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A 2004 USA Today article said that the professional science masters (PSM) degree promised to be the hot degree no one seems to have heard ofyet. Six years later, 96 institutions now offer recognized PSM programs and approximately 2,700 students have earned this degree.

by Richard Daub
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Still the Hottest Degree No One Has Ever Heard Of

It is commonly referred to as the “MBA for scientists.” A 2004 USA Today article said that the professional science master’s (PSM) degree promised “to be the hot degree no one seems to have heard of—yet.” At the time of that article, fewer than 400 students had earned a PSM and only 45 universities offered it.

Six years later, the Council of Graduate Schools indicates that 96 institutions now offer recognized PSM programs and that approximately 2,700 students have earned this degree, 530 of which are awarded annually. It has taken root at the university level as a program that gives students a rigorous scientific education while also preparing them for employment outside of the academic setting. Skills such as finance, budgeting, regulatory affairs, and communications are emphasized to enable the science student to adjust to the culture of the workplace.

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Yet, despite some early media hype and nearly a decade of acclaim from academia, the PSM remains mired in obscurity. Not one of the seven employees of nonacademic laboratories interviewed for this article had even heard of the PSM; however, after being given a nutshell description of what it is, most agreed that it sounded like a good idea and that a scientist with some formal business training may be a more valuable commodity than a PhD with no business training.

So why is this degree still so little known?

“I think it’s just a progression,” says Susan Lawton, PSM planning coordinator at the University of Massachusetts. “It started about ten years ago, and just getting students who graduated from the program out there and being successful is a process. Somebody related to me a while back about how the MBA started with a certain number of students and then it grew as more people went out there with those degrees.”

“I think that there needs to be more awareness of the degree and the stature that it brings with it because it is an end degree and not just a step to a PhD program,” says Donna Wolk, an associate professor at the University of Arizona and a member of the PSM advisory board there. “It is a terminal degree in that, like an MBA, you should be able to take that degree all the way up to CEO [level] if that’s your goal. Most scientists are trained with little to no business management or employee communications, strategic planning, financial planning, but for them to advance in their careers from bench-level science, they need to understand budgets and interpersonal communication and planning. Many of the lab managers in academia don’t have that background, so they’re thwarted in their efforts to advance.”

Carol Lynch, director of the PSM Initiative at the Council of Graduate Schools, says that with the exception of a few professional degrees such as the MBA, the Master of Public Administration or the Master of Public Health, little thought was put into the function of a general master’s degree beyond its being an intermediate step toward a PhD. This seemed especially true in the realm of science.

“It was something that, well, if you’re going to get a PhD, maybe you might want to do this first, or if your grade point wasn’t that good, take another two years to get a master’s and then you’ll look better,” she says. “When you talk to employers, many of them say that they want people with advanced training and a master’s is fine, but they also want these other skills that it takes to succeed in business. So the Sloan Foundation [which funded the original grants for the PSM initiative] picked up on this and felt that there was a real need for this intermediate-level degree.”

Despite its weak brand name, the PSM is designed to help develop skills that employers find valuable. Therefore, even an employer who has never heard of a PSM can easily recognize that PSM graduates have skills listed on their résumés that many science students typically don’t have.

This was the experience of Bill Becker, one of the earlier recipients of the degree, who enrolled in the PSM program at Oregon State University in 2004 and received his degree in 2006. Bill is presently an air monitoring technician at the State of Oregon Department of Environmental Quality Lab and also teaches part time at Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham, Oregon. He hadn’t heard of the PSM program either, but he was intrigued by the aspect of a non-thesis/internship-based master’s degree in science.

“I wanted to do a wider range of coursework than almost every master’s or doctoral student who I encountered,” he says. “They always say, ‘Oh, I wish I could take that, I wish I could take that.’ Well, I took all the courses in the botany department, and because I didn’t have the time constraints that a lot of the thesis students had, it turned out to be a good choice for me. I got to go a fair ways down a number of roads, whereas a person who is stuck in a thesis pretty much goes all the way down one road.”

