Celebrating an Educational Innovation in Capital Style

Taken for Granted

Kelly Krause, AAAS

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Adorned in mosaics, carved marble, paintings, and gilt, the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress is a Beaux-Arts paean to learning. Its name commemorates the third U.S. president, a polymath statesman; an inventor, architect, and linguist; an indispensable patron of science, discovery, and higher education; and a communicator for the ages. In 1815, Jefferson sold to the nation his personal collection of 6487 books—a vast trove at the time—to form the core of a reconstituted Library of Congress after the British destroyed the original one during the War of 1812. This connection with a man of such broad yet practical brilliance and deep scientific curiosity may be why Congressmen Richard Hanna (R-NY) and Rush Holt (D-NJ and a Ph.D. physicist) arranged to use the Library's exquisite Members of Congress Room as the setting for an event marking what they consider a significant milestone in American education: the establishment of the country's 300th Professional Science Master's degree (PSM) program.

By the time a crowd of academic dignitaries assembled for the 12 November celebration, the number of programs stood at 302. That did not, however, prevent Nancy Zimpher, chancellor of the 64-campus State University of New York (SUNY) system, from presenting a certificate honoring the 300th program, in sustainable energy systems, to Bruce Mattingly, SUNY, Cortland's dean of arts and sciences.

Whether the career prospects outweigh that debt is a question that prospective students must answer for themselves.

These 2-year PSM programs, as we have often reported, prepare students for nonacademic, science-related careers through graduate work in both science and such employment-relevant fields as business, economics, intellectual property, regulatory affairs, ethics, or law. Programs include hands-on career experience and a strong emphasis on project management and communication skills. Almost 6000 students are now pursuing PSM degrees at more than 130 institutions, said Debra Stewart, who is president of the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS).

It's hardly surprising that universities would want to celebrate the proliferation of PSM programs. Establishing curricula and attracting students boosts cash-strapped institutions' bottom lines. As economist Hal Salzman of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, told Science Careers in another context, "Master's programs in general are moneymakers for colleges … ."

A worthy investment?

But what does the PSM degree do for graduates of the programs? One thing it does, meeting participants repeatedly asserted, is help them get good jobs. The session's moderator, for example, was Ross Grossman, vice president of human resources at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, which employs at least 10 PSM graduates. Almost 80% of new PSM holders report having a job by the June after their spring graduation, with 91% of those working in their field of study, Stewart said. According to a CGS survey published this year, more than two-thirds of responding PSM grads—a group that skews heavily toward graduates from the last 4 years—earn more than $50,000 a year, with 42% earning more than $70,000 a year and just under 12% earning over $100,000 a year.

Another thing that many of the programs do, said Christopher Babic, an alumnus of Pennsylvania State University's PSM program in biotechnology, is force many students who want the degree to take on debt. Unlike Ph.D. students, who overwhelmingly get support either from fellowships or teaching or research assistantships, PSM students generally pay their own way—at a cost, Babic said, that can be "prohibitive." Whether the career prospects outweigh that debt is a question that prospective students must answer for themselves.

"Every employer I have talked to" is "very happy with the integrated skills" the PSM program teaches, said Michael Teitelbaum, senior adviser to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which was instrumental in establishing the PSM degree. "They all say that they are looking for people with exactly those skills" and are "very happy with that unique blend" the programs provide.

Two satisfied employers gave testimony about PSM graduates' abilities. Gary Benzion, a supervisory patent examiner at the United States Patent and Trademark Office (PTO), explained that the world's "premier intellectual property agency" seeks a "very specific skill set," which Babic exactly supplied when he was hired at PTO 8 years ago. In contrast to his own Ph.D. training, Benzion continued, Babic's degree afforded a broad background that suited him extremely well to the unique and rigorous demands of work as a patent examiner.

Babic praised "the most influential educational experience in [his] life so far" for allowing him to learn not only science but the "three other cornerstones of biotech," finance, social realities, and ethics. He was "taught to think about" not only whether a goal is technically feasible, but whether "a program [should] be done." This involves considering the "legal and governmental aspects. Is an idea even legal?" he said. "[D]oing technical work in a nonlab setting" is a "perfect fit" for his interests. Having risen rapidly to a supervisory position at the PTO, he now hopes to attend law school.

PTO "is hiring," Benzion said, adding that it needs people precisely like Babic, who "understand the cutting edge of science," have hands-on bench experience, "think independently," "speak and write effectively," and, most striking to Benzion, understand intellectual property. Until he hired Babic, he said, he had never encountered—nor even imagined—a scientific graduate program that covered that crucial component of patent work. "The best thing that I can say about PSM. graduates is that we need more of them," Benzion said.

Subha Madhavan, an oncology professor and director of the Innovation Center for Biomedical Informatics (ICBI) at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., was next to praise her experience with a PSM graduate, named Shruti Rao, who earned her degree in molecular biotechnology at George Washington University, also in the nation's capital. Hired to work in data extraction, Rao is now a services manager at ICBI, heading several programs related to specific diseases. She chose the PSM, she said, because of her interest "in lots of aspects [of biotechnology], not in one narrow field."

Growing numbers

The first eight PSM programs began in 1997, and numbers increased steadily for the next decade, reaching 119 in 2008. Growth then accelerated, with 183 programs added in the next 5 years. The increase was spurred by major initiatives by university systems in California, Florida, New Jersey, New York, and North Carolina.

The PSM idea initially grew from the desire of the Sloan Foundation and other partners to assure that careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) would remain attractive to talented people and to assure that students could acquire "the skills employers need." Noting that STEM career paths had deteriorated in the preceding decades, Teitelbaum and others "talked with employers—and listened," he said. Leaders in a variety of firms and organizations said they needed scientifically trained people but couldn't find any with the additional skills in management, teamwork, communication, and other areas crucial for success in their workplaces.

Today, poor career prospects for science doctorates continue to discourage many able science majors from pursuing graduate education, "because they don't see a career path" other than the traditional Ph.D., Teitelbaum said. "You should do a Ph.D. if you really want one, … but it's a loss if people don't go on [in science because] they don't see another career path."

The PSM can provide a path into STEM careers for many students, including members of minority groups traditionally underrepresented in science, said Juliette Bell, president of the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore (UMES) in Princess Anne. PSM programs can also play important roles in the economies of particular regions, she added. A historically black land grant institution, UMES belongs to the HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) Mid-Atlantic PSM Alliance of eight institutions that have joined forces to explore possibilities for establishing programs. UMES's own PSM program in quantitative fisheries science and natural resources economics has, she continued, already produced graduates who work in agencies devoted to preserving and enhancing the economy and ecology of the region whose livelihood depends heavily on the wellbeing of the Chesapeake Bay.

Spreading the word

Perhaps it was the meeting's period setting that seemed to impart a sense of permanence to a degree that is extremely new, and still quite unfamiliar to most people. Sixteen years is "but a moment in graduate education," Teitelbaum said, adding that many more students and potential employers, including those in the federal government, need to learn about the PSM degree. The concept of career-focused science degrees, though still proving its worth, is "fundamentally innovative in graduate education," CGS's Stewart added.

As I admired the gilded allegorical ceiling panels representing science and excellence, I couldn't help thinking, corny as it may sound, that the building's namesake—whose innovative experiments included, along with the Declaration of Independence, an improved plow, a portable copying machine, an encryption device, and an outstanding institution of learning (the University of Virginia), and who sent Lewis and Clark on one of history's most daring research expeditions—would have approved of this educational effort, too.

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