Academia can be every bit as competitive as Wall Street or pro sports. To stay competitive, some universities have shored up and radically retooled existing programs. Others are spinning up new, best-in-class programs that can’t be found anywhere else.


With its broad curriculum, the University of Oklahoma’s meteorology program reaches into every corner of weather science, from tropical and urban meteorology to cloud physics and lightning. With more than 300 undergraduates and 100 graduate students, it’s the largest program of its kind in America. The Chronicles of Higher Education regularly places it in the top 10 around the nation.

The School of Meteorology popped up on Oklahoma’s academic landscape in the 1950s. Two Texas A&M meteorologists, Walter Saucier and Yoshi Sasaki, needed a better lab. They looked north to Oklahoma and saw the best available natural lab in the nation. For hotshot meteorologists, Oklahoma was – and still is – the best place to be. They made the move to OU and spun up a world-class program within two decades, in the process securing important academic partnerships with institutions such as the National Severe Storms Laboratory. From there, the school expanded into every arena touchable by its professors, researchers and students.

It takes Susan Postawko, the Associate Director for the School of Meteorology and the first female professor to join the school’s ranks, less than 10 seconds to call up four reasons why the school lands in the top 10 every year.

“The program is academically rigorous,” she says, “Our students graduate with a terrifically strong foundation in the fundamentals of meteorology. Our faculty is constantly on the forefront of cutting edge research. The presence of the National Weather Consortium and the exchange of ideas it brings between university and federal government researchers makes us all stronger.”

The program stretches far beyond classroom work. Students have unprecedented opportunities to participate in research programs with the world’s best weather scientists. Membership in student organizations that plan professional events year round comes with the price of admission.

Student computer labs and classrooms are state-of-the-art and no expense is spared to keep them that way. And, being on the cutting edge, the school is home to some of the coolest toys and gadgets to ever make a meteorologist’s Christmas list. And students are free to lay hands on them.

Many graduates go on to be broadcast meteorologists, researchers and academics. The field of meteorology offers numerous solid career paths. Some also go on to be forensic meteorologists, performing severe weather risk analysis for insurance companies. NASA is always looking for good meteorologists that can forecast launching and landing conditions. Not to mention, it’s Oklahoma, and energy is king. The industry needs good weather scientists because weather has everything to do with energy consumption.

Cyber Corps

“Working at the National Security Agency isn’t sexy,” reports an anonymous source. Graduates of The University of Tulsa’s Cyber Corps who work at the NSA disagree. They love their jobs and they’re very good at them. Other graduates have joined the CIA, FBI and other law enforcement agencies.

In 2001, the NSA awarded a grant to TU. It was accompanied by a short statement, something along the lines of “Go train some cyber warriors.” TU did. Since 2003, TU has placed more than 150 graduates at the NSA. Fifteen students are interning there this summer.

“Ours is the largest and most intense program of its kind,” says Dr. Sujeet Shenoi, the program’s director. “We do a lot more hands-on stuff in a lot more areas, including offense. The nature of the business requires that almost all of what we teach be immediately applicable. I like to tell students you can’t be a surgeon unless you practice surgery. The same is true for a cyber warrior.”

The curriculum covers heady stuff. Hacking. Computer viruses. Digital forensics. But the field work reflects the day-to-day efforts of cyber-ops. Planting bugs. Cyberstalking. Even rifling trash where needed.

The program, the best of four like it in the nation, admits roughly 25 students a year out of about a thousand applicants. Shenoi likes students with science and engineering backgrounds, but they’re not necessary. Students from all sorts of academic backgrounds are eligible.

The most unusual prerequisite: be an upstanding U.S. citizen with the ability to obtain a Top Secret clearance. The most important prerequisite: a fearless and relentless drive to learn.

Dream internships are available. Students don’t make the cut if they’re not willing to train side by side with experienced agents in the intelligence biz. The United States Secret Service probably looks pretty good on a resume. A group of students recently scored national headlines after working with Tulsa police to crack a triple homicide.

It’s an incredibly demanding program, but graduates don’t have to worry about future employment. There’s a line of intelligence agencies waiting to recruit them. And intelligence skills will never go out of vogue.

Most of all, they are helping keep America safe and secure.

Energy Management

Oklahoma City University’s Master of Science in Energy Management is so new it’s still only a proof of concept. Launched in 2012, the program grew organically out of conversations between Steve Agee, Dean of the Meinders School of Business, and Oklahoma City’s leaders in the energy industry. A large pool of specialized talents to draw from is a necessity for success in the field. But competitive companies want to see business acumen showing up in the skill sets of more employees, regardless of their specialties.

“Over the years, energy companies approached me and explained that they’ve got professionals such as engineers and geologists on hand that are great at what they do but need to shore up their business skills. That kind of knowledge just isn’t available in the programs they typically graduate from,” says Agee.

He and his and colleagues answered the problem with an intense, two-year program explicitly geared toward educating scientists and other specialists on the ins and outs of running an energy business. Custom-made for working students, courses are offered one night a week in nine-week cycles. It’s is the only program of its kind in the nation offered at a business school and the only one of its kind accredited by the American Association of Professional Landmen.

