Click here for free access to our latest coronavirus/COVID-19 research, commentary, and news.

Support nonprofit science journalism

Science’s extensive COVID-19 coverage is free to all readers. To support our nonprofit science journalism, please make a tax-deductible gift today.

The Professional Master's Degree

In the sciences, the master's degree is often seen simply as a stepping stone on the way to the doctorate. But for those science students who do not wish to make a career in research or academia, postgraduate opportunities within the sciences have been limited.

However, in recent years, universities across the United States have been developing new master's degree programs for science students who do not seek careers as scientists or academics. Proponents of these programs say that the combination of science and other disciplines that these degrees offer can provide graduates with new tools for pursuing a science-related career in industry, government, or other fields.

"It is only in the sciences, really, where there isn't such a degree pathway," said Michael Teitelbaum, program officer at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. He pointed to other professional degrees, such as engineering, law, business, or public health. Graduates of those programs, he said, "are considered full-fledged professionals in their field, and depending on the field they have attractive career opportunities when they finish these degrees."

Sloan Foundation Promotes Professional Master's Programs

The Sloan Foundation has been very active in promoting professional science master's degrees. Sheila Tobias, Sloan science master's degree outreach coordinator, said that between 1997 and 2002, Sloan helped to fund 67 degree programs in 30 institutions. Twenty-two new programs have been approved since then. Most of the Sloan programs began enrolling students in the year 2000 and graduated their first class in 2002, although a handful began a couple of years earlier. There are about 700 students currently enrolled in Sloan-supported programs.

Although all programs are multidisciplinary, the disciplines can vary. "They are all science-plus," said Jesse Ausubel, a program officer at Sloan. "They are not all plus business. For example, some of those oriented toward the pharmaceutical industry may involve more intellectual property and regulatory issues. They may look more like law school courses or public policy courses." But many programs look like two-thirds of a science master's degree and one-third of an MBA, he said.

According to research by Ausubel and Tobias, the first professional science master's programs appeared in the late 1980s, when about a dozen universities created new programs, mainly in financial mathematics and biotechnology. The movement picked up speed a half a decade later. This has long been a subject of interest for Tobias, a researcher and writer who has worked on science and math education reform at the college level. Among her books is the 1995 Rethinking Science as a Career, in which Tobias and her co-authors concluded that science needed a new degree.

Colleges and universities have started professional science master's degree programs and certificate programs without funding from Sloan; some are listed at their Web site, Additionally, some universities that began a professional master's program with Sloan start-up help have gone on to add tracks without foundation support. The nonprofit Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology, a participating organization of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (publisher of Next Wave), has also launched a Web site that features information on science, mathematics, and engineering master's education, not limited to professional science master's, and includes a catalog of 467 science master's programs offered by 217 colleges and universities.

Schools Need to Do Homework First

Sloan expects universities that apply for start-up funds to pay attention to the practical and academic aspects of the program it wishes to establish. Before a university approaches Sloan for start-up funds, they are expected to have studied the job market for their graduates and to form an advisory board of industry representatives--potential employers as well as those who could provide internships--to ensure the program remains relevant. At the same time, the university must define the scholarly rationale for the program and assure faculty enthusiasm and participation.

Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta received the first Sloan grant for professional master's degrees in 1997 and currently offers four programs: human-computer interaction, bioinformatics, quantitative and computational finance, and prosthetics and orthotics. The programs stemmed, in part, from a 1996 Georgia Tech workshop on graduate education that drew professionals from around the country and got the school thinking about niche degrees in areas of science that are interdisciplinary. "That's been our criteria," said Anderson Smith, associate dean of the Georgia Tech College of Sciences. In creating the programs, Georgia Tech wanted a new science master's-level degree that "will allow really good students to stay in that discipline without going into something else," Smith said.

"The faculty design the program," he said. "It has to be a faculty-initiated thing. This is not a trade school; it is a fine university." Because of the strength of the academic program, he said, "Industry knows they are getting the real knowledge and skills that are important in that field."

