A Degree Where Techie Meets Business Smarts: Young professionals in the coveted STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) are discovering they can expand their career future by getting a hybrid master’s degree

A Degree Where Techie Meets Business Smarts


DANIEL BRISKER, who graduated in 2009 with an undergraduate degree in biology, likes his job at MedImmune, a Maryland biotechnology company, where he grows and harvests cell cultures, but he also wanted to enhance his professional credentials. So he went back to school for a professional science master’s degree — what some are calling a science M.B.A., a degree combining science knowledge with business skills.

“I wanted to expand my career horizon,” said Mr. Brisker, 26, of Forestville, Md., “but I needed skills like project management to be able to expand into bioinformatics, where computers are used to process biological information, or environmental areas like plant growth.”

Mr. Brisker, who graduates in May, enrolled at the online University of Maryland University College for the hybrid degree, which is becoming increasingly popular among science graduates who do not want to spend their careers in a laboratory at a time when data analysis and expertise are highly valued in a wide range of businesses.

Enrollment in professional science master’s degree programs has risen 23 percent since 2010, to nearly 6,000 students in the fall of 2013, according to figures from the Council of Graduate Schools. The increase comes at a time when overall graduate enrollment is increasing in the single digits.

Most of the professional science master’s degree students enroll in computer and information sciences. The next most popular areas are environmental sciences and natural resources, mathematics and statistics and, finally, biotechnology.

“Increasingly students are seeking degrees that prepare them for success in a wide range of professional settings,” said Debra W. Stewart, the council’s president. Employers, she said, place a premium on master’s degrees in what are collectively known as STEM disciplines, an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“More than 90 percent of professional science master’s graduates that we surveyed for 2013 were employed in a job related to their field of study,” she said, “and 68 percent of those employed in full-time jobs said they were earning above $50,000.”

The blended degree, she explained, “grew out of the realization that we needed to prepare students not with the degree their professors have, but with degrees that are needed in the workplace.”

Universities began adopting the program in the late 1990s, aided by funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which also helped start the National Professional Science Master’s Association to provide support for program faculty and administrators. The Council of Graduate Schools tracks the program data, and the Keck Graduate Institute, in Claremont, Calif., oversees the professional science master’s programs across the country.

Nearly 140 educational institutions, including major public university systems in Arizona, California and New York, offer the interdisciplinary degree. At the University of Maryland University College, students can choose from five online professional master’s degrees, said Rana Khan, chairwoman of the information and technology systems department, “to give students an option other than a Ph.D.” In the last three years, the online school has graduated 525 students with professional science master’s degrees.

The master’s program requires that students complete a project or internship that provides cross training in business, she noted. To find employers willing to host student projects, she said, the program reached out to biotech incubators, which nurture tech start-ups and innovation.

“This has worked out well because start-ups usually don’t have enough personnel and resources so they are happy to have someone to do the market, product or competitor analyses,” Ms. Khan said.

More than 80 percent of the University College students are employed. Many are in their early 20s and more than half are women, she said. Three-fourths of those enrolled have a degree in biology or another science. Because most students have jobs, they enroll in two classes a semester and take an average of three years to complete the master’s program, according to figures the university provided.

Students, like Mr. Brisker, take 36 credits in courses in sciences as well as project management, regulatory affairs, marketing and finance. Tuition is just under $18,000 for an out-of-state resident.

Mr. Brisker was taking University of Maryland courses in environmental health when he heard about the University College master’s program.

“It made a lot more sense to get the master’s degree in biotechnology, specializing in bioinformatics,” he said, “to be able to analyze and create programs to better understand how medications interact with patients and find the best type to treat cancer or another illness.”

“It also opens the way to a higher pay grade,” he added. And there is an added dividend of a better workplace title, he noted.

“Now we are called technicians. With a master’s degree, we are called scientists.”

But not every professional master’s degree student is steeped in science before acquiring the business skills offered in the program. Joanna Naymark, 29, of Saratoga, Calif., for example, had little science background. She had a degree in communications from U.C.L.A. and worked in corporate public relations before she joined a genomics start-up, helping to profile people’s disease risk.

She had done some genetic engineering research in college, but the start-up “reignited my passion for the area.”

She began taking science courses, including biology, at UC Berkeley Extension, then learned about Keck Graduate Institute’s professional science master’s, where she could study business and biotechnology. She started in fall 2012 and has “been able to work on teams doing projects in pharma and biotech, including a project with the City of Hope hospital to look for a commercial path for an oncology treatment,” she said.

When she graduates this year, she says, “I want to look into venture capital and investing in biotech. This experience has really gotten me interested in pursuing that area.”


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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