Moving from Academia to Industry: PhDs Getting MBAs at HEC Paris
In 2012, Jean-Marc Peyrat left his role in science and technology development at Siemens to team up with a colleague and start a company. This was no idle pursuit: Peyrat holds two separate master’s degrees in engineering and biomedical engineering, as well as a PhD in computer science. The venture lasted just a few months, but this brief foray into entrepreneurship whet Peyrat’s appetite for more.
Peyrat hit the books again in 2016 when he started the MBA program at HEC Paris. Today, he is the co-founder and CEO of inHEART, a start-up that marries cardiac electrophysiology and medical imaging with cloud-based cardiovascular 3D processing and visualization services. The venture was named one of the leading companies at the frontier of cardiac imaging in 2020. It has also raised €3.7 million in funding in the last six months alone.
“I didn’t know exactly what skills I was looking for when I started my MBA,” recalls Peyrat. “But I am curious, and I really wanted to learn about the business side of things. That’s one huge thing I gained from the MBA: feeling more confident about what I should know or not know about a specific field. The MBA gives you a framework that applies across businesses.”
A Doctor of Philosophy degree represents the highest level of expertise you can earn in a particular field. A Master’s in Business Administration is specific in its focus on business management and organization but broad in its development of soft skills such as leadership and strategy. It is an excellent route for doctorate holders who want to switch from academia to industry, or who want to leap into an entirely new industry altogether.
HEC Paris consistently admits between two and four PhDs who have decided to further their studies with an MBA degree every year.
While research and development are vital to advancing any field, many individuals, including Peyrat, earn an MBA degree in order to make a greater impact in a shorter amount of time. “I wanted to have a direct impact on patient care and the product,” explains Peyrat. “In the academic world, you work on fundamental research that’s not going to be a product or in the hospital for another 10 or 20 years. I wanted to work on something more concrete.”
This same desire to take pure scientific research and turn it into a commercially available technology for the public good is what motivated Daria Jacob to transform her career path via an MBA degree.
Jacob completed her PhD in vaccine development and worked for nearly four years at Paris’ famed Institut Pasteur before starting at the HEC Paris MBA. Today she is the Associate Director of Genomics at Tecan, a producer of robotic lab and diagnostic equipment. In that role, she leads the Genomics automation team and works toward implementing the company’s strategy in Genomics.
“On one hand, I think a perfect personality for a scientist is someone who is really focused on what he or she is doing and super excited about the details of the project,” says Jacob about her decision to move from researching virology to the business of healthcare technology. “For me, it was an interesting venture, but I just didn’t see myself doing it all of my life. And a lot of scientific work is unfortunately not about science, but more about getting grants and publishing so you’re able to secure your next post-doc gig. These typically last two years, and then you’re up against the same questions again and again: ‘How do I get the next position to support my family? Advance my career?”
The Journey to the MBA Program at HEC Paris
Jacob, who is Russian, chose HEC Paris partially because of the other MBA students. Like her, many didn’t have direct experience in the corporate world, but their experiences in the worlds of research and academia left them well-positioned for taking innovative steps after the MBA. She says she found the HEC Paris MBA both impressive and reassuring. It was also flexible enough to provide Jacob the exact skills she knew she was missing.
Before starting the MBA program, Peyrat spent two years working at the Qatar Robotic Surgery Centre (QRSC). A friend had connected him with an opportunity to commercialize the center’s research. He admits that the prospect of developing applied technology and starting a company to deliver that technology was a powerful draw from the world of pure research. “I was also attracted by Qatar itself. The country is similar to a start-up, because they started maybe 10, 15 years ago to build everything from scratch. Twenty years ago, it was a desert. It felt interesting to just be there and see how everything worked so differently.”
Eventually, Peyrat decided to return to France. “When I came back, I didn’t really have the idea in mind to found my own company,” Peyrat recalls. However, shortly after he began the HEC Paris MBA, a colleague from INRIA contacted him with a research project that he wanted to bring to the market developed in close collaboration with clinicians. “So, it was not a technology push; it was really coming from the needs of the clinicians. I really liked the way they initially developed the technology. It was also a medical-image processing technology–exactly my field.”
From Professor to Manager
Another example of a doctorate holder who used the MBA degree for a complete career transformation is Pauline Beaugé de la Roque. She holds a PhD in History from University College Cork, Ireland, and a Doctorate in English from Sorbonne Université in Paris. De la Roque transitioned from being an associate professor and researcher at a university to managing a team of about 200 people at Michelin. There she is responsible for all aspects of manufacturing agro-tires, including production, quality, maintenance, and logistics. Her career path took her from sales to strategy and now Shop Manager.
“At one stage of my very exciting academic life, I found that something was missing: I knew nothing about the corporate world, whereas I strongly believe academic and corporate worlds should mix much more than they typically do,” recalls de la Roque. “Moreover, after having tackled such an intellectual challenge as a PhD, I thought it was time to tackle another kind of professional challenge and discover an entirely new field.”
HEC’s program has an impressive reputation in the Francophone world, which de la Roque thought would round out her CV as she already held a PhD highly valued in the Anglo-Saxon world. The small cohort at HEC—limited to 300 participants a year—allowed her to get to know everyone personally. “This is something I underestimated before joining, but it really changed my whole vision of the value of my MBA,” she says. She was also drawn to the diversity of students, who come from over 50 countries, and the work of alumni around the world. She also saw the program’s 16-month length as perfectly fitting her work-life balance. “The MBA has an incredibly human side to it that comes from its size and the quality of its people—staff, professors, and students. It was an amazing human adventure.”
Why an MBA?
For Peyrat, Jacob, and de la Roque, an MBA was an opportunity to build complementary skills and broaden their experiences and perspectives. It ensured a path to a more business-oriented position immediately after the degree program.
The Entrepreneurship Specialization in the HEC Paris MBA also afforded Peyrat an additional opportunity as he began to develop his company. “I was able to work on my start-up project at the same time I was doing my studies, so it was a comfortable situation for asking for advice from professors, mentors and so many other people that I met through the MBA.”
Jacob considers her career path pre- and post-MBA. “During my PhD and my first year of post-doc work, I managed a team of two or three people, reported on my project, and tried to meet budgets and timelines. Without all the tools—both the hard skills and soft skills—I earned through the MBA, I was simply inefficient.”
“The MBA gave me self-confidence and the power to dare,” says de la Roque. “It also made me aware of how my academic skills were transferable in the corporate world.”
Is an MBA Right for You?
Pursuing an MBA is a challenge that anyone who has achieved a PhD is prepared to meet. For those who have chosen this path, the decision comes down to personal career goals. “In a way, there is a natural selection in the scientific world, for those who really want to stand by their pure scientific interest and those who want to try out something else, as was my case,” says Jacob.
Peyrat emphasizes how important it is to have a genuine motivation to enter an MBA program. “Say you’re at the end of the PhD, you’re fed up with your research and you want to escape. I don’t agree with doing an MBA for that reason. Do the MBA because you want to go toward something. After all the time spent earning a PhD, spending another one or two years for another degree is definitely a time investment. My advice would be to connect to as many people as possible who have earned both MBAs and PhDs to get some feedback and decide if that fits your future goals.”
To those doctorate holders who are interested in business and unsure if getting an MBA is the right path, de la Roque unequivocally advises, “dare and go for it!”