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An Alternative to the Ph.D. Track

Graduating during the toughest job market in generations, many in the class of 2009 face bleak career prospects. But one category of alumni, products of the new professional science master's (PSM) programs, appears to be enjoying something close to "full employment," at very attractive salaries. That, at least, is the conclusion emerging from anecdotal reports and as-yet-incomplete data collected by Stephen Lemire, executive director of the National Professional Science Master's Association (NPSMA), an organization of programs, students, graduates, and supporters of the degree.

Dubbed the 21st century MBA by PSM advocate Sheila Tobias, the new terminal degree, which combines science with business, management, or regulatory affairs, appears to be providing its holders better opportunities than the popular terminal business degree on which it is modeled. Soon, the approximately 130 PSM programs will likely be joined by dozens more, as the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) prepares to issue an announcement--expected later this month--of grants for establishing PSM programs with federal stimulus funds. "We're going to try to move very quickly," says NSF program officer Carol Stoel. "A lot of people are interested in this."

Survey surprises

Anecdotal accounts and the available fragmentary data suggest the cause of that enthusiasm. Even in the recession, "we haven't had problems with students finding jobs," says NPSMA's current president, veterinarian and Ph.D. Ursula Bechert of Oregon State University, Corvallis. Program officials attending a conference on PSM held in Washington, D.C., in April reported uniformly that their graduating students were finding work. Required internships frequently lead to permanent offers, Bechert notes.

To get a fuller picture of outcomes, Lemire has begun the first-ever comprehensive survey of the approximately 2650 people who have earned the degree to date. Initial responses from about 180 of those alumni--a good return for a survey's first 3 weeks, Lemire says--are, in his opinion, both encouraging and intriguing. The majority of these respondents report working in industry, with smaller numbers in nonprofits, government, and situations they label as "other." "Other" typically "means they've gone on for another degree," Lemire says, "or they're in a residency." In some medical fields, such as prosthetics and orthotics, he explains, graduates must do a residency at a health care facility or company to gain clinical experience.       

About 10% of respondents thus far have reported that they have jobs in academe. Curious about what they were doing, Lemire investigated. To his considerable surprise, he found graduates working at jobs that not even the degree's originators had imagined: managing university labs, sometimes at the very universities from which they earned their degrees.  

The biggest surprise, however, was the salary range. Many graduates, Bechert wryly notes, "make more than some faculty members. I’m helping train students and they often find jobs where they can earn more than I do.." Salaries reported thus far appear to average "in the $70,000 range," Lemire says, ranging from less than $50,000 a year to more than $90,000. "We don't know how high that goes" for the 37 people who have thus far claimed that salary range, he says.

Caveat lector

The existing information has several limitations. First, little research of any kind has been done on PSM programs or their outcomes, and just about all of it has been done by the degree's proponents. As data accumulate, Lemire's survey--and others--may produce less pleasant surprises.

Second, no one knows either the ultimate size of the demand for these new professionals or what may lie ahead if the economy deteriorates further. Rapidly proliferating programs could saturate the market, as Ph.D. programs have done. Labor market experts such as Michael Teitelbaum of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and program leaders such as Sheldon Schuster, president of the Keck Graduate Institute in Claremont, California--both strong PSM supporters--believe the current supply is "nowhere near" this point. And, Bechert adds, programs' close ties with industry should help the programs adapt as conditions change. Indeed, new PSM programs are "usually in emerging fields," she continues. In her home state of Oregon, for example, a PSM on renewable energy is in the works. As emerging industries create opportunities, "we want to be ready to produce the graduates that can fill those jobs," she says.

Another caveat is that some in the research community see the programs as scanting serious science training in favor of "real world" applications. At the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, however, PSM Program Director Kevin Sightler has found the science faculty "overwhelmingly positive. I don't think there's been any opposition." The Illinois program requires the same science curriculum, with the "same performance expectations, same degree of rigor" as the traditional master of science, he explains, although that is not the case everywhere. Nor does he see a PSM as "a significant source of competition for other research-based science master's degree programs. I think it's going to attract a whole different kind of student," with different goals, he says.  

PSM programs do not aim to produce scientists any more than MBA programs try to train academic economists. "We have to change the mindset of a lot of academics who look at master's as the steppingstone to the Ph.D., or a consolation prize. If I have an MBA, no one is ever going to ask me, 'Why didn't you go on to your Ph.D. in business?' " Bechert says. Lemire notes that a new "peer review" procedure established with the Council of Graduate Schools to evaluate programs should help assure academic standards. 

The most important characteristic of PSM programs is that they respond to the needs of today's economy, says physicist Donald Langenberg, a former chancellor of the University of Maryland system, president of the American Physical Society, and deputy director of NSF. In the 50 years since he earned his Ph.D., "everything has changed" in industry, but the structure of doctoral training "has changed not at all," he said at the April conference. Science graduate study, based on a 19th century model, needs serious reform to meet modern needs, but trying to "revitalize the doctorate is like moving a graveyard," added another conference speaker, former NSF Director and former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (publisher of Science Careers) Rita Colwell, currently a Distinguished Professor at both the University of Maryland, College Park, and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The Ph.D., Langenberg continued, "indicates exactly nothing about the executive leadership knowledge of the holder" and is a "waste of resources [for] producing [the] strongly science-based management leadership executives" he says are needed for the coming century. "I cannot think of a government agency ... that doesn't need just the kind of people that PSM programs provide," he added. The U.S. Department of Energy and some other federal agencies are reportedly showing interest in the PSM.

A fourth and final reservation is that students in PSM programs must pay their own way, like MBA and med-school students. PSM programs only rarely offer fellowships or assistantships, although some of the required internships may provide stipends that defray a portion of the cost. NSF's new PSM funding will pay universities to establish programs; students who wish to attend these and other PSM programs will generally have to shell out at least $40,000 and sometimes as much as $100,000 for the degree, depending on whether they attend a public or private institution and whether financial aid is available. This has led to charges that universities are promoting PSM programs as moneymakers. But universities, of course, also have a financial interest in recruiting Ph.D. students--as cheap labor for the grant-funded research essential to institutional prestige and one of the keys to attracting research grants and accumulating overhead payments.

Despite the high cost, the degree's relatively short duration, and the attractive career opportunities it offers, make PSM programs worthy of consideration by students seeking science-based careers away from the bench.