HBS Plans To Go STEM, But Class of 2020 MBAs Hope For Speedier Action

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Harvard Business School’s international students were excited. HBS had just informed the MBA community that the school was “midway” through the process of designating its MBA as a STEM — or Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math — program, a move that would give graduates without a visa the chance to work and live in the United States for up to three years after graduation.

The announcement came in January, during the add/drop period for spring semester. It caused an immediate scramble as students reworked their academic schedules to compete for spots among a handful of potentially STEM-eligible classes.

Then … silence. HBS did not communicate anything else to students for weeks until the first week of April, then sent a short message implying that the STEM designation was not imminent — leaving many to wonder whether they will have the certification, and the perks it confers, on their resumes when they graduate later this year.

“HBS revealed to students for the first time during the add/drop period in spring semester that they were ‘midway’ through the university’s approval process to designate the MBA program as STEM,” says a second-year MBA student at HBS who asked that Poets&Quants not use his name to avoid any impact on his job search. “It caused a lot of last-minute scramble among students. There has since been zero communication from the school until last week, when the school said that they were still working with the university’s administration on this proposal. It has caused anxiety and anger within the student body at the poor communication and the potential havoc this uncertainty can cause to their post-HBS employment plans. It may also impact HBS’s ability to attract international students in the coming year.”


HBS has confirmed to Poets&Quants that the school is seeking STEM designation for its MBA program, which would qualify graduates for 36 months of Optional Practical Training, allowing them to work in the U.S. without an H-1B visa. HBS has 37% internationals in the Class of 2020 and the same proportion in the Class of 2021. “While this is something we are evaluating, looking carefully at our curriculum, the change requires discussion and review both within School and at University,” Mark Cautela, HBS director of communications, says. “That being said, we are eager to do anything we can to support our students, especially in this unsettled time.”

But for students, the process is moving too slowly.

The MBA second-year says an increasing number of students are concerned, leading to a petition to Dean Nitin Nohria calling for HBS to provide more career support and advocacy on students’ behalf, and to accelerate the university’s approval for STEM designation. They also want the designation to be retroactive to their class should it occur after they have graduated. More than 100 have signed.

The situation, the second-year student says, is especially concerning because of peer schools that designated their MBA programs STEM earlier in the academic year — and, of course, because of the economic and employment situation around the world. As the coronavirus pandemic causes chaos to recruitment plans for both MBAs and employers, uncertainty abounds — and stress levels are skyrocketing.

“I am just in time recruiting for a tech startup,” says the student, who last summer interned with a major tech company and who plans to seek a job in fintech after graduation. “Being able to tell employers during recruiting that I have immigration status certainty for the next three years means a lot more than for just one year. There are also people in my year who have a job lined up, but not knowing how they will fare in the H-1B lottery affects the way they and their employers plan for the future.”


HBS is not entirely without STEM pathways. Currently it has two STEM degrees, both joint degree programs with other schools at Harvard. The first, launched in 2018, is the Master of Science in Engineering Sciences and Master of Business Administration (MS/MBA), operated jointly with the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. It is a two-year, full-time program that spans four semesters, augmented by additional summer and January term coursework. In the first year, students take a System Engineering course that “emphasizes an interdisciplinary approach to analyzing complex systems,” as well as the HBS MBA Required Curriculum which “conveys concepts and builds skills across disciplines relevant to general management, including marketing, organizational behavior and finance.” In the second year, students take electives at each school.

About the second degree, announced in June 2019, HBS says, “The world needs more leaders working at the intersection of science and society.” The MS/MBA Biotechnology: Life Sciences Program is a collaboration of HBS and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in the Harvard Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology, and it aims rot equip students with “approaches to the science and medical aspects of entrepreneurial activities and will empower them to build organizations with the potential to transform human health.” The curriculum focuses on “an understanding of effective, sustainable structures for discovery and development, the ethical implications of new therapeutics, and equitable access to the fruits of therapeutic discovery.”

However, peer schools like Columbia Business SchoolMIT Sloan School of ManagementYale School of Management, and others have gone further, faster, establishing STEM designation in all or parts of their MBAs earlier this year — a move that gives their grads an edge, the HBS second-year says.

“I think even people who have secured a job, they are still a little concerned,” he says, “because a lot of them have heard stories about the H-1B lottery in recent years — it’s become a little bit harder than before. And especially when you are looking at a startup or a smaller company where they’re not as sophisticated in this area, being able to look them in the eyes and say, ‘I can be here for three years for sure’ — that’s huge, especially nowadays when you’re competing with all the other MBA grads and all the people who have just been laid off. Having this kind of certainty in the employment status is helpful, to say the least.”


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