedback to our editor.

DOI: 10.1126/science.caredit.a0700068

Peter Fiske

Peter Fiske is a Ph.D. scientist and co-founder of RAPT Industries, a technology company in Fremont, California. He is the author of Put Your Science to Work and co-author, with Dr. Geoff Davis, of a blog (at phds.org) on science policy, economics, and educational initiatives that affect science employment. Fiske lives with his wife and two daughters in Oakland, California, and is a frequent lecturer on the subject of career development for scientists.

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