One of the first things a budding scientist considers when designing their first science fair project is the scientific method—a standard method of asking questions and acquiring knowledge that is typically used to understand aspects of the natural world. But what if a scientific mindset is applied to economics, finance, supply chains, or business management? According to alumni of the Penn State Eberly College of Science integrated B.S./M.B.A. program, approaching business with a scientific perspective makes all the difference.
“A science background was a differentiator in helping me get my foot in the door, and it continues to serve me well,” said Emily MacPhail Soonthornchai, a 2009 graduate of the program who now works in supply chain management for Johnson & Johnson. “The technical knowledge, critical thinking skills, and ability to digest and analyze complex information sets you up for success when moving into the business world.”
Students in the B.S./M.B.A. program graduate with both a bachelor’s degree in science from the Eberly College of Science and a master of business administration degree from the Penn State Smeal College of Business.
“Most students who enter an M.B.A. program today have at least five years of work experience, but the B.S./M.B.A. program at Penn State allows motivated students who know they want to be in the business realm of science to graduate with two degrees in five or six years,” said Peter Tombros, former director of the program. “It’s a real advantage to be able to go right into a job with both degrees in hand. You don’t have to worry about leaving a good job to go back to school, or when to start a family. Our program offers students a chance to get a head start and hit the ground running right out of school.”
In addition to providing a solid foundation in the sciences, the undergraduate portion of the program introduces students to business concepts, fosters skills in leadership, and builds work experience through multiple required external internships and cooperative positions. Collectively, these experiences prepare students to succeed as they pursue an M.B.A. and beyond.
“Over the last few years, we’ve been working to enhance all aspects of the program,” said Lou Martarano, the B.S./M.B.A. program’s current director. “We’ve been broadening our pool of applicants, formalizing a course to reinforce business concepts, improving resources for our students to identify and succeed in their co-ops, strengthening the cohort-driven nature of the program, and providing even more opportunities for students to interact and learn from each other, from alumni of the program, and from professionals in science-business fields.”
The B.S./M.B.A. program was initially proposed in 1989 by Eberly alumnus James Balog, who graduated from Penn State with degrees in chemistry and physics and then worked at the pharmaceutical company Merck & Co. While at Merck, he attended night school for three years to earn an M.B.A. from Rutgers. He then moved to Wall Street, where he had a fruitful career spanning more than 50 years.
“Pursuing an M.B.A. at night school is that much more difficult when you have a family and a full-time job,” said Stephen Balog about his father’s experience. “But he always said he would learn something in class and come back the next day at Merck and use that knowledge. It was a fantastic learning experience.”
In his initial conversations with then-Dean of the Eberly College of Science Gregory Geoffroy, James Balog shared how valuable he felt his crossover education had been. He thought other students would like to follow that path, so he created an advisory board of like-minded professionals—including Tombros and Martarano—and worked with Dean Geoffroy and Penn State leaders Frank Smeal and Lloyd Huck to launch the program. Balog and his wife Alvina also endowed a scholarship program for its students.
The first B.S./M.B.A. student graduated with their M.B.A in 1999. Since then, more than 60 students have completed their degrees, and another 27 are currently in the program. Alumni have gone on to successful careers at companies in healthcare, the pharmaceutical industry, consulting, and banking.
Skills and Networking
From day one, the B.S./M.B.A. program focuses on helping undergraduate students develop business and professional skills. In the first-year seminar, students learn important concepts about leadership, organizational culture, and group dynamics through a variety of means including a long-form case analysis.
“We front-load a lot of business skills so that, as students develop science skills, they know ways in which they can apply them in a professional setting,” said John Moses, former academic adviser for the B.S./M.B.A. program, who has led the first-year seminar course for the last two years. Students continue to analyze cases, participate in business simulations, and fine-tune professional writing skills in a one-credit seminar course, which they can choose to take several times.
“This seminar course continues to provide students with a business perspective as they grow through the program,” Martarano said. “And it provides another opportunity for students to build connections among the cohort, because the students get to work together and spend time with each other."
Beyond coursework, the program has numerous events to help students build leadership and other skills, connect with alumni, and really understand their career options. Martarano has worked extensively over the years to expand this programming, which now includes seminars, networking events, professional development opportunities, and a virtual enrichment series.
