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Taking the Ph.D. to a New Level

Intense summer business program for doctoral STEM students is first of its kind

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August 7, 2012 | by Megan Fellman
Science and engineering doctoral students learn management skills in a one-of-a-kind program taught by Kellogg faculty.

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Determined to get an edge in a difficult job market, 50 doctoral students in science and engineering at Northwestern University are honing their real-world management skills this summer in an eight-week leadership program drawing on coursework from the Kellogg School of Management core MBA curriculum. 

The business and leadership skills the Ph.D. students are learning in the only program of its kind, combined with their rigorous doctoral training, give students the boost they need in today’s market to not only effectively manage their own labs but also to succeed in the broader business and entrepreneurial world. 

Reflecting the deep interdisciplinary culture at Northwestern, The Graduate School and Kellogg teamed up to develop an innovative “mini MBA” certificate program, Management for Scientists and Engineers. The program’s topics are selected from the MBA curriculum specifically for the Ph.D. candidates. Now in session, the program is taught by faculty at Kellogg, one of the top business schools in the world. 

“The program at Kellogg was a fantastic introduction to the core concepts of the business world and directly helped me land my first job,” said Brian Quist, who participated in the program two years ago. (The program is now in its third year.) Quist earned his Ph.D. in biomedical engineering in June and will start work this fall as a consultant with The Boston Consulting Group in Chicago.

“Without question, this program gave me the edge I needed to compete for a consulting job,” Quist said. “It’s a large step from engineering to consulting, and recruiters saw I had the motivation and desire to take that step. Consulting aligns very well with the mindset of a Ph.D., where the core skills you develop include analysis and critical thinking.”

“Whether students plan to manage a lab, venture into industry or take an alternative career path, this is a wonderful thing to have on the resume,” said Monica Gerlach, director of planning in The Graduate School. “I’ve talked to students who are on the job market, and they say the Kellogg certificate is one of the first resume items that captures employers’ attention.”

The intense management program is designed for both students planning to work in the commercial sector, whether as a research scientist, entrepreneur or consultant, as well as those pursuing academic careers. 

“Running a lab requires management skills, but that kind of training is not traditionally built into Ph.D. programs,” said current participant Eugénie Suter, who is an M.D./Ph.D. candidate in the Feinberg School of Medicine’s Medical Scientist Training Program. As a physician scientist, she plans to practice medicine and run a lab focused on neuroscience research.   

“And being in academia doesn’t exclude collaborating with industry so having a common vocabulary is essential,” she added. 

“Scientists play a fundamental role addressing the most important challenges of human society,” said Sally Blount, dean of Kellogg and the Michael L. Nemmers Professor of Management and Organizations. “Kellogg helps the students to understand the challenges and opportunities in moving knowledge from the laboratory to the marketplace. Plus, the program gives our business faculty exposure to the brightest technical minds of this generation.” 

The popular program is modeled after the current Kellogg MBA curriculum. Coursework includes finance, accounting, strategy, negotiation, new venture financing and intellectual property. The teaching is interactive, with case studies, simulations, and team-building and crisis management exercises. About a dozen Kellogg faculty members teach in the program.

“The students are incredibly smart and motivated and stayed engaged over 7.5 hours of accounting lectures concentrated in one day,” said Mark Finn, clinical professor of accounting and international business. “They catch on to concepts very quickly and see their implications without much coaching. It’s hard to imagine any other audience being able to process so much material so quickly.”

Finn was so enthusiastic about the program and developing young leaders that he curtailed longstanding teaching commitments in Asia to be able to participate. 

With Ph.D.-level research skills and a passion for science and technology, the students bring a “fresh eye” to management problems and case studies and ask questions MBA students might not ask. The program gives students a working knowledge and vocabulary of the business world and helps them think in new ways, such as keeping the bigger picture in mind.

“This is an extraordinary opportunity,” said current participant Aarohi Zokarkar. “The quality of instruction is very high, and the interdisciplinary approach is a unique experience for me. Knowing the fundamentals of how businesses work will be valuable in my consulting career.” Zokarkar is pursuing a Ph.D. in biological sciences and will go into consulting when she completes her degree. 

“To become a great leader, you have to understand the language of business and how to manage people,” said Sangeeta Vohra, who is academic director of the program and clinical associate professor at Kellogg. “The program enhances the ability of top researchers to make an impact, and, for those commercially inclined, it will enable them to identify market opportunities early in their careers.” 

Each year a high-profile businessperson speaks to the class. This year Sergio Shkurovich, senior director of clinical-systems engineering at St. Jude Medical, a company that develops medical technology and services, discussed commercialization. He is a double Northwestern alumnus with an MBA from Kellogg and a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from The Graduate School.

Previous speakers are John Capek, executive vice president of medical devices at Abbott Laboratories, and Marcus Schabacker, M.D., vice president of research and development of medical products at Baxter International Inc. 

The program’s application process is rigorous, and this year more than 100 students applied for 50 spots. Students come from McCormick, Feinberg, the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Communication. The program is funded by The Graduate School at no cost to the students.

By integrating interdisciplinary work and drawing on expertise from different schools at Northwestern, as well as attracting students from four separate schools, the program embodies a key pillar of the vision in the University's Strategic Plan, integrating student learning with experiences and expertise in the world beyond the classroom.

This year, classes meet from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. every Monday, with the last class to take place Aug. 13. At the end of the program, participants receive a certificate and the opportunity to enroll in two regular winter-quarter courses at Kellogg in commercialization and intellectual property management.

“This innovative program is the first of its kind, serving a population that does not typically receive formal management training,” said Dwight A. McBride, associate provost and dean of The Graduate School and Daniel Hale Williams Professor of African American Studies, English and Performance Studies. “It presents an important opportunity for our best and brightest scientists and engineers to integrate into their disciplinary education specialized skills offered in another part of the University that will serve them in their lives and careers going forward. 

“Colleagues at some of our peer institutions have already shown a keen interest in this program, so I suspect we may soon see similar offerings at other major research universities,” McBride said.

For more information on the program, visit its website