Science, Engineering Grad Students Gain New Skills through Business Foundation Series

William Brown, associate chair of the accounting department, leads a Business Foundations class
Bruce Weinberg, head of the marketing department, lectures during a Business Foundations class

A groundbreaking campus initiative launched this month is helping 50 science and engineering graduate students achieve greater professional success by teaching them how to engage more effectively with the private sector.

Established by the Graduate School Office of Professional Development and the Isenberg School of Management, the free, eight-week “Business Foundations Series for Scientists and Engineers” allows students to complement their scientific and technical expertise with the fundamental business skills required to manage research teams, communicate effectively in a corporate setting, develop industry-sponsored research programs, and formulate goals that align with commercial interests. By expanding their academic training beyond the parameters of a traditional science curriculum, program participants will help differentiate themselves from their peers at other major research institutions, thereby gaining an important advantage in a highly competitive job climate.

“‘The Business Foundations Series for Scientists and Engineers’ illustrates the Graduate School’s strong commitment to using institutional and financial resources creatively as a strategy for facilitating student success,” said John McCarthy, vice provost for graduate education and dean of the Graduate School. “One of only a few such programs in the U.S., this course addresses the need for business training among science and engineering graduate students by offering them a rigorous and flexible summer learning opportunity that will significantly accelerate their professional development.”

According to McCarthy, the “Foundations Series” arrives at a critical moment for science and engineering graduate students. “Over the past decade, both academic employment for recent science Ph.D.s and government support for scientific research have dramatically declined,” he said. “In the biomedical sciences, for instance, only about 20 percent of early career scholars end up with a tenure-track faculty position at a college or university, while National Institutes of Health award rates are approaching 15 percent.”

Given this historic shift in employment and funding dynamics, science and engineering graduate students must now regard industry—along with academia—as a prospective employer or research sponsor. To maximize their chances for success in a professional environment where the private sector is becoming increasingly important, students have begun seeking educational opportunities that allow them to rapidly acquire an array of business skills while they complete their research. The intense demand for spaces in the pioneering “Foundations Series” underscores the point: Less than a week after announcing the course to prospective participants, program organizers received more than 150 applications for 50 available seats.   

“The overwhelmingly positive response to the ‘Business Foundations Series for Scientists and Engineers’ emphasizes its enormous value to graduate students on the UMass campus,” said John Wells, associate dean for professional programs at the Isenberg School of Management. “In keeping with its reputation as a leading incubator for innovative thinking about business education, Isenberg is delighted to play a major role in the development of this novel approach to preparing scientists and engineers for careers in industry. We view the empowerment of nonbusiness professionals with business skills as an increasingly important aspect of our educational mission.” 

Meeting each Wednesday through July 30, the series is providing students with approximately 60 hours of classroom instruction. The Isenberg School of Management has assembled a team of eight faculty members to teach the course: Iqbal Agha, professor and department chair of operations and information management; William Brown, associate chair of accounting; Traci Hess, professor of operations management; Timm Kainen, professor of management at UMass Lowell; Nelson Lacey, professor of finance; Charles Manz, Nirenberg Professor of Leadership; Anurag Sharma, associate professor of management; and Bruce Weinberg, professor and department chair of marketing. Each instructor teaches one eight-hour workshop focusing on a single theme. Course topics include accounting for decision-making, marketing strategy, corporate finance, operations management, leadership strategies, business analytics, and negotiations for managers. The series will culminate with a capstone session requiring students to integrate concepts from the previous workshops for a case-study simulation. Students who attend all meetings of the non-credit course will receive a certificate of completion from Isenberg.

The “Foundation Series” is funded through a one-time allocation of Enhancement Funding from President Robert L. Caret. Supporting science- and engineering-focused instruction, hiring and research, this investment will help the university realize its Strategic Plan goals to become a destination of choice for talented applicants and a resource of choice for prospective employers. These objectives also informed the creation of the Office of Professional Development, which was established last fall and has organized the “Foundations Series” as part of its larger effort to augment teaching, communication, leadership and career preparation skills for all graduate students on the Amherst campus.