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The New Ph.D.

Jan 18, 2013   |   by Beryl Lieff Benderly   |   ASEE Prism

Student entrepreneurship and a dearth of academic jobs prompt schools to re-engineer doctoral programs for the business world.

When university engineering departments advertise vacancies these days, they can expect “100 to many hundred applications for every tenure-track faculty opening. That’s true in engineering nationally,” says Joseph Helble, dean of Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering. Where a doctorate once served as a passport to a comfortable faculty career, the majority of today’s new Ph.D. engineers face a tough choice: They can seek temporary and comparatively low-paid postdoctoral fellowships, or look to industry, which has tended to view research-trained doctoral graduates as destined for academe and therefore an unlikely fit. “There’s always been this hesitation in business — ‘Do we really want to take a Ph.D. right off the bat, [when] we have to train them for three or four years?’ ” says Steven Casper, dean of faculty development at the Keck Graduate Institute in Claremont, Calif.

But now, a number of institutions have begun to prepare Ph.D. engineers to grasp opportunities and thrive in the industrial, commercial, and business worlds, either as employees of large or small enterprises or as entrepreneurs seeking to turn their own research into marketable products. They include both Dartmouth and Keck, a specialized graduate school that has pioneered preparation of engineers and scientists for the biomedical industry, along with Purdue, Georgia Tech, and the University of California, Davis. ...

... Such specific preparation for nonacademic careers does not typically appear in American Ph.D. programs. An exception is Thayer School’s Ph.D. Innovation Program, the first of its kind in the nation, according to Helble. Its curriculum shares a common core with Thayer’s Ph.D. program: applied math and engineering coursework, a multiyear research project, professional skill-building, an oral qualifying examination, and a Ph.D. thesis defense. But it also includes courses from Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business in “corporate finance,… law, technology, and entrepreneurship, an elective such as accounting, and Thayer School’s unique Introduction to Innovation course,” Helble explains. An internship, “preferably in a start-up, which could be the student’s own venture,” completes the requirements.

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