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Does a Professional Science Master's Degree Pay Off?

It has been 15 years since the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation funded the first group of Professional Science Master’s (PSM) degree programs, hoping to create a new career pathway and fill the need for scientists who are trained to work in a commercial context. Since then, these 2-year graduate programs have proliferated in a wide range of scientific fields, from bioinformatics to nanoscale physics. The number of PSM programs grew steadily, reaching 140 in 2009 -- and then nearly doubled, to 247 currently, as a result of support from the Sloan Foundation and the National Science Foundation.

According to recent estimates, about 5000 students have now earned PSM degrees. Where have they gone? How easily do they find employment and in what kinds of positions? Do they move up the ladder more quickly than colleagues with traditional degrees? How do their salaries compare with peers who have M.B.A.s, Ph.D.s, or other advanced degrees? For students who pay their own way, is it worth the considerable investment?

There is a tendency for students to buy into the line that if you don't get a Ph.D., you're not a serious professional, that you're wasting your mind.

-- Sheila Tobias

Abundant demand for scientists with professional skills

National data is surprisingly sparse -- too sparse, probably, to make meaningful judgments about return on investment -- but the available evidence indicates that PSM graduates are finding work, and it's mostly well-paid. PSM programs clearly fill a need in the workforce, says Sally Francis, co-director of the PSM program for the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS), which consults with institutions developing PSM programs and approves their use of the trademarked PSM logo. (That responsibility will transfer to the Keck Graduate Institute of Applied Life Sciences by July.) Francis says employers in industry, the nonprofit sector, and government are clamoring for employees with advanced training in science and mathematics and professional skills in areas such as management, marketing, communication, regulatory affairs, intellectual property, and business ethics. “It’s an easy sell to legislators and campus decision-makers, especially because the programs typically come at a modest marginal cost, because most of the time the coursework is already in place,” Francis says.

Sally Francis

Sally Francis

CREDIT: Council of Graduate Schools

“I think the acceptance of these degrees is increasing rapidly,” says Elizabeth Friedman, director of PSM programs at the Illinois Institute of Technology. “We don't have to explain anymore what these degrees are about.” A decade ago, "when you talked with people in the business world, you had to go into a whole justification, but now when you say it's ‘science for business,’ they get it right away. It's a much easier sell now.”

Most PSM program directors say their graduates have no trouble finding jobs that pay well and make good use of their training, and many have data to back up those claims. Peiru Wu, director of the PSM program in Industrial Mathematics at Michigan State University in East Lansing, says that all of the 79 students who have graduated from that program since 2002 have found full-time employment with starting salaries averaging $65,000. Dagmar Beck, who oversees four PSM programs at Rice University in Houston,Texas, says she has information on all but one of the 75 students who have graduated since the programs in nanoscale physics, subsurface geoscience, and environmental analysis and decision-making were established in 2002. (The fourth program, in bioscience research and health policy, is new.) Of those students, all are employed, with salaries ranging from $55,000 to $98,000, Beck says. She says most students have job offers by the time they graduate and a few receive several offers.

Peiru Wu

Peiru Wu

Courtesy of Peiru Wu

Linda Strausbaugh, director of the University of Connecticut, Storrs’s applied genomics PSM program, has employment data for 70 of 72 program alumni. Of those, seven have returned to school for doctoral or professional degrees; the rest are employed full-time, about a third at organizations where they did internships. Strausbaugh started keeping a salary database last year; of the five students who entered the job market this year, she says, four were hired by genomics and pharmaceutical companies in the Northeast with starting salaries of $55,000 to $60,000. One student accepted a job at a public laboratory in Ohio with a starting salary of $32,000. Some graduates who have been working for a few years make more than $100,000 per year, Strausbaugh says. “These are high-functioning kinds of positions, and almost all our graduates are working as scientists.”

Clifford Chancey, director of the PSM program in applied physics at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, says that all 13 students who graduated from the program in the past 5 years found immediate employment, with starting salaries ranging from $50,000 to $70,000. Large companies like John Deere and Rockwell Collins hired about half of those students; most of the others took jobs at smaller companies in the region.

Clifford Chancey

Clifford Chancey

Courtesy of Clifford Chancey

Like other PSM program directors, Chancey attributes his students’ employment success to the mix of technical knowledge -- computational modeling, the use of LabVIEW (the industry-standard tool for bridging computer software with industrial equipment) -- and business skills. Chancey says students appreciate even the most basic professional skills the program teaches, such as how to greet a visitor. He measures his program’s success according to corporate partners’ interest in hiring his students -- and by that measure, he says, the program is an unqualified success. “This is the first year in which I cannot meet demand.”

