2 for 1: Colleges eye combining tech, business degrees

More programs are combining master's degrees in tech and business

A high school diploma and a good work ethic once guaranteed lifelong employment. Then a bachelor's degree and, later, graduate studies became prerequisites for top-flight jobs.

Now even that might not be enough. "It's moving toward having two graduate degrees," says Stephen Haag, chairman of the Department of Information Technology and Electronic Commerce at the University of Denver's Daniels College of Business. Haag says the university's business partners, as well as students, have expressed interest in programs that teach deep technology skills along with business acumen to prepare graduates for the tasks facing IT executives today.

So in 2002, the university started enrolling students in a dual-degree program that combines a master's in business administration with a master's in IT. "You can't just be an IT specialist. You have to have the business skills to ensure long-term career success," Haag says.

In the past several years, colleges around the country have begun offering programs that pair the prestigious MBA with a master's in computer technology. Not that these dual-degree programs are dime a dozen: The Graduate Management Admission Council, a business-school association based in McLean, Va., says only about 2% of the roughly 1,400 MBA programs in the U.S. offer a dual-degree program of any kind. The council doesn't track how many of those programs offer the specific combination of an MBA and a master's in computer science.

But school administrators say employers as well as students with either IT or business backgrounds are increasingly interested in that specific duo. And while professionals on either side can pick up skills on the job, dual degrees prove they've developed knowledge in both specialties.

Pfizer Inc. in New York is one company that seeks out and hires these grads, says Justin Sowers, director of global business technology. "I like to find people with the depth of knowledge in business and a passion for technology, with the appropriate skills in both areas," he says. "It's easier to find that good balance in MS/MBA programs."

Compressed Time Frame

Students can earn their degrees in these programs more quickly than pursuing them separately because some courses in each specialty overlap. School officials say most candidates earn both degrees in just a few years. But the dual-degree programs do require extra stamina, since most require a dozen or more courses beyond a standard MBA.

Boston University, for example, requires 84 credits for its MS/MBA program, says Louis Lataif, dean of BU's School of Management. In comparison, students seeking only an MBA need 64 credits, while students who earned the master's of science in information systems degree needed 48 credits. (BU no longer offers the MSIS as a stand-alone degree.)

Despite the additional credits, Lataif says students can still earn an MBA and an MSIS in the 21 months it takes to earn an MBA by taking extra courses and summer sessions. Prospects don't seem to be put off by the extra work: About half of the 160 or so current MBA students at BU are enrolled in the 5-year-old MS/MBA program.

The dual-degree candidates at BU tend to mirror the profile of the typical MBA student, Lataif says. They average 27.5 years old, with about five years of professional work experience. About 45% are female, and about one-third are non-Americans.

Lataif says some of these candidates come from technical jobs, but many come from business disciplines. "We're not talking about preparing techies, so we get a cross-section of MBAs interested in this program," he explains.

Suzanne Hitcho, 29, started at BU in 2002 after realizing that her bachelor's in industrial engineering didn't give her all the business skills she needed for the consulting jobs she held after college. Business concepts such as channel marketing, brand management and sales force management were unfamiliar to her.

"I thought it would be a real asset for me to not only have the business fundamentals but also a really strong understanding of technology and how technology is changing business," she says.

A 2004 graduate, Hitcho is now a senior manager for Pfizer's U.S. business technology group, where she works with internal clients to bring technology to bear on business problems. "My dual degree was one of the reasons I was able to get this position," she adds.

Sowers agrees. "Suzanne has been given a fair amount of responsibility because of her understanding of both the technology issues and the business issues," he says.

Lisa Rankin, also 29, had a similar experience. She graduated from Bentley College in Waltham, Mass., in 1997 with a bachelor's degree in business communications and a minor in IS. She worked as a webmaster for a year before becoming a consultant designing front-end Web applications for large financial services institutions.

"So much of the design was to support business objectives, and I thought I would be more effective if I had a better understanding of the applications and the business objectives they're trying to achieve with these applications," she says.

Rankin enrolled in Bentley's dual-degree program, where she is working toward an MBA and a master's in human factors and information design. Symantec Corp. in Cupertino, Calif., hired her in December as a user experience manager in its Waltham office, where she helps design how the company's Web site interacts with customers.

Bentley has had its dual-degree program for several years but is now enrolling students in its new accelerated program. Full-time students can earn both degrees in two years instead of three because of a greater overlap in the courses required to graduate, says Judith Kamm, an associate dean and MBA program director at Bentley.

While officials at Bentley and other programs say they draw many students from the business side, Paula Wilson, director of MBA admissions at the Georgia Tech College of Management in Atlanta, says her school's program mostly draws technical workers who initially want just a master's or Ph.D. in computer engineering or computer science.

"Many times, they don't even think about the MBA until they get here," she says. Students decide to pursue the business degree once they learn that they can earn both degrees in 70 to 76 course hours versus the 90-plus course hours needed if the degrees weren't consolidated. "It's just so appealing to people who feel they have a strong technical degree but believe that balancing it out will give them a little bit of an edge," Wilson says.

Like other academic and corporate leaders, Wilson says graduates from dual-degree programs will have a range of opportunities, from management jobs in nontech business units to high-level positions at tech companies, or they can work as advisers on how to use technology to advance business objectives. Some may eventually move into chief technology officer or CIO positions, she adds.

Not everyone is convinced that the MS/MBA combination is necessary for success in IT. "It doesn't have to be a particular set of degrees," says Marcie Schorr Hirsch at Hirsch Hills Associates Inc., a management consulting firm in Newton, Mass.

She believes workers need continuing education, but she says they can get that from a variety of courses, such as industrial design classes. "There's a lot we could look at that's not traditional but will be an education that will be helpful," Schorr Hirsch adds.

But dual degrees bring job offers. While school officials couldn't say whether dual-degree candidates are hired more quickly than graduates with a single master's degree, some noted that companies come to campus specifically to recruit students in their dual-degree programs.

These graduates may earn more, too. Haag says dual-degree grads from the University of Denver typically earn about 15% more than those who have only one advanced degree.

Entrepreneurial Edge

Amar Gupta sees dual-degree grads following entrepreneurial paths, equipped to launch the next generation of technology revolutions. Gupta, senior director for research and business development at the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona in Tucson, started a dual-degree program there.

The first class will begin in August and graduate in two years after finishing 70 units. Interest has been strong, Gupta says, not only from prospective students but also from business leaders contacted by the university.

Doug Norman, section leader of Air Force command and control integration at The Mitre Corp. in Bedford, Mass., is watching the Arizona program develop, and he thinks the approach makes sense. "The problems morph from engineering problems into rather large, multidimensional problems that involve technology, organizational structure, the goals and aspirations of the company and the people touched by them," he says. "Engineers by themselves are ill prepared to deal with those things. You need all these business skills, too."

Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer in Waltham, Mass. Contact her at marykpratt@verizon.net.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

Shop Tech Products at Amazon