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Benjamin Franklin: The Doctor Would Want a Master’s

Careers in the Math Sciences

By Charles F. Van Loan

Whether you are in school or just starting out, the height of your trajectory may very well be determined by how much you appreciate the connections that exist between liberal education, entrepreneurship, and basic research. Contrary to popular opinion, these are not strange bedfellows, an observation based on what I have learned while serving at various times as director of the undergraduate, master’s, and PhD programs in computer science at Cornell University. These positions have given me the opportunity to think hard about how to recruit  and advise students, i.e., how to relate this or that degree program to the “big picture” and the careers that may follow. 

Currently, as director of our one-year Master of Engineering (M.Eng.) program, I am preoccupied with the notion of entrepreneurship. One reason for this has to do with the job market. Another is that Cornell is in the process of setting up a new campus in New York City, with master’s-level degree programs that have a strong and very explicit entrepreneurial component. Driven by the need to advise students who are thinking about entrepreneurship, the NYC initiative has prompted me to rethink the connection between what we do here on the Ithaca campus through our traditional degree programs. Let me state at the outset that I have never worked for a company and have never been directly involved in the commercialization of a research idea! Moreover, I am a believer in undirected basic research and a gigantic fan of liberal education, a pair of enthusiasms that would appear to disqualify me from any discussion of the entrepreneurial master’s.

Nevertheless, I have a game plan for discussing the issues. It is to peek out from behind the life of Benjamin Franklin, America’s greatest entrepreneur–scientist–journalist–statesman. He shows us how to think about liberal education even though he had just two years of formal schooling. He shows us how to think about entrepreneurship even though he “gave away” the patents to all his inventions. He shows us how to think about basic research even though many of his scientific exploits were driven by practical concerns. Ben is my entrepreneurial master’s cover story—he is exactly the kind of student I would like to see in our program. Of course, I will have to speak to the Admissions Committee about waiving the bachelor’s degree requirement and about accepting his honorary doctorates from Oxford, St. Andrews, Harvard, and Yale in lieu of GRE scores! 

A Venue for Change

The one-year master’s degree (typically without thesis) is increasingly popular across engineering, where there is considerable sentiment that four years of undergraduate study is just not enough. Indeed, many undergraduate programs in engineering expanded to five years just after World War II as the discipline became more science-based and rigorous. Then, beginning in the 1960s, the “5” became “4” for a variety of reasons. For example, it is handy in a university setting for all bachelor’s programs to have the same eight-semester volume. The streamlining also made it easier for students to choose from an expanding list of post-graduate options: the PhD, the MBA, or the extra year of coursework to bolster one’s credentials as a professional engineer. 

An important observation to make from this thumbnail history is that the master’s degree has evolved and diversified over the past 70 years. It sits in a crowded space between the undergraduate experience, industry, and other advanced degrees. It is even more crowded now that entrepreneurship is part of the scene. 

OK—What Is Entrepreneurship?

Can it be taught? Is it a frame of mind? Is it a special type of problem solving? How does it relate to basic research and the serendipity of discovery? Is it just about start-ups? What are the required social skills? 

After looking at all the one-liners on Wikipedia and reading a few scholarly articles, I buy into the idea that entrepreneurship is all about the distance from research to product realization and that entrepreneurs are preoccupied with the paths that lead from one to the other. It is productive to think in terms of “distance” rather than “time”: The distance metaphor focuses attention on the landscape of entrepreneurship and the problem-solving mentality that is required to navigate the terrain. In this regard I found a recent speech by Jay Walker to be particularly insightful. Walker is an entrepreneur, inventor, and chairman and curator of TEDMED. In a 2012 address to the Cornell Entrepreneurship Summit, he made several key points, which are roughly as follows:

  1. The entrepreneur’s job is to identify a problem worth solving.
  2. Problem complexity is changing faster than technology. 
  3. Great entrepreneurs are able to describe a problem clearly, precisely, and with an economic description that talks about a customer and a price.
  4. As an entrepreneur, you need humility to know what you don’t know because customers think differently, often in ways that have nothing to do with science, logic, or evidence.

What strikes me about this list is how well it resonates with life in the “Ivory Tower”:

  1. The PhD student’s job is to find a research problem worth solving.
  2. Research problems are changing faster than field-specific education and can no longer be solved by homogeneous teams of look-alike experts.
  3. Great researchers are able to describe “the nut they cracked” in terms that can be understood by the public. 
  4. As a researcher, you need humility to know what you don’t know because colleagues outside your area often think in ways that are orthogonal to the traditions of your field.

It appears to me that entrepreneurship has much in common with research and that society is served well by liberally educated entrepreneurs and researchers who reject the know-it-all mentality.

Degree Programs Need Neighbors

The bachelor’s and the PhD provide a case study that showcases just how much the presence of one degree program can positively affect what goes on in the other. The past twenty or so years has seen an explosion in undergraduate research. Partly to attract students to graduate-level study, and partly to offer an alternative to the large-class experience, many universities have promoted the idea of independent study with specially structured opportunities to mingle with faculty. Sometimes the result of an independent study is a research paper, but that is only one measure of success. For an undergraduate, exposure to an unstructured learning environment that is filled with dead ends and in which the hard part is coming up with the right questions is an incredibly rewarding experience in its own right. 

