Wuming Tang relocated from Hong Kong to the United States for her MBA. As an international student after a future career in supply chain the US, the H1-B visa lottery was a source of concern.
After considering different MBA programs on offer, the MBA in Supply Chain Management at UW Madison’s Wisconsin School of Business caught her interest.
The program had the supply chain specialization that Wuming was after. But more than that, it was—and is—STEM-designated, meaning international students can apply for a 24-month STEM-extension to their 12-month Optional Practice Training (OPT) period which allows them to work in the US on a student visa.
Whereas most programs allow students to work in the US for 12 months after graduation, students on the Wisconsin MBA can stay and work in the US for up to three years after graduation, without an H1-B visa.
“That was definitely a bonus when I chose the program,” Wuming explains. “More and more companies require that business talents acquire STEM-related knowledge, and the Wisconsin MBA’s STEM-designated curriculum gave me that training in both business and analytics.”
Wuming graduated from the Wisconsin MBA in May 2018 and went straight into a job at American multinational Cisco Systems in Silicon Valley. Currently working as a business analyst, she plans to stay in the US for the three years of her OPT period at least.
The benefits of STEM-designation for internationals have made it a hot topic of conversation on business school campuses across the US. STEM-designated masters are on the rise with b-schools chasing STEM-eligibility for various specialized masters in data analytics, finance, marketing, and more.
But few MBA programs are STEM-designated, largely due to the general management nature of the MBA degree—STEM-designation requires a greater focus on the technical, with the curriculum guidelines dictated by the US Department of Homeland Security.
Wisconsin School of Business’ two-year MBA in Supply Chain Management became STEM-eligible in the fall of 2016, together with its MBA in Operations and Technology Management. The two-year program equips students with skills in data mining, data analytics, and Tableau. Students typically come in with three-to-five years of work experience.
Jake Dean, director of the Grainger Center for Supply Chain Management at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and himself a Wisconsin MBA grad, says part of the decision to apply for STEM-designation was to attract a better quality of international student.
Already, he’s seen internationals apply for the program having worked in supply chain at Amazon and for other US multinationals. “This caliber of people didn’t apply for the program before and that’s something employers have really valued,” he says.
Wisconsin doesn’t offer one, standardized full-time MBA. Across Wisconsin’s 10 specialized MBA programs—including non-STEM specializations in product management, finance, marketing, real estate, and human resources—much of the first-year curriculum is the same. In their second year, students specialize in their area of interest.
Across all Wisconsin’s MBA specializations, 20% of students are international. In the current MBA in Supply Chain Management class, 30% are international, although that means three students in a class of just 10.
A smaller-scale school in the American Midwest, the decision to offer specialized MBA programs attached to different knowledge centers—rather than a traditional full-time MBA—was taken back in 2005.
“The dean at the time said: ‘We’re a mid-ranked MBA program. There’s many others out there. What’s our hook? Is it that we offer great faculty, courses, and alumni? No, everybody has that. What’s something that people don’t have?’ And that was specializations,” Jake explains.
When it comes to STEM-designation, the decision seems to have paid off. Crucially, Wisconsin’s MBA specializations are classified as unique programs on the books of the university, with unique program codes.
Because the programs are treated as separate entities, the school is able to chase STEM-designation for the individual programs. That’s a bit of a loophole, not available to other schools which offer one MBA program and specializations within it.
The reason most schools don’t have STEM-designated MBAs, Jake says, is just as much down to the program’s structure within the wider university as the need to incorporate STEM topics within the curriculum. Most schools would need to re-structure and re-imagine their entire MBA offering to become STEM-eligible.
For student like Wuming, the administrative background to STEM-designation is of little concern. If you’re an MBA applicant looking quit your job, leave home, and move to the US, a STEM-designated MBA program can act as a counterweight to any concerns you may have around visa issues and your future career prospects.
The three years of OPT offers a level of security, Jake concludes, that’s not on offer elsewhere. “Going into a STEM-designated program is certainly the lowest risk option you can go for when considering graduate management education,” he says.
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