Needed: Support for Professional Science Master's Degrees

Tim Foley for The Chronicle

August 15, 2010

One of the most important innovations in graduate science education is now well under way at American universities: the professional science master's degree. At last count, and following remarkably rapid growth over the past two years, more than 200 of these innovative graduate degrees, known as the P.S.M., are now available at close to 100 North American universities. All of those degree programs have been developed in a little over a decade, and many more are in development around the country. To our knowledge this rapid growth of a new degree concept is unprecedented. Moreover, that expansion is taking place in spite of daunting financial stresses on American universities.

Professional science master's degrees are configured to respond to the oft-expressed need of nonacademic employers (companies, government agencies, nonprofits) for science professionals who are educated to graduate-school standards and have the additional skills necessary to contribute to their organizations. The degrees represent a response from academe to repeated calls from corporate and political leaders for better articulation of American graduate education with the country's work-force needs. Graduates are often referred to as "technically trained leaders" who will help develop the innovative, knowledge-based economy America requires to remain globally competitive.

The core of P.S.M. degrees is intensive course work in science or mathematics for fields with robust career demand. To that foundation, the programs add courses that provide students with the background that employers seek in financial and project management, communication, teamwork, ethics, and regulatory affairs—for pharmaceutical and biotech employers, for example. Other potential employers include investment-banking firms, government agencies, and insurance companies. Faculty leaders solicit advice from employers of science-trained professionals about the skills they consider most valuable. Most of the degrees include a paid internship, usually during the summer between the two years of the degree program, and may include a capstone project based on a science or mathematics problem suggested by employers.

So far, graduates of professional science master's programs are in high demand. Many report receiving multiple job offers, with excellent remuneration, even in these difficult times. Their success demonstrates that there are attractive career paths for undergraduates who choose to major in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields but do not wish to become academic researchers or obtain a Ph.D. Indeed, student interest in the programs has been strong, with enrollments rising rapidly across the country. Nearly half of the students have been women, and nearly two-thirds have been U.S. citizens.

It is too soon to be sure, but there is good reason to hope that these new pathways to fulfilling careers will appeal to undergraduate math and science students who otherwise would not go on to further study in those fields. As word of P.S.M. program graduates' career experiences spreads to undergraduates, we might see increases in the retention and completion rates of freshmen who enter college with the intention and capability to major in STEM disciplines. All available data show that both retention and completion rates of those entering freshmen have been surprisingly low over the past decades. In addition, some professional science master's students and faculty members are reaching out to community-college students who have expressed an interest in science, encouraging them to persist in their majors. As community colleges include a higher proportion of underrepresented minorities than do other colleges, we anticipate that such communication will help diversify the STEM work force by demonstrating the excellent employment opportunities available to professional science master's graduates.

Although still quite new, the degrees have already received strong support and endorsement from leading science and higher-education organizations, such as the National Research Council and the Council of Graduate Schools; from Congressional leaders; and from chancellors and presidents of leading universities and university systems in the United States. The America Competes Act of 2007 specifically authorized the National Science Foundation to support degrees of this type, and the stimulus bill of 2009 provided $15-million for that purpose. At the state level, professional science master's degrees have been energetically supported by the National Governors Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures, and many state leaders in both legislative and executive branches. Within the last year, articles praising the programs have appeared in publications such as Chemical & Engineering News, Science Magazine, and Nature Medicine, to name just a few.

About 10 years ago, the early pioneers of the professional science master's degree were faculty members and administrators at public research universities like the Georgia Institute of Technology and Michigan State University. Subsequently the concept has been embraced and expanded by leaders at major statewide university systems and flagship campuses. These programs appeal to institutions that emphasize the master's degree and have a strong commitment to community engagement, but they are equally well represented at doctoral and master's institutions. Indeed, the largest number of professional science master's programs has been created by the Carnegie category with the highest level of research activity, probably thanks to the science resources available at those institutions. A regional alliance of historically black colleges and universities in the mid-Atlantic region has also been formed explicitly to develop the degrees in collaboration with one another. The concept also appears to be spreading to universities in Europe and Asia.

The rapid growth and palpable enthusiasm surrounding professional science master's degrees demonstrates something important: that higher education can respond energetically and directly to employers' demands for sophisticated science professionals with high-level scientific and business and management skills. Many have criticized academe for being unresponsive to work-force needs, but the spread of P.S.M. degrees demonstrates that many universities actually are highly attuned to such concerns.

To sustain the success of the programs, several further steps must be taken. First, and most obviously, institutions that have not yet become involved should explore whether professional science master's degrees would be good fits with the strengths of their science and math departments and the needs of employers in their regions for professionals trained in graduate-level science.

Second, faculty members, employers, and students who are involved with the programs should expand their outreach beyond undergraduate science and math majors. The goal should be to make this path to a career in science known to talented students in community colleges, high schools, and middle schools, and thereby to increase and diversify the pool of individuals who will ultimately pursue STEM careers.

Third, there is need for a sustained source of financing to support development of additional programs. Creating new degrees is not costly for universities that already offer much of the course work required, and once established, the programs have proved to be financially self-sustaining. Still, an initial investment is needed. A reauthorized America Competes Act providing more federal money would be highly desirable. So too would continued support from deans and provosts, and from employers who stand to benefit from the graduates of the programs.

Finally, we hope that state legislators and others who seek to ensure their state work forces have the human capital needed to attract and retain industries will appreciate that the design and implementation of professional science master's degrees has been an unusual—and unusually successful—joint effort by universities and employers toward precisely that goal. Indeed, some of the most dynamic programs are in the public systems of states with the very worst financial situations, like New York, Florida, and California. Farsighted legislators will see that the modest support needed to maintain rapid expansion of the programs should not become a victim of budget cuts.

In this period of severe stresses on American higher education, it is too soon to declare P.S.M. programs established and sustainable, despite their recent successes. Sustaining the growth of this promising new degree will require the combined support of all the stakeholders: academe, the federal government, and employers.

Michael S. Teitelbaum is program director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Carol B. Lynch is senior scholar in residence and director of the professional masters' initiative at the Council of Graduate Schools. For more information about professional science master's degrees, visit