By Temma Ehrenfeld
NEW YORK, Aug 8 (Reuters) - Despite a full-time job as a mechanical engineer, Sean Whitney is carving out hours to pursue the new Johns Hopkins MBA/MA in "Design Leadership." Whitney believes the program, a collaboration of the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School and the Maryland Institute College of Art, will teach him management skills while he learns to think more creatively.
His goal: to open his own business designing consumer products. "I have a background in design and this was a good way to blend the two worlds," Whitney, 31, says.
This fall, name-brand schools like Hopkins, Northwestern University, the University of Michigan and Parsons School of Design are launching cross-disciplinary masters programs meant to make students more competitive in a changing economy.
While colleges have always tweaked their offerings, the newest crop of programs seems particularly designed for the times: They are multidisciplinary, job focused and often influenced by private industry. They typically involve mixing creativity with management; data-crunching skills with industry-specific content and science with business and management skills.
Some of these new hybrids, especially in the sciences, allow graduates to pursue technical jobs with masters degrees rather than PhDs. In other cases, they reveal the influence of private companies that are helping to fund and design the programs, presumably in ways that will produce graduates the companies want to hire.
"Many institutions are seeing economic difficulties as an opportunity, and there's been an acceleration in interdisciplinary programs," says Debra Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools. She says many of these new programs are a response to the tough economy. Students and schools are looking for ways to stand out in a tight market.
"It's hard to distinguish one MBA from another," says Blair Johnson, a lecturer at Johns Hopkins. "People are looking for much more customized programs."
The Hopkins program focuses on combining design and business management -- an idea that has gained popularity since the Stanford Business school founded its much-admired "D-school" in 2005, with help from a donation by Hasso Plattner, co-founder of software giant SAP. In recent months, companies and institutions ranging from SAP to the Rockefeller Foundation and AOL "have reached out to try to recruit our students," says Stanford spokeswoman Debbe Stern.
The 20-month Hopkins program, which started in July, includes business basics like economics, marketing and ethics along with "visualization, prototyping, cultural relevance and awareness, design theory, sustainability and social responsiveness." It was inspired by a collaborative course with the Maryland Institute College of Art in which students produced solutions for design problems presented by Stanley Black & Decker and other companies, says Johnson.
The Parsons New School for Design in New York is launching its own design MBA degree this fall, as is Philadelphia University, which dubs its program "The MBA for hybrid thinkers."
At 62, Ronny Schmier is putting aside his anesthesiology practice to study full time in the University of Michigan's new masters program in "Health Informatics." The program will cover medical electronic records and technology that patients use themselves and will tap into health expertise from the university's medical school.
"We are training people to understand policy issues like privacy and security," says program director Charles Friedman. "Some of the other programs are more IT-oriented."
Schmier wants to help design systems allowing physicians to pull patient information from any medical facility. "I'm not a computer geek but I know what needs to be done," he says.
Programs like the one at Michigan focus on combining information technology with the issues of a particular industry. Another approach is to combine management with IT.
At Northwestern, this fall brings a new masters in analytics "bringing together statistics and computer science with a business perspective," says assistant director Chris Bray. IBM , SAS and Teradata have helped shape the curriculum and may offer internships, Bray says.
Math and science college graduates who aren't seeking a career in research (which requires a PhD), can instead earn a professional science masters, or PSM. The curriculum includes graduate-level science or mathematics, often in a newly emerging discipline like bioinformatics or climate science plus course work to help graduates become lab or project managers or to team up with experts in the fields of finance, regulation or intellectual property law.
Helped along by grants from the National Science Foundation, the number of PSM programs grew from 154 to 286 in the past three years, according to the Council of Graduate Schools. This year new programs included "Space Studies" at Rice University and "Pharmaceutical Engineering" at Rutgers.
With more choices - and costs as high as $90,000 for a master's at a prestigious school - prospective students need to do their research. Some of what's happening now "may be marketing: the curriculum may not be new but it has a new sexy name on it," says Christopher Morphew, a professor of educational policy at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.
Students also need to evaluate whether they could get the same training by adding on extras to a traditional degree or double-majoring as an undergraduate.
When considering a relatively untested curriculum or label, students need to be especially careful that it will help them towards their career goals, experts say. "You need to do a deep investigation. The program should be a good and a logical idea and have good hiring rates," says Scott Jaschle, of InsideHigherEd.com, a news and jobs listings website.
But for brand-new programs, no job placement rates will be available. And that may be a reason to wait. Links to local business or big employers are a good sign, especially if they arise from a longstanding focus at the school, says Lois Trautvetter, director of the higher education and administration policy program at Northwestern.
Editing by Jilian Mincer, Linda Stern and Kenneth Barry)