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It takes two: FSU students pursue master’s and doctoral degrees to ensure career success

It was 2014 when Shu (R) met then-fellow molecular biophysics doctoral candidate, Austin Schwartz (L) at a seminar. During the talk, Schwartz shared details about his journey to pursue both a doctoral and master’s degree.

Only about 3 percent of college graduates earn doctoral degrees and it’s even more rare for a Ph.D. student to pursue a master’s degree at the same time.

While unusual, Florida State University is helping students who want to accomplish this rigorous academic feat achieve their goals.   

Zhiqiang Shu, a recent FSU graduate, earned his doctoral degree in biological sciences in August and received his MBA in December 2016.

“I never saw myself as just a researcher,” Shu said. “I always wanted to do something with science, but broaden my horizons as well.” 

It was 2014 when Shu met then-fellow molecular biophysics doctoral candidate, Austin Schwartz at a seminar. During the talk, Schwartz shared details about his journey to pursue both a doctoral and master’s degree.

“I was always interested in science and wanted to get into the research world,” Schwartz said. “I had also grown up in a very entrepreneurial household. When first coming to graduate school, I had decided that I wanted to create something in the lab, patent it and then start my own biotech.”

Schwartz reflected on an internship he had years ago. He worked with a physicist who created his own product and launched his own company.

“He was the CEO but knew nothing about business,” Schwartz said.

The company went bankrupt shortly after Schwartz completed his internship. He said that experience put things into perspective, and it’s where the idea for the MBA came in. Schwartz knew he needed to have some business knowledge in order to be successful.

 At 28 and having received his MBA this past spring, Schwartz said he’s been in school his entire life. That was one reason for pursuing both degrees at the same time.

“If I did the Ph.D. and burned myself out, I might not have returned to school for the MBA,” Schwartz said. “Now that I’m moving toward graduation for my Ph.D., I’m ready to get out in the real world and apply the skills I’ve gained from my education.”

Shu agreed with Schwartz about “just wanting to finish,” but his self-confidence allowed him to take on the challenge.

“I thought I had the capacity to do it,” Shu said. “It also forced me to be more efficient and effective in my studies.” 

Shu and Schwartz are proof that taking on such rigorous academic endeavors is doable, despite other schools and educators who have concerns that taking on an additional degree is a distraction. Schwartz said when it came time to apply to schools for his advanced degrees, Florida State was the only school willing to help him navigate both programs.

“When I applied and said I’d also like to get my MBA while I pursue my Ph.D., everyone at FSU I spoke to said, ‘We’re not really sure how you’re going to do that — but we’re open to it.’”

William Christiansen is the director of the MBA program at FSU and supported Shu’s and Schwartz’s admission into the program.

“It is a challenge to navigate two time-consuming programs,” Christiansen said. “We worked out schedules for them and kept in touch with them to check on any issues. They were able to handle the challenge because of their commitment.” 

Many doctoral students in STEM areas decide careers in academia are not for them. Instead, they are interested in pursuing business opportunities upon graduation, according to Nancy Marcus, dean emeritus of the Graduate School.

“Completing an MBA at the same time they are completing the Ph.D. under the dual degree option puts these students in an excellent position to be entrepreneurial and pursue new innovative opportunities,” Marcus said. 

Schwartz doesn’t consider himself a trailblazer, but more students have approached him about pursuing dual degrees after hearing his story. 

“I was given the opportunity to build the program that I wanted to pursue,” Schwartz said. “So, in my mind, if I could do it, there is no reason why anyone else shouldn’t be allowed to do the same thing.”

Both Shu and Schwartz said they believe the MBA program equipped them with skills that are transferable to a lab setting when they start their careers.

“One thing I have learned on this journey is you have to try new things,” Shu said.

“You have to be willing to try, because you never know what’s behind that door.”

For more information on pursuing an MBA in addition to a doctoral degree, contact William Christiansen at wchristiansen@business.fsu.edu.