“By having these different exposure points through the various programming, it’s allowing students to develop a much more informed path,” said Soonthornchai, who frequently volunteers her perspective as an alumna at program events. “The wealth of knowledge and experience from the growing alumni network is incredibly valuable to students as they navigate their own journey.”
Recently, students have also had the opportunity to travel to New York City, where they visit several businesses to get a sense of what office culture is like and to see alumni and friends of the college in their work environments. The students have been hosted by companies such as Pfizer, Medidata Solutions, Salesforce, and Deloitte, and were even able to be on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
“The trip during my first year was really formative for me, because I hadn’t had that kind of exposure to business or alumni yet,” said Natalie Stevens, who will be completing her M.B.A. through the program in 2022. “It’s one of my favorite parts of the program.”
Flexibility and Exploration
The first years of the program introduce students to a variety of scientific fields, but the curriculum is flexible to allow students to specialize in whichever field interests them most.
“Students have the opportunity to explore scientific disciplines and then hone specific skills to craft their niche," said Beth Johnson, director of the Science major and primary advisor for students in the B.S./M.B.A. program. “Two students graduating at the same time can have wildly different skill sets.”
Another integral aspect of the program is the required internships and cooperative experiences, which collectively provide eight-to-nine months of work experience, usually with two or more different companies, throughout the undergraduate portion of the program. These internships and co-ops are critical to building practical skills on the job and helping students identify the careers for which they are most suited.
“I think what I learned most from doing several internships was what I’m looking for in a company culture,” Stevens said. “I learned a lot about how to interact with upper-level management and how to work cross-functionally.”
In the last few years, Martarano and the program’s other leadership have made a deliberate effort to improve resources for students to find, apply to, and succeed in these internship and co-op experiences. This includes support from Ann Marie Daniel in the college’s Office of Science Engagement.
“By participating in internships and co-op programs, students gain business experience that brings them to what we hope is a pretty mature level for them in five years,” Tombros said. “When I talk to people who would wonder about whether our students were mature enough for an M.B.A. program and a full-time position, I would explain that these are unusual students. They are very bright, very hardworking, have a great work ethic, and always did well in their positions.”
Homing in on Business
During the M.B.A. portion of the program, students double down on the business skill set. In the first year, students are assigned to a team of their peers for collaboration, and they must learn to navigate that experience.
“Our students must learn how to be a part of a functioning team and provide value, even when that team has several members with five or six years of work experience,” said Mike Waldhier, Managing Director for Resident Professional Graduate Programs for the Smeal College of Business. “That’s the first lesson.”
Amongst their other classes, the M.B.A. students participate in a leadership communications course where they learn how to present themselves as leaders and to lead a team. They also participate in a deep immersion course in negotiation skills, a global immersion trip where they learn what it would be like to do business in a developing country, and a leadership immersion experience with the New York Fire Department or at the United States Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia.
Students also participate in an internship during the M.B.A. program, and according to Waldhier more and more companies are using this as a trial period to decide if they would like to extend a full-time offer.
“There is competition among employers for our students,” he said. “They are getting really high-end jobs, in part because of their scientific and technical expertise. They know what it’s like to work in the lab, they understand what’s going on behind the scenes in healthcare or industry. And they can layer the business on top of that, to understand the financial models, or how to market, or the supply chain challenges you might run into. They’re very impressive.”
Community and Growth
As students progress through the program, they end up forming a tight-knit community and occasionally, according to Soonthornchai, lifelong friendships. Martarano said one of his biggest contributions to the program has been enhancing its cohort-driven nature.
“One of the first things we did was to organize a mentoring program so students can help each other,” he said. “Now, we are working to make the program more attractive and accessible to a wider range of students.”
Students in the program receive a scholarship thanks to the Balog family, and the program leadership hopes that these scholarships can be expanded to make the program more accessible to qualified candidates. The program is also working with Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion Kristin Finch to better support its students from underserved populations and to improve their efforts to market the program to these groups.
Part of the success of the program is due to the students themselves: they are motivated, high-achieving individuals. Attracting a diverse and robust group of students only enhances the program and the students’ ability to learn from one other.
“One of my biggest pleasures was watching the students grow throughout the program,” Tombros said. “We tried very hard to bring in bright students with raw talent, and as they took their coursework and did their co-ops, they would ask a lot of questions and they would grow and blossom. By the time they were second-year M.B.A. students, they were leaders.”