Georgia Tech's Human-Computer Interaction Program

Elizabeth Mynatt, associate professor in the College of Computing at Georgia Tech and faculty coordinator for the program in human-computer interaction (HCI), said students are encouraged to "tap into the wealth of research projects going on here at Georgia Tech. That allows students to do cutting-edge projects." HCI includes courses from the College of Computing, the School of Psychology, and the School of Literature, Communication, and Culture and is drawing a little more than 20 new students each year, most of whom have been in the workplace and are returning for additional training. Biology and physics are among the undergraduate backgrounds that students bring with them. Forty-seven students have completed the program since it first graduated students in 1999.

"They won't be designing yet another Web site," Mynatt said of the HCI students. "They'll be designing ubiquitous home computing technologies, or immersive responsive environments." An example of an immersive responsive environment, to name one, would be a dance costume containing sensors that allow the body to act as a musical instrument.

"The best way to understand human-computer interaction is to imagine something you couldn't have imagined," she said. "Really push yourself."

Mynatt said students are taught the core skills any HCI practitioner would need, "add to the intellectual depth of what they know through coursework, and practice their skills through miniprojects." Through exposure to different disciplines, HCI students become "interdisciplinary multilingual," she said. "They have to be able to communicate with computer scientists, psychologists, and designers. Each one of the students may have one of those disciplines as a base of experience, but they need to communicate with everyone else."

Amon D. Millner earned a bachelor's degree in computer science at the University of Southern California in 2001 before enrolling in Georgia Tech's HCI program. "It allows students the freedom to get what they want out of the program," he said. "You get a lot of training in the primary required courses for the HCI program, and you get a lot of training that doesn't come from straight computer science. Some of the required core courses were in the school of psychology, and that gets you thinking about a whole other set of issues." Millner is doing further graduate work at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and plans to enter academia, although he did internships with IBM and Intel during his course.

Claremont College Biosciences/Management Program

The Keck Graduate Institute of Applied Life Sciences, associated with the Claremont Colleges in California, was established as a master's-only graduate school and designed to provide California's biosciences industry with graduates who have the combination of scientific training and management skills those fields require.

Greg Dewey, dean of faculty at Keck, said the curriculum there comprises about 70% science and technical, and 30% business management and bioethics. "We are seeking to train people in a very generalist way to be not necessarily bench scientists or research scientists, but really to be managers," he said. Most students come to the program from the biological sciences, although many also come from the physical sciences and computer sciences.

"We've been able to attract a very high caliber of student," he said. "I think that's been one of the pleasant surprises of the whole venture, that we're getting students who could easily go into Ph.D. programs anywhere in the country, but they are just not of that mindset.

"They want to get into the business world earlier, they want to get their careers started," Dewey said. "They're sort of leveraging their scientific training."

Conference Board Evaluation

Sloan contracted The Conference Board to conduct an independent evaluation of these early days. In a report released earlier this year, the board wrote that among the graduates in the 12 programs it studied, 91% of respondents said they got a job in their chosen field after graduation. In addition, 66% of respondents said their annual salary was $50,000 or higher; 12% were earning more than $70,000.

The report stated that 49% of respondents believed employers would value the professional science master's degree, though 47% were not sure.

Dewey explained the value of the professional degree by using the pharmaceutical industry as an example. Regulatory processes take up 75% of drug development costs. "Getting a drug through the FDA is a very technical process," he said. "You don't want scientists doing it, but you want someone who understands a lot of science." That would be a place for the professional science master's graduate.

Rachel Fanelli earned her bachelor's degree in biology at Johns Hopkins University in 1997 and worked peripherally in the pharmaceutical industry before enrolling in Keck. She graduated in May and is now working as the institutional review board administrator for a Los Angeles hospital. It is not exactly what she wanted to do--she wanted to move into clinical development--but she is happy with the position and very pleased with her Keck studies.

"The education is completely diverse and interdisciplinary, which is what they were going for," she said. "They wanted to marry science and business and I think they did that." Because she was in only the institute's second class, she said, "there were definitely some kinks to work out, but that was one of the reasons I was interested in coming to this program. I got to help frame the curriculum and where it moves in the future."

An article on this topic by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee was published in the August 8th, 2003 issue of Science magazine. [Subscription required.]