National data: Suggestive, but not comprehensive

Fifteen years after the new degree's establishment, one could reasonably hope for good national data on job placements, career advancement, and salaries. Unfortunately, the data is piecemeal. “It's a challenge to collect comprehensive data,” says Nathan Bell, CGS’s director of research and policy analysis. In December 2010, CGS received a Sloan Foundation grant to study employment outcomes for PSM programs. Before that, data collection was the responsibility of the National Professional Science Master’s Association (NPSMA). When CGS took over, they discarded NPSMA’s survey methods and started over for reasons Bell declines to elaborate on. “We decided that we really wanted to start from scratch in terms of designing a methodologically sound outcomes survey,” Bell says.

Nathan Bell

Nathan Bell

CREDIT: Council of Graduate Schools

NPSMA’s 2009 survey, which targeted all PSM alumni but received just 281 responses, found that graduates were in high demand. The median current salary was $60,000 to $65,000 per year. (Respondents specified a range.) Almost 20% of respondents reported earning more than $90,000.

CGS’s 2011 outcomes survey included only graduates from that year. More than 1500 PSM degrees were awarded in 2010-11 -- but CGS’s first survey yielded just 223 usable responses. Of that group, 82% were employed at the time of the survey, most in full-time positions “somewhat related” or “closely related” to their degrees. Bell says he considers that encouraging, given the depressed job market and the fact that most of the students had just graduated when the survey was conducted.

The CGS survey found that the starting salaries of PSM graduates range widely. Just over half started at between $30,000 and $59,999 per year. Another 28% earned $60,000 to $89,999. A few earned more than $90,000, and 10% earned less than $30,000. More than two-thirds of PSM graduates who responded to the survey had been working before entering the program, so it’s likely that prior work experience influenced salaries.

<a href="//">"Outcomes for PSM Alumni 2010/11"</a>
CREDIT: Council of Graduate Schools

The CGS survey indicates that internships, which are required for all PSM programs, are an important part of the program. Of graduates who were employed -- excluding the large proportion of students who already had jobs when they entered their PSM program -- 39% said they got their job because of their internship experience.

Because the sample was so small, it isn't possible to determine how employment outcomes depend on factors such as field of study or location. And because the survey didn't include a comparison group, it isn't possible to gauge how PSM alumni fare compared with graduates of MBA or other professional programs -- or with graduates with Ph.D.s.

“This is our starting point,” Bell says. “I think next year we'll be able to say more about what this really means. But what we've heard anecdotally is that these graduates -- especially those in business -- really move up the employment ladder quickly, and their salaries reflect that. So I think over time, they have a very positive earning potential.”

A new twist on tracking outcomes

A major limitation of previous surveys is that PSM alumni can be hard to track down. As a result, sample sizes are small. When PSM consultant Sheila Tobias learned that CGS was limiting its 2011 outcomes survey to new graduates, she decided to try contacting graduates through social media networks.

Tobias was an early advocate for PSMs. Her current effort to attract more university system heads to the PSM network is funded by the Sloan Foundation, where she previously served as PSM outreach coordinator. She and collaborator Susan Richards, an assistant dean of finance and administration for the College of Education at the University of Arizona, set out to learn what proportion of PSM graduates are employed, where they're employed, and in what kinds of positions. Because they were most interested in how PSM programs launched students’ careers, they decided to exclude programs that predominantly attracted employed professionals. And because Tobias and Richards were focused on career outcomes beyond the first year after graduation, they excluded new programs from their analysis.

That left a target group of about 2400 alumni from 50 PSM programs at 20 institutions. Tobias and Richards obtained names and graduation dates from program directors and then trawled the Web for information about current employment. It took less than 5 minutes, Tobias says, to track down most PSM graduates using social networks, other Web resources, and the occasional marriage announcement whenever a graduate's name had changed. So far, they have identified current locations, employers, and job titles for 1840 PSM alumni -- close to 80% of their target group.

Tobias and Richards have just begun crunching their data but their preliminary analyses show that almost everyone in their sample is employed, half to two-thirds at private companies, and smaller numbers at non-profit organizations, in education, or in government. (Tobias suspects that graduates working in government may be underrepresented in her results, since people in these positions may be less likely to maintain online profiles.)

Tobias and Richards have just received institutional review board approval to do phone interviews with the graduates they’ve tracked down. “There’s so much more we’d like to know,” Tobias says. She wonders, for example, what their job responsibilities are, how their careers have progressed, whether they are heading up new projects, and what opportunities they have found for entrepreneurship.

“There is a tendency for students to buy into the line that if you don't get a Ph.D., you're not a serious professional, that you're wasting your mind,” she says. After spending a decade talking with PSM students and graduates, she is certain that’s not true. “There is so much potential for growth and satisfaction with a PSM degree. You can become a person you didn’t even know you wanted to be.”

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