Conversely, the opportunity for PhD students to serve as teaching assistants in elementary courses can be a very valuable component of the research environment. What could be more important for a researcher-in-training than to practice explaining complex ideas to the non-expert? It will pay off later in situations in which you have to sell your research, e.g., in giving a job interview talk or in writing a proposal to a funding agency.

A degree program that stands in isolation from its neighbors is missing something. I conclude from Jay Walker’s remarks that a master’s program that has an entrepreneurial slant has much to gain by mixing it up with the undergraduate and PhD scenes, and vice versa. For example, a tight coupling between an academically driven four-year bachelor’s program and an industrially driven one-year master’s program imparts a sense of unity to the overall educational package. (Cornell had various “3-plus-2” opportunities for engineering students back in the 1940s that reflect this ideal.) More generally, a properly structured liberal education can set the stage for that extra year of professional education. Thus, a history major who values quantitative thought and logic and takes four or five CS courses as electives is more than ready to jump into a CS M.Eng. By the way, computer science intersects the seven original liberal arts more than any other field, a point that I love to bring up with my colleagues in the humanities!

Regarding the interface between the entrepreneurial master’s and the traditional PhD, Ben Franklin would be ticked off to hear us quibbling about the relative merits of “product-driven” and “curiosity-driven” research. Those debates promote the idea that some research styles are more in tune with innovation than others. Another reason for promoting the adjacency of these two degree programs has to do with mentally preparing the student for the careers that ensue. Researchers and entrepreneurs are risk-takers who require character as ballast to handle the ups and downs of the roller coaster. Students who contemplate these professional lifestyles need to be uniformly advised. Borrowing from my Disney World experiences as a parent, “You must be at least 42 inches tall to go on this ride!”

If you are attending a four-year college, you might find this discussion about the intermingling of the best of undergraduate, master’s, and PhD programs at your school irrelevant. Not so. Seek out professors who sponsor independent study, or who are actively involved in research, or who have industrial experience. By virtue of having a broader set of teaching responsibilities than their colleagues at the research universities, these faculty often have a superior sense of liberal education and a wider range of technical expertise to draw upon. They can help you set a brilliant stage for graduate study in the directions that I have been considering.

What Is Next for You?

There is a world shortage of culturally sensitive computer scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and scientists who are innovative and who know how to read society from the point of view of an entrepreneur. If you would like to become part of this group and are at the stage where getting a master’s degree is an option, then here is what I would think about when evaluating a program.

Support for Different Types of Entrepreneurship. The creation of a successful start-up company that creates jobs and raises the standard of living is rightfully held up as the “gold standard” when it comes to entrepreneurship. If a master’s program fixates on this metric, however, it may not fully support the development of other types of entrepreneurial instinct. If you are altruistic, you may be interested in social entrepreneurship, where the overriding ambition has less to do with profit and more to do with bringing about positive social change. (Think Ben Franklin.) Or you may be apprehensive about taking the kinds of risks that are associated with daring start-ups. If so, you may be more interested in developing skills that make you an outstanding intrapreneur. In this setting you will be an employee of an established firm and have the wherewithal to turn ideas into products on behalf of your employer. Does the master’s program that you are considering support the “brand” of entrepreneurship that excites you?

Outside Coursework. You need to know about business models, venture capital, negotiation, and related matters. Are suitable business courses available? Courses on the history of technology, science and society, the sociology of change, technical writing, intellectual property, patent law, and international trade may also be relevant. Does the program you are considering have space for a couple of non-technical courses? There is nothing “professional” about a narrow education.

The “Real World” Component. Industrial mentorship and on-campus incubators obviously add to the educational experience in that they give students a snapshot of the city streets before they head out on their own. Does the master’s program have these features?

The Flexibility Factor. It is most natural for a master’s program in technical field X to focus on recruiting undergraduates who have majored in X. But suppose your major was in some other field and that you simply minored in X. Assuming that your math and computing skills are at the required level, how welcoming is the program to students with your background? Does the program revel in the idea that the best entrepreneurs have multiple talents? How friendly would the program be if your avowed intention is to pursue a PhD afterward?

The Thesis/Time Factor. The one-year master’s without thesis is not the only show in town. Many schools offer two-year programs that require the writing of a master’s thesis. Such a program can work for students with entrepreneurial interests, and sometimes there are opportunities for teaching assistantships to offset the costs of tuition. In any case, how do you feel about one versus two years? And would you benefit from a writing component? 

The Self-Esteem Factor. The entrepreneurial spirit requires a certain measure of self-confidence and self-esteem. Undergraduate programs and PhD programs pay close attention to these emotional factors. What can you say about the master’s program that you are considering?

To sum up, look for clues that the program appreciates the complexity of what it means to be an entrepreneur, and do not be misled by exaggerated claims that you are destined to become the next Bill Gates, even though it may be fun to think about the dollars!


Nowadays, master’s-level education is one of the most exciting venues across the higher education landscape. It is where all that is hot about entrepreneurship is mixing it up with all that is cool about liberal education and basic research. Big systems are colliding and I hope that you are as fascinated by the superstorm as I am. If you are proactive as a student, then this is where you can refine your sense of culture, business, and research as you proceed to solidify your technical base.

That’s how Ben Franklin sees it. And that’s how I see it too with my bifocals and lightning rod!

Charles Van Loan is a professor in the Department of Computer Science at Cornell University.

Sue Minkoff ([email protected]), of the University of Texas at Dallas, is the editor of the Careers in the Math Sciences column.

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