A Bridge Less Traveled

With the promise of higher salaries, new programs lure psychologists, sociologists and others into colleges of business.

August 8, 2008

Adam Smith would be proud.

In their efforts to promote new postdoctoral business programs for non-business majors, universities haven’t been bashful about suggesting that faculty should act in their own self-interest. Making $50,000 a year teaching in a psychology department? Why not spend two months at Virginia Tech and double your salary?

Such are the promises of five newly minted "Post-Doctoral Bridge to Business Programs," which provide intensive instruction in areas like marketing and finance to instructors who have already completed Ph.D.'s in other fields. The aim of these programs is to equip faculty members with a background in business research techniques to help transition them into business schools, which are struggling to fill tenure-track vacancies.

The pitch at Virginia Tech, which graduated its first class of “bridge to business” students this month, was enough to persuade Matt Hettche to change his career path. Hettche holds a doctorate in philosophy, but he’s been daunted by the notoriously crowded job market in his field. When he read about Virginia Tech’s program in one of the university's magazines, Hettche thought it sounded like a smart -- albeit risky -- next step.

“The job market in philosophy is pretty tight, so it’s not unrealistic to say that for every one position that’s advertised, as many as 450 applications come in,” said Hettche, who just graduated from Virginia Tech’s program. “I’m reading there are vacancies in business schools; they can’t fill the jobs they have.”

Hettche, 37, has spent the last several years as a visiting assistant professor at Auburn University. With his new business credentials in hand, however, Hettche is heading to -- go figure -- Virginia Tech, where he will teach marketing. The position is still not tenure track, but Hettche feels the likelihood of scoring such a coveted post is much greater in the business field than philosophy.

Photo: AACSB International


There’s still some of the old philosopher left in Hettche, even as he moves into a new discipline. Asked about the transition, Hettche grew reflective.

“You have to give up part of what you thought you were,” he said. “That’s hard to re-invent yourself, but it’s exciting, too. It’s existential. You are what you make of your life.”

Can Quality Be Maintained?

It’s not uncommon for business schools to host faculty from other disciplines, including economics and sociology. But the “bridges” programs aim to formalize that process. In addition to Virginia Tech, the programs are now offered at the University of Florida, the University of Toledo, Tulane University and one French institution, Grenoble Ecole de Management.

The bridges programs have the endorsement of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business International, which accredits business schools worldwide, including those participating in the new program. The association backed the programs in part because of concerns about the dearth of Ph.D.'s being awarded in business, coupled with the large number of faculty members retiring from business schools.

There are currently about 1,000 job openings for Ph.D.-holding faculty at accredited business schools, and that number is projected to jump to 2,400 by 2012, according to association officials.

The bridge programs began in large part this summer, and have thus far enrolled approximately 50 people. The Virginia Tech program, which graduated nine people in its inaugural class, received about 150 inquiries about “bridges” last year, according to university officials.

The programs, which cost an average of $28,000, require varied time commitments. Tulane’s program stretches over the course of the year, for instance, while Toledo’s program is a little more than seven weeks long. Graduates leave with the designation of "academically qualified" or "AQ," which program organizers say will make them eligible for faculty positions in business disciplines.

Dan LeClair, who works with the business school association, said the accrediting body is confident in the quality of the programs, adding that it is standard to allow universities to deliver curriculums as they deem fit.

“We don’t often tell schools how to do things. We’re more interested in the outcomes,” said LeClair, the association’s vice president and chief knowledge officer.

John Trapani, who has helped organize the program at Tulane, said the university decided to extend its program for a full year to ensure that students had adequate time to complete readings and delve into research. He acknowledged obvious concerns that “bridges” graduates could potentially be viewed as second-tier faculty, and said Tulane is guarding against that.

“I think some people might view it as a short cut to a Ph.D. in business, but our program is not that way,” he said.

One of Tulane’s new students is Sonja Martin Poole, an assistant professor at the University of San Francisco. Poole, whose background is in education, says she was attracted to the program because she wanted to further her research on school choice, examining issues like charter schools through a marketing lens.

“It seemed like a really good fit for me,” said Poole, 38.

When Poole first learned of the program -- via a random Google search -- she was a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California at Berkeley’s graduate school of education. Poole’s appointment at Berkeley was slated to end in October, and she was looking for other options.

While the Tulane program sounded like a good move for Poole, it came with a hefty $40,00 price tag. So Poole got creative, applying for a position at the University of San Francisco -- and simultaneously requesting that they foot the bill for Tulane.

“I thought it was a crazy idea, but worth trying,” she said.

San Francisco agreed to offer her a three-year termed faculty appointment in marketing, and covered her tuition and travel expenses for Tulane.

Victor Cook, faculty director for Tulane’s bridges program, said Poole’s story now has a familiar ring to it. University officials initially thought they’d be targeting “rookies” who were new in their fields and wanted to double their salaries. Instead, it’s been far more common for deans and department heads to recommend relatively seasoned faculty to the program and agree to pay their way, Cook said.

“Some of these people look like they should be Nobel Prize winners,” Cook said of recently admitted students.


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