Stakeholder Participation Central to Innovation
The following interview is with Joseph Helble, dean of the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College. Helble recently spearheaded the creation of a doctorate program in innovation, itself a highly-innovative graduate degree program crossing disciplinary lines. In this interview, Helble sheds light on the process of developing the PhD in Innovation program and discusses the most significant roadblocks often faced during the development of innovative graduate degree programs.
1. What are some of the most common roadblocks faced by administrators when developing innovative graduate-level programs?
For anything that one is thinking of developing at the graduate level, you have to be cognizant of the need to strike an appropriate balance between course work and independent research. Putting forward a new way of structuring PhD education requires very careful attention. We had to be very mindful of the ability to preserve the amount of time students needed for creative work in the lab against a new approach to their coursework and the educational component of their PhD.
2. To develop this interdisciplinary program, did you have to get buy-in from different departments? If so, were there any particular challenges involved in creating this collaboration?
We were in a fortunate position when we started this program in that we already had long-standing, strong collaborations with the Tuck School of Business here at Dartmouth. For 25 years, we’ve had a Master’s of Engineering Management program that’s combined engineering and business programs for master’s-level graduates. In developing the PhD program, we utilized those existing connections; in some cases, we utilized existing courses to give our PhD students the opportunity to take some of the same course work that enabled them to develop basic business skills and business thinking as part of their PhD.
That was very helpful, as was the fact we’re unusual in that we don’t have disciplinary departments within our School of Engineering. Some of the departmental challenges you might face in structuring this program at a school of engineering didn’t exist for us.
3. How did you overcome the obstacles presented through the development process of the PhD in Innovation program?
The challenge we face ties back to the need for balance in the PhD program. We addressed this by having significant early conversation with the faculty about the pros and cons of this pathway for PhD students. We looked at how we were able to bring, for several decades, concepts of innovation and entrepreneurship into our undergraduate program and thought about how we could build this into the PhD program as well.
Additionally, many early conversations with our advisory board — our board of overseers that contains successful entrepreneurs and venture capitalists — and also with some alumni from similar backgrounds helped us frame the conversation around the program. This was very helpful in convincing some of our faculty to see the benefits of this and understand how one could do this at an academic level in a PhD context.
So, early conversation with the faculty, board support and alumni support were all very helpful in putting this program together.
4. What was the impetus behind the development of the program itself?
Part of it was pragmatic; we had a strong focus on innovation and entrepreneurship in our undergraduate program that our students responded very positively to. We had this longstanding collaboration with the business school at the master’s level and this was more for technology management and engineering management, but elements of entrepreneurial thinking and decision making were embedded in that. We also have faculty who are highly entrepreneurial; one in four of our faculty members have started a company just in the past decade alone based on work coming out of their lab.
We looked at this and said we’re developing high-level technology thinkers and creators, PhD students who are working at the leading edge of technology and we realized there’s an opportunity. There isn’t anyone providing structured pathways for those students to learn entrepreneurial thinking and technology and innovation skills.
We have also seen a shift in the way students are approaching an engineering education in the past two decades. There’s student interest and demand for these types of programs.
5. What advice do you have for other administrators looking to develop innovative graduate programs?
Have conversations early and often with those you think might be most skeptical of doing things in a different way. Whether that’s faculty from a range of academic departments, a range of engineering departments or, in our case, making sure you’re building it on a strong foundation with the business school is absolutely essential.
Also, effectively talking to the outside marketplace, talking to board members who are investors in technology startups, angel investors and also the technology entrepreneurs we had access to was very helpful. Finding those who are ultimately going to be the people who hire or support the graduates of any program is an absolutely essential early step to take.
This interview has been edited for length.
Author Perspective: Administrator