The Cross-fit Master’s

More students today are choosing options that allow them to earn MBAs and other advanced degrees faster and to build expertise jointly in business, STEM, law or other fields. What’s behind this trend?

By Erik Gunn

Through accelerated options and cross-college partnerships, Marquette Business is offering unique and innovative paths for their students to earn advanced degrees.

Attracted originally to the study of journalism but worried that technological change might upend her job prospects, then-Marquette undergraduate Tyler Vicknair sought harbor in an alternative field of study: corporate communication.

“Corporate communication offered a more strategic and functional approach to communication,” she says — a conceptual framework extending beyond, say, advertising or media. It proved to be the fit she was seeking, and after a few years, with graduation in view, she didn’t want to stop.

So instead, she hit the fast-forward button. As her classmates from freshman year spent this spring wrapping up their senior years, Vicknair was already hard at work on a master’s degree in corporate communication, thanks to a new accelerated degree program developed collaboratively by the Graduate School of Management and her undergraduate school, the Diederich College of Communication.

Thanks to a few 18-credit semesters instead of the typical 15, she received her bachelor’s a semester early and has a number of graduate-level courses under her belt — including business courses such as International Human Resources and Global Marketing Strategies, where she studies alongside peers studying for their master’s in business administration degrees. Still to come are similar business school courses in accounting, finance and economics.

Tyler Vicknair didn’t delay her graduation plans by switching majors. Instead, she’s jumping ahead and graduating with an advanced degree.

The master’s degree she expects to receive from the Graduate School of Management in December will deepen her expertise in communication and equip her with business knowledge that will make her more adept at navigating corporate landscapes.

Her master’s degree, she believes, will enrich her value to her future employer in the business world — and not incidentally, help her press the accelerator again. “I want to move up faster in the organization,” she says.

Launched last fall, the B.A.-M.A. in corporate communication program is
 just the latest in a series of accelerated degree programs offered by the College of Business Administration and Graduate School of Management. Some help students build upon an undergraduate major in a business subject such as applied economics with master’s study in the same field, all in what would formerly have been considered record time. Many other programs involve collaboration across colleges — undergraduate study in a STEM subject combined efficiently with an MBA, for example, or an opportunity to simultaneously earn an MBA and a juris doctor degree from Marquette University Law School.

“What most of these students find out is that they are in a business. They may be very good at their technical skills they are using in their current position, but they need the business skills to really advance into strategic positions.”

What’s leaving a growing number of students hungry to learn more in less time — and often to cross-prepare in more than one field? Dr. Jeanne Simmons, Bus Ad ’88, Grad ’90, ’97, associate dean of the Graduate School of Management, says the accelerated interdisciplinary programs meet a need that prospective professionals from many fields have to enrich their discipline with a deeper knowledge of business theory and practice. “Interdisciplinary study has been very important of late,” says Simmons. One indicator is the number of people who enter the college’s executive MBA program from other fields, often the sciences. “What most of these students find out is that they are in a business,” Simmons says. “They may be very good at the technical skills they are using in their current position, but they need the business skills to really advance into strategic leadership positions. They say they wish they had gained these skills earlier in their careers rather than later in life.” The accelerated degree programs seek to provide exactly those skills at the front end.

Dr. Jeanne Simmons, associate dean of the Graduate School of Management, is working to modernize Marquette’s advanced degree programs in order to meet the needs of the modern business professional.

Combining an undergraduate or professional degree with an MBA actually goes back nearly three decades, to the combined MBA-J.D. program that Marquette’s College of Business Administration and Law School launched in 1986. A subsequent program allowed law students to combine their degree with a master’s in human resources. In each case, students save themselves a year of course work by applying courses from one degree to meet requirements of the other, and vice versa.

Lately accelerated degree programs involving undergraduates have become more plentiful, too. All enable qualified students in specific fields to enroll in their senior year in graduate-level courses that simultaneously fulfill undergraduate requirements and give them graduate- level credits. Then they can complete the master’s program — an MBA or one of a few other allied master’s degrees — as soon as one year after earning their bachelor’s degree.

Simmons expects the traditional stand-alone MBA to remain the dominant paradigm for most Marquette GSM students; most forecasts are for the accelerated approach to remain boutique options. But the trend expands opportunities, while the availability of part-time schedules in all the programs “adds a little exibility” for people who work full time, says Simmons.

Craig Roush, Grad ’12, Law ’14, puts his join MBA-J.D. to use every day, working at Foley & Lardner law firm in Milwaukee.

Craig Roush, Grad ’12, Law ’14, had been working for several years for a consumer goods manufacturer when he was assigned to the company’s regulatory affairs department, charged with ensuring his employer’s products met federal regulations from the Food and Drug Administration and other agencies. Intrigued by the details of regulatory law, he decided to go to law school and was immediately interested in Marquette’s joint MBA-J.D. program.

While he assumed he would graduate and put his two degrees to work in a company, he wound up instead at the law firm Foley & Lardner in Milwaukee. Now a third-year associate, Roush, 34, works in mergers and acquisitions as well as in securities law.

Having the two degrees — along with his experience in business before law school — helps him view transactions simultaneously through a business client’s eyes as well as the filter provided by his legal training. Plus, says Roush, he finds the training fulfills an objective he had from the start when he decided to go to law school: It helps him “distill complex legal principles into easy-to- digest information” that suits busy, efficiency- minded business people.

Graduates of other accelerated programs reap similar benefits from their abilities to bridge multiple worlds. Students with business majors round out their business education with high-level corporate communication courses, says Dr. Sarah Bonewits Feldner, associate dean for graduate studies and research at the Diederich College, a key partner in developing the new master’s program. Similarly, communication students expect that higher- level business courses would better position them in the job market, including for financial communication functions not covered in undergraduate programs. “It’s critical for people in corporate communication roles to be able to engage with investors,” she says.

The upper-level degree also has an analytical focus typical of graduate education, she adds, which is increasingly important as the discipline takes on greater responsibility in executive roles such as chief communication officers or CCOs.

Prepared for such responsibilities as never before, Vicknair expects to return next year to her native Los Angeles to put her new master’s degree to use in the corporate ranks. (Her graduate-level courses even opened up another business interest — in human resources.) One thing the accelerated degree program doesn’t do, she says, is skimp. In the face of a few acquaintances who assume her program “must not require that many classes” because she’ll be through it so quickly, Vicknair quickly sets them straight. “You’re taking a lot of classes,” she says. “And you’re doing it nonstop.”

For more information on Marquette’s accelerated degree programs, click the graphic above.
Adapted from the 2017 issue of Marquette BIZ, the annual magazine of the Marquette University College of Business Administration. Read the cover story on ultra-real world learning experiences or the entire issue to learn how the college is being the difference for students and its partners in business and the broader community.