Walking on the Dark Side

Historically, Ph.D. programs and M.B.A. programs at most universities have had little to do with each other. Ph.D. science and engineering programs usually reside on one side of campus, the business school on the other. The faculty of one typically has little to do with the faculty of the other, and snobbery on both sides runs deep.

Chances are you have never set foot in the business school at your university. And chances are that no one–including, especially, your adviser–has ever encouraged you to do so. But just because your adviser sees little opportunity in connecting with the business school doesn’t mean you should turn your nose up as well. It’s time to take a walk on the dark side.

In an earlier column, I talked about the pros and cons of going back to school for an M.B.A. degree after finishing your Ph.D. or master’s degree. But long before you come to that crossroads–or long after, for that matter–a wealth of value awaits you on the b-school campus. (It’s true that not every university has a business school, but many do, and even if yours doesn’t, there’s a good chance there’s a b-school across town.) In this column, I discuss some hidden business school resources that a clever Ph.D. student or postdoc can mine.

A world of opportunity in a single class

If you are a Ph.D. or master’s-degree student at a university that has an M.B.A. program, you might be allowed to audit a business school class. Many of the issues and strategies discussed in these classes have direct application to a scientific career (no matter what your adviser thinks!), and taking just one course–in high-tech marketing, intellectual-property management, corporate strategy, or entrepreneurship, say–can open your eyes, and it will certainly broaden your background.

Getting permission to sit in on a business school class may require some legwork. Business schools often restrict their classes to their own students because, in contrast to Ph.D. programs, M.B.A. students often pay a lot for tuition, and the best classes are often fully subscribed. The best approach is to contact the professor directly to see if there is a procedure to allow “outsiders” to sit in on a class, informally or via a formal audit. Even if there isn’t an official procedure, it still might be possible to sit in on a class. The professor might like the idea of having some “diversity” in the class.

An increasing number of business school faculty members and administrators are beginning to see the value of courses that commingle business graduate students and science graduate students. The Management of Technology (MOT) Program at the University of California, Berkeley, is an example of this sort of thinking. The MOT Program is a combined certificate program for M.B.A.s and Ph.D.s in which students from both sides come together to learn about strategy and entrepreneurship in technology businesses.

And at Harvard Business School, techie-turned-faculty-member Lee Fleming teaches several courses that draw students from across the campus to work side by side with Harvard Business School students on real-world technology-commercialization challenges. Even if your local business school has no formal technology-management program, it may be considering one, in which case your interest might signal the potential for something in the future. They might even regard you as a guinea pig and allow you to audit a course (or two).

Seminars and lecture series

Although getting permission to audit a business school course may require some persistence and persuasion, business schools always have speaker series and seminars that are open to everyone. Lecture series on technology entrepreneurship are common, and often the speakers are Ph.D.s-turned-successful-entrepreneurs. Their stories can be illuminating for the curious science graduate student or postdoc. Often, these lectures and seminars include a mixer or social hour before or after where attendees can meet and mingle. You never know whom you might meet at such events, perhaps someone who will become a valuable part of your network.

Entrepreneurship programs

Entrepreneurship is an increasingly popular subject on the campuses of the major business schools throughout the country. Many have started or plan to start programs in entrepreneurship. “Science and technology is now recognized as an important dimension of business today,” explains Fleming, “and schools like Harvard are drawing in interested science and engineering students to participate in business school courses and programs.” Entrepreneurship programs sometimes combine courses with on-campus activities such as business plan competitions. Some of the more advanced entrepreneurship programs even run on-campus incubators where early-stage start-ups can rent cheap space while they develop ideas. Many such start-ups are technological in nature, so a curious Ph.D. student is likely to find a receptive community.

Business plan competitions

As noted above, many business schools sponsor competitions in which students and faculty members from throughout the university develop and present real business plans to panels of venture capitalists and veteran entrepreneurs. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge has one of the oldest business plan competitions, which has given birth to 85 successful businesses so far with an aggregate capitalization of $10 billion. The teams that compete are often eager to recruit students with technical expertise to help them develop their business plans. Most contests host a series of mixers and networking events where students from throughout the university can meet.


Unlike Ph.D. programs, business schools care acutely where their graduates find employment, and they devote substantial resources to attracting recruiters to campus. Although business schools will not let you participate in the actual recruitment process that their M.B.A. students take part in, many of the employers who come to campus will host open houses and information sessions that you can probably sit in on. If you have any interest in management consulting, investment banking, or quantitative finance, these information sessions may be a valuable window on the recruitment process. And at the end of the session you can always talk to the speakers directly about whether they ever hire science Ph.D.s–an excellent networking opportunity.

Consulting opportunities

As I discussed in a previous column, technical consulting can bring fame, fortune, and a broader professional network. It turns out that many business schools have consulting clubs, groups of business school students who are interested in careers in management consulting and who work on consulting projects as a way of getting practice. Most of the consulting work these students do relates to strategy, marketing, and business issues and not the more technical consulting a scientist is likely to do. But they still might be interested in having a Ph.D. involved, especially if you can bring some quantitative analysis to the project. At the very least, you can introduce yourself and learn more about what they are doing.

Going over to the dark side

If you think you might be interested in earning an M.B.A. degree a few years down the road, spending a little time in the business school while you are still in school (or doing a postdoc) can provide a valuable perspective. You can see how M.B.A. students operate, meet some of the faculty, and learn whether the environment suits you. After all, pursuing an M.B.A. degree is a huge investment of time (and, very likely, money). Having experience with the environment ahead of time will not only help you make a better decision but also increase your odds of being admitted to the program of your choice.

But even if you’re sure you’ll never go back for an M.B.A. degree, you can extract a great deal of value from being a friend of the business school now. Seeking opportunities to learn new things and to explore different paths will give you important insights that will guide your career choices, as well as opportunities to expand your network to include students, faculty, and visiting entrepreneurs who will be happy to meet a bright, entrepreneurial Ph.D. student or postdoc. You never know where a pleasant conversation and an exchange of business cards will take you.

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Photo, top: credit, Tanbir Ahmed

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