When Jeffrey Behan graduated from Queen's University last year in mathematical physics – an entrée to the fast-emerging world of Big Data – he set his sights on a career in business and, in time, a graduate business degree.
But he faced roadblocks to reaching both goals.
His undergraduate program had left no room for electives in finance and marketing that could be attractive to an employer. Moreover, without two years of work experience, he was ineligible to pursue a graduate business degree at Queen's.
But Mr. Behan cleared away the obstacles by enrolling in a new program at Queen's School of Business that, like others institutions across the country, is expanding specialty options for non-business students eyeing corporate careers.
He signed up last spring for a new four-month, for-credit graduate diploma in business that introduced the fundamentals of accounting, corporate strategy and marketing. As well, the diploma, which has a tuition fee of $28,000, counts toward his likely pursuit of an MBA, thereby shortening time away from work if he goes back to school.
Last fall, he successfully interviewed with Capital One, an international financial services company, and started work recently as a data scientist.
"Getting the graduate diploma in business greatly improved my chances of getting the job I wanted," says Mr. Behan, 22. "Even if I had wanted to go straight into the work force after my undergraduate degree, I don't think it would have been accessible. … I would not have been as attractive [a candidate]."
The emergence of for-credit diplomas and certificates, typically several months long at most, is a response to shifting demands by students and employers, says Shai Dubey, interim academic director of the Queen's diploma program and one of its architects.
"We started to notice a lot of students graduating from non-business degrees and going on to do diplomas in business at community colleges," he says. "Why not give them the diploma at a university level and allow the credits to count toward the MBA?"
What's especially attractive to Queen's and other schools with for-credit diplomas and certificates is the opportunity to recruit from a new pool of candidates.
For example, all 15 students accepted for the business diploma last year came from different undergraduate backgrounds, such as music, drama and engineering. "We had never seen that before," says Prof. Dubey, who expects to enroll between 30 and 40 students for the next cohort in May. 'It makes for interesting classroom discussions."
At Simon Fraser University's Beedie School of Business in Burnaby, B.C., a new graduate certificate in science and technology commercialization will be offered this September, aimed at research scientists and faculty members at SFU and the University of British Columbia in Vancouver who want to take their ideas to market.
"We [at SFU] and at universities across the country don't provide our science and engineering graduates with the tools to commercialize their ideas, whether in their own venture or when they land a job after academia," says Elicia Maine, academic chair of science and technology commercialization at Beedie.
As at Queen's in Kingston, the new Beedie certificate is for credit and counts toward an MBA.
With tuition of $10,000, the Beedie program will be taught by tenured faculty one night a week over the course of a year. Classes will be restricted to participants from SFU and UBC, be they graduate students who have completed comprehensive exams, recent alumni or faculty members eager to bring their ideas to market.
"Every single assessment for the cohort will be made on them applying the framework they are learning from marketing, finance [and other topics] to their own technology of interest," says Dr. Maine, who is also an associate professor of technology management and strategy. The year-long program includes development of a business plan and an "elevator pitch" to local investors.
"We are trying to change the lens through which highly-qualified people in science and engineering are doing commercialization so we can have more startups and spin-outs at SFU and UBC," says Dr. Maine. "Equally, we want to prepare them for what they will face in industry, [such as] in a small or medium-sized enterprise where you need to know something about product development."
She sees growing demand by students and working professionals for certificate and diploma programs in business when offered for credit and taught by tenured faculty and when participants can "rebrand" themselves to the private sector.
"Under those conditions there is very big demand for certificate and diploma programs," she says.
Finlay MacNab, a PhD student in materials chemistry at SFU, is intrigued by the potential to rebrand himself with the new certificate.
Before returning to school 18 months ago, the 40-year-old had spent a decade with startup companies where he applied his research skills and knowledge but lacked the business skills to land key positions, such as project manager.
"I recognize my future is likely not quietly studying what I love in a university lab as a professor," says Mr. MacNab. "My future is more likely to be in industry, and to make a place for myself I have to be able to navigate in that environment."
Though keen to pursue the certificate, he is daunted by the $10,000 tuition, given what he describes as the "abysmally low" salaries of research scientists.
Dr. Maine says she hopes to offer scholarships for the certificate.
At York University's Schulich School of Business, which has a long track record of creating specialty master programs in business, sector-specific certificates and diplomas are gaining traction, says Marcia Annisette, associate dean student services and international relations.
One reason is the growing complexity of business, with increased regulation following the 2008 global financial meltdown, she says. "There seems to be no sign of it abating – compliance is here to stay."
A specialty for-credit certificate or diploma, she says, allows for an in-depth focus on industry-specific issues that would not be possible in a regular undergraduate or MBA.
Last year, Schulich introduced a certificate in managing international trade and investment for the four-year undergraduate business degree. But the school also offers specialty graduate diplomas aimed at those in the arts and environment fields.
Dr. Annisette anticipates further growth in certificates and diplomas as a point of differentiation for students and employers in a competitive labour market.
"It is a growing trend," she says.