“My world changed when I was promoted from senior landman to supervisor last year. My responsibilities as a supervisor demanded an entirely different skill set, and thankfully, I’d been cultivating it every Tuesday night in classroom 117,” says Linsey Miles, a professional landman at Devon Energy, “What could have otherwise been an overwhelming and difficult transition was quite smooth. My successful transition is more than partially attributable to the program.”

The school smartly leverages one quality no other school can offer: location. With its tight concentration of leading energy companies, Oklahoma City is home to one of the largest collection of energy experts in the United States. Agee pulls from that collection for instructors with a laser-like focus on application. The professorial bullpen also holds academics with an average of more than a decade of real-world experience. Agee and his colleagues are no slouches, either. Before going into academics, he accumulated 24 years in the business as the president and CEO of a local oil and gas company.

Students can look forward to an impressive lineup of guest speakers including top government and regulatory officials, industry professionals, veteran executives and business owners. Devon Energy’s CEO, John Richels. Access Midstream Partners’ J. Mike Stice. They’ve all stopped by the school with more than a few tips for students, and they’ll be making more appearances in the future.

Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

Oklahoma State University’s School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering offers the only graduate program in the nation with a program specific to unmanned aerial systems (UAS) – also known as drones. The program, spun up in 2011, is too new to be ranked, but it has several features that put it far in front of its competitors.

“Our purpose here has always been hands-on. This works to our strengths because with unmanned aircraft there’s only one question that needs answering: can you do something nobody’s done before? It’s not good enough to do something on paper. It’s got to fly,” says Dr. Jamey Jacobs, professor of Aerospace and Engineering. “Our students have the chance to create, design, build and test their vehicles from scratch. That’s not found in a lot of other programs.”

Almost all of the program’s competitors focus on pilot training. UAS pilots get trained at OSU, but they’re expected to know more than just how to fly a drone. They’re expected to know how to make the drone work – regardless of its end function.

The program was a natural outgrowth of the research done by professors and students over the last two decades. Unmanned drones were on the school’s radar long before they became widely deployed in combat. In the 1990s, professors started teaching students how to use drones to test larger aircraft designs. It’s less expensive, more convenient and far less dangerous.

About 30 students enter the program each year. After graduation, their opportunities aren’t limited to combat applications. The agricultural sector is looking at drones for cost-effective crop-dusting. Their miniature scale makes them ideal for geological surveys. If something needs to be airborne, drones are always the better way to do it. Weight’s the only limit. Most students find themselves in the Air Force or at aerospace companies such as Boeing. A few take positions with smaller companies where it’s convention for engineers to construct drones from scratch.

It’s engineering. Students will spend a lot of time in classrooms. But they’re also frequently found out in the field, testing their inventions at OSU’s UAS airfield or at the school’s University Multispectral Laboratories in Fort Sill.

Aviation Flight

Oklahoma and flight go together like peanut butter and jelly. Tulsa’s Spartan College of Aeronautics & Technology offers an Associate Degree of Applied Science in Aviation Flight that puts pilots in the cockpit faster than any other program in Oklahoma. It also employs an unconventional but highly successful teaching approach that removes the traditional separation of the classroom and the cockpit.

“Traditionally, a student in a flight program takes a flight class that’s associated with, for instance, a three-hour theory class. One is taught in the aircraft and the other in the classroom using a traditional, instructor-led approach. There’s very little tie between the flight instructor and the theory instructor,” says Ryan Goertzen, vice president of Education at Spartan.

To bridge the gap between theory and practice, Spartan uses 12 different teaching modalities, including online lessons and a variety of simulations. The average student spends only one hour in the classroom each day. What they learn there is translated directly into a flight plan for use later in the day. Instructors closely monitor flight performance to make sure the lessons make it directly from the classroom to the cockpit. For the student, this means less failure, less repeat training and a higher first-time pass rate for Federal Aviation Administration testing.

The curriculum includes all the fundamentals of pilot training and more. Potential pilots learn how to take the stick, but not before they learn the ins and outs of FAA regulations, meteorology, navigation, communication and aerodynamics. With these topics under their belts, students take to the air three times a week to earn the minimum 350 flight hours needed for graduation.

Students train on dual runways owned by the schools. It also maintains a fleet of 50 aircraft, something that can’t be found in other programs. Spartan keeps single and multi engine planes fueled and parked on the runway. Before training with planes, students rack up time in two cutting-edge simulators.

Spartan’s been training pilots since 1928. More than 100,000 pilots have graduated from the program. At the time of its founding, it was also an aircraft manufacturer. It was the birth place of the first side-by-side flight trainer, as well. Those innovations are expressions of the school’s desire to stay ahead of the curve and anticipate the challenges future pilots will face.

Spartan’s pilot training program is the most comprehensive in the industry. With its large fleet, pilots can train on the widest available array of planes. The school is certified by everybody and anybody that matters, meaning pilots won’t have to go through additional training right after graduation.

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