Promoting Professional Science Master's Degrees

WASHINGTON -- Graduate school officials from around the country are convening on Capitol Hill this week, urging Congress to fund the development of more professional science master’s degree programs.

November 6, 2009

WASHINGTON -- Graduate school officials from around the country are convening on Capitol Hill this week, urging Congress to fund the development of more professional science master’s degree programs.

The PSM is a relatively new graduate degree, just over a decade old, designed to provide students with advanced training in the sciences without a Ph.D. and pertinent business skills without an M.B.A. These programs also emphasize written and verbal skills in which employers say they find traditional science students deficient. Some examples of fields in which programs are emerging include bioinformatics, computational chemistry, environmental science and industrial mathematics. Currently, there are 171 professional science master's programs at 71 institutions around the country.

These interdisciplinary degrees are the focus of a biennial meeting of PSM administrators hosted this week by the Council of Graduate Schools. Presenting the recession as a “call to action,” the scholars speaking on the state of this young degree all believe it is key to the country’s economic recovery and hold that if it is marketed as an alternative to the Ph.D. track, more students will eventually fill high-demand science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) jobs.

“We’re encouraging everyone who has a PSM at their institution to talk to their [Congressional] representative,” said Carol Lynch, director of professional master’s programs at the graduate school council. “In a sense, this is a true grass roots effort.”

In 2007, as part of the America COMPETES Act, Congress authorized the National Science Foundation to provide grants to four-year institutions to establish new or expand existing PSM programs. The NSF, however, was not funded for such a grant program until February’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which provided $15 million for distribution. These stimulus funds must be spent during the 2010 fiscal year. Currently, the NSF is soliciting program proposals.

Still, PSM supporters argue that this one-time funding is not enough.

“The current $15 million NSF program will only allow them to make 21 awards,” Lynch said. “When you think of the growth of PSMs -- we’ve added nearly 50 programs in about five years -- that money isn’t going to go very far.… We’d like to see other government agencies provide seed funding to drive the development of the programs, because they obviously have their own specific interests in them.”

So far, the Department of Energy has expressed interest in supporting the development of more PSM programs. Bill Valdez, director of the department’s Office for Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists, told graduate school officials at the meeting Thursday that his department has great interest in hiring PSM graduates, particularly for those studying green technologies.

“The PSM might bridge the translational divide between the traditional disciplines we support and the emerging green jobs we need,” said Valdez, leaving the possibility open for potential funding from the department in the future.

Still, most of the lobbying efforts of PSM supporters are directed toward Congress, pushing it to make a continuing commitment to the proliferation of their degrees when it renews the America COMPETES Act next year.

“The professional science master’s programs are vital to keeping our nation on the path toward long-term growth,” said Rep. David Wu, an Oregon Democrat. “I’m concerned that we didn’t see the administration ask for additional COMPETES funds in this budget. We need more PSM programs, and I believe they’re an important contribution to STEM education.… I’ll continue to be a big supporter of PSM initiatives as we consider the 2011 budget and go forward with the America COMPETES reauthorization.”

PSM advocates say that the current success of their degree programs in placing graduates in STEM fields, even in the midst of a recession, should persuade state and local leaders to embrace them in the way that some business and academic leaders already have. Of the nearly 2,700 graduates with PSM degrees, 60 percent of them have jobs in the field in which they trained.

“One of the claims we’re going to have to make to our state legislature -- as we try convince them that we’re worth funding -- is that we know the demand of our industry sectors, we know the highly skilled graduates that we are providing to the sector and what percentage of that gap [we] can close,” said Nancy Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York system. “I can’t think of a better way to make the case than through the graduates, the yield of our PSM programs.”

Though most PSM advocates at Thursday’s meeting talked about how they would like to see more funding for their programs, others acknowledged the growing pains their programs have seen and will see in the years to come, telling colleagues that there is still work to be done before the PSM gains common currency in higher education.

“Distinguishing the PSM on my campus from other professionalized master’s degrees in the sciences has proven a challenge,” said Cornelius Kerwin, president of American University. “What kind of degree this is going to be requires some more definition and some more clarity.… In all my years in this work, I really don’t know of any new degree that has experienced the kind of growth that this one has. Nevertheless, there needs to be some consciousness about what it is you are educating people for. Are they managers who need some depth in science, or are they scientists who need some hand in management?”

The definitional issue identified by Kerwin is one that is still playing out as new PSM programs are being developed. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which funds the graduate school council's PSM program, owns the copyright to the term “professional science master’s.” The CGS, then, determines whether a university degree programs meets its standards enough to use the name.

“We feel strongly that this is management for science,” Lynch said. “This has been our biggest challenge, actually, defining this. The majority of these programs must be graduate level science, and students can’t go into these programs without an undergraduate science major. We’ve had to turn down a couple of programs recently because they were more targeted on the business side.”

Labeling issues aside, many PSM supporters made it clear that others in academe were watching the proliferation of their degree programs with great interest.

“There exists a growing recognition in other master’s degree programs that the PSM represents potential competition,” Kerwin said. “The reaction of those master’s degree programs to the PSM will be very interesting to watch and observe over time.”

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