When professor Anthony Muscat talks with former PhD students about their experiences in industry, a common pattern emerges: Their work involves working on teams that resemble startup companies.
Unfortunately, like so many PhD students who graduate from the nation's engineering schools, they're often not prepared to participate equally with their teammates on nontechnical issues.
As engineers they have outstanding technical skills but often little knowledge of finance, marketing, environmental law, ethics, intellectual property issues and other concepts relating to business or law, says Muscat, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Arizona who is the first faculty member named to the APS Distinguished Professorship in Technology and Entrepreneurship by the UA College of Engineering.
Education for Multiple Careers
Part of the problem is that the engineering doctoral curriculum is designed to produce the next generation of university professors, but only a few follow that career path. Most work in the private sector.
"So I started thinking about how we could change the way we educate master's and PhD students who won't become faculty members," Muscat said. "Once I started thinking on that road, it was natural to make connections with those who teach business and business law on campus."
Muscat has been working with the McGuire Center for Entrepreneurship and UA's Engineering Management program to design a PhD curriculum that gives students business skills and more applications-oriented technical abilities during their first two years as doctoral candidates.
Components of that program now are in place, but more needs to be done to create a complete two-year curriculum, and Muscat will be pursuing that goal with funding provided by Arizona Public Service Co. through the APS Distinguished Professorship in Technology and Entrepreneurship.
The APS professorship supports collaborations between UA's engineering and business colleges that prepare students to take leadership roles in industry.
Balancing Theory and Practicality
Muscat emphasized that the new curriculum is not designed to replace the PhD experience, in which a student works closely with faculty mentors, delving deeply into a subject and pushing the boundaries of knowledge. But some changes will have to be made.
"The tradeoff is that we have to sacrifice some of the more highly theoretical material," Muscat said. "And that's where we have to find some balance and some agreement among our faculty." Just how this will be done is likely to be different in various engineering disciplines, he said.
Elements of the new curriculum already are in place, and PhD students who plan to pursue a career in industry can begin taking some of these courses during the fall 2010 semester.
Many will begin with SIE 567, Financial Modeling for Innovation, a class that was first offered during the fall 2009 semester. It's intended for scientists and engineers who have no business background.
"The idea is to start from a no-business background and, in one semester, be up to speed, where they can participate in the McGuire Center for Entrepreneurship Program," said Mike Arnold, who designed the course and is director of the UA Engineering Management program.
Enter the Entrepreneur
A graduate student who has not taken business classes would have to enroll in several prerequisite courses to gain the knowledge needed for the McGuire Entrepreneurship Program. This would add too many extra classes to the already packed graduate curricula, Arnold explained.
"But engineers are good with math and learn quickly," he added. "So we can really deliver the material at a rapid pace, and it actually works. In one semester they can go from no knowledge to being in a position to contribute to entrepreneurship teams."
The students also will take other engineering management classes during the first year before moving on to the McGuire Center Entrepreneurship Program in their second year.
During the entrepreneurship program, they'll work on teams similar to those found in industry. These teams take a marketable technology -- often provided by the engineering or science student -- and produce a business plan that is innovative and scalable, explained Sherry Hoskinson, director of the McGuire Center. Some of these plans eventually go on to produce startup companies.
Students also take a finance class, and, depending on their background, additional marketing classes. But all the courses focus on pushing the new venture.
Starting in fall 2010, doctoral students can pursue the McGuire Entrepreneurship Program as a minor. A few engineering students have participated in the class since 1996, but it's been in addition to the PhD curriculum, adding another year or more to their degree program.
"In the past, there have been fairly significant barriers for engineers and scientists who wanted to participate in the program," Hoskinson said. "Now, with the new minor in place, we have a rock-free path for students to follow."
The new engineering PhD curriculum will be particularly valuable to U.S. citizens, Muscat said. "There are not that many students from the United States who pursue engineering graduate degrees," he said. "They don't really see the value of that. But this new curriculum would be really useful to them in getting their careers off the ground."
If engineers or scientists hope to start their own company or advance to higher levels in a corporation, they need to know about finance, law and business, Arnold said. "Otherwise, you're going to hit what I call the plywood ceiling. You're going to be promoted up to a level, but you're not going to be allowed to make corporate-level decisions until you understand what it means to be profitable and make money for your employer."
Even students who are sure they will spend their lives as faculty members can benefit from the program, Arnold added. Their research may lead to marketable ideas, but if they don't understand business and can't assess the value of their new ideas, "they may decide it's too much hassle and just stick that antigravity device on the shelf and go on to their next research project."
The new curriculum also will be valuable to students who end up working for small companies or startup companies that don't have the resources to hire lawyers, a marketing staff or financial officers. "If they've gone through this program, they will at least have some idea of what they need to do to make their venture financially successful and who they will need to get to help them," Muscat said.