AAAS: The New Masters of Science

For many science jobs, a PhD is overkill. But a solid training in, understanding of, and ability to communicate about science may be essential. What industry, government and many advocacy organizations need are the equivalent of an MBA in science. Yet until a dozen years ago, or so, such career training really wasn’t available, argues Sheila Tobias. Which was about the time that this author/educator was ruminating on how to develop such a degree program.

What she and others came up with is now being called the Professional Science Master’s degree, or PSM. “There’s a role for a support population of science- or mathematics-trained professionals,” argued Tobias, this morning.

These are not the master’s degrees in chemistry, physics, or biology offered when your parents went to college, she notes. Those were research programs, training people to do research, and perhaps to undertake the next step academically: the vaunted PhD. She said that people who got a master’s and went no further were often viewed as having settled for the “booby prize;” that they went no further simply because they didn’t make the cut into a PhD program.

Over a three-hour span at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting, here in Chicago, eight speakers plumbed the idea that master’s degrees were sometimes not only enough in science — but in fact precisely what an employer wanted.

The idea for developing a professional class of scientists at the sub-PhD level found a staunch supporter in Rita Colwell while this biologist was still director of the National Science Foundation. She admits that many of her PhD-wielding colleagues there were considerably less enthusiastic about developing “this new kind of scientist”. But they tended to be university profs on leave from their research labs. And the new master’s program was aimed at developing a scientist for nonacademic settings. Indeed, for the “real world.”

These were to be leaders within industry of teams charged with developing new products. Or research managers in government agencies. Or “bridge” professionals who could translate the needs of industry (i.e. patents, regulations, marketing plans) to researchers and the achievements of researchers (tweaks on a widget or new ways to make products and streamline production lines) to company VPs who were allergic to science.

So when Colwell stepped down from her NSF post in 2004, she accepted chairmanship of a National Research Council panel. Its goal, she explains, was to investigate how universities might satisfy the “increasing demand for an enhanced education that did not require six-, seven-, eight- and sometimes nine-year apprenticeships — followed by two or three post-docs.”

As her team performed that study, Colwell says, “we found that many industries were creating their own ‘graduate schools’” — at great cost — to give college graduates the skills to succeed in the commercial world. This might include training in finance, how to conduct performance reviews of research, and how to effectively communicate with people both inside and outside their teams.

A member of her panel from IBM argued that this new career would require “T-shaped people” — those “who are both broad and deep” and could speak the language of many disciplines while being a card-carrying member of at least one of the natural sciences.

Analyses showed industry wanted these well-rounded science grads. Moreover, people who achieved such training did well in finding employment, sometimes even surpassing the earning of PhDs — especially if they moved into management.

In the end, her panel recommended that Congress appropriate money to develop PSM programs at U.S. universities. This is something that had also been advocated earlier under the America COMPETES Act of 2007 — legislation that is still awaiting funding. As it turns out, today’s speakers noted, the new federal stimulus bill that is awaiting President Obama’s signature would invest $15 million into helping develop new PSM programs.

The new degree “doesn’t take the place of research master’s of science degrees,” notes Kevin Sightler at the University of Illinois, in Champaign-Urbana. He knows. He’s just putting the finishing touches on three new 16-month PSM programs that his school will launch next fall (in agricultural production, bioenergy production, and food science & nutrition). A fourth (on agricultural and biological engineering) will commence a year later.

Nor are these new degrees just MBA-type studies for science majors, explains Eleanor Babco of the Council of Graduate Schools in Washington, D.C. The PSM “is a science degree,” she says emphatically: “It’s not science-light.”

Tobias seconds that, pointing out that in most two-year PSM programs, 70 percent of the work performed for the degree is in science.

To date, some 130 PSM-degree programs are underway in about 25 states. Babco estimates that 2,500 students are enrolled in PSM programs. Another 2,100 graduates of such programs have entered the work force.

The ultimate goal, most researchers and administrators argued today, is for society at large — and the research community especially — to grant persons with this new degree the respect accorded graduates with an MBA or law degree. These are the new science professionals.

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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