Instead of being holed up in a laboratory working on a thesis, Bill worked as an intern for the U.S. Forest Service, an experience he credits as helping him land his teaching job.

“When I described my internship experience, that pretty much sold me as a potential teacher on their staff,” he says about his job interview at Mt. Hood CC. Additionally, the communications courses he took as part of the PSM program—classes he likely would not have taken in a traditional science-based master’s or doctoral program—helped him develop his teaching skills.

“I pretty much had been strictly a scientist up until this time,” he says. “We focused a lot on public speaking skills and abilities in that area. I hadn’t had a lot of experience in that realm before and it made me a lot more comfortable in a teaching situation. Basically, everything I’m doing now is as a result of the time I spent there either directly or indirectly.”

One concern that PSM administrators have, however, is that the program could be perceived as some sort of science/ business hybrid that leaves students short on the science side. This perception is one possible reason that a science student unfamiliar with the program may shy away from it.

“We’re not compromising on the science,” Lawton says. “It’s a rigorous science education, but we also offer business fundamentals. We designed our programs based on input from industry, and they’re looking for students to have not only the core science training, but also other skills to help them step into the work environment and contribute.”

Communications is one of the vital components of the PSM “Plus Piece.” No matter the industry, job descriptions always seem to call for good communication skills, and skills such as these are not typically a natural strength of scientists. So, while it may not be as important for a bench-level lab technician to understand the finances of the company, communication skills will almost always prove useful in the workplace.

“At some point in somebody’s career, they’re going to have to present what they’re working on to others,” Lawton says. “For example, if you’re working on something in research but you’re going to be presenting it to the financial people or the marketing people, you need to be able to communicate both written and orally. Our communications courses are set up to allow the students to be able to present the science to nonscientists and to interact with all the different functions within the organization.”

Lisa Race is the lab manager for Oilfield Environmental and Compliance (OEC) in Santa Maria, California. She had never heard of the PSM degree, but based on what OEC looks for in a job candidate, she says a PSM graduate may be a better fit than someone with a PhD.

“The doctoral degree focuses more on theories and research,” she says. “In our field, it’s not so much research as the practical application and knowledge of what the analyses mean as far as the sample and how the sample is going to be handled by the public.”

The most important thing OEC looks for in a prospective employee, she says, is how well the candidate does in what they call “the sit,” which takes place when the group sits with the interviewee for a discussion to try and gauge how well he or she will fit in.

“We have a pretty varied group here,” she says. “We have people who have degrees; we have people who don’t have degrees. It’s quite a multicultural laboratory, so it is someone who can fit into that and work well. It has to be someone who can really work well with a team.”

“The sit” is exactly the kind of thing that the PSM is designed to help graduates prepare for and an aspect of the program that is attractive to what is sometimes referred to as the “PSM personality.”

“They are much more open-minded and sort of forward thinking in many ways and have an understanding of the interdisciplinary aspects,” says Wolk. “I think there is sort of a management mind-set in these kids before they even get here, or else they wouldn’t choose the PSM, they would go straight science.”

“They’re not your typical science geeks,” says Lynch. “The students who are interested in these programs tend to be really outgoing and gregarious. They’re kids who like science, so if they identify as geeks, they do so proudly. They like working in teams, they like the cross-working between the science and the marketers, and they’re really interesting people.”

While expertise in one specific area may be attractive to a large corporation that can hire a large team of scientists who perform only specific tasks, smaller companies, particularly start-up biotech firms, may like the idea of a single employee who can perform a diverse set of tasks.

“PSM graduates are ideal for the smaller companies because they can do a lot of different things,” Lynch says. “They know the technology, so they can talk to the scientists who founded the company and are actually in the R&D product development area, but they also understand finance and marketing and how to take a product to market, and they also get out and talk to the salespeople and develop marketing strategies.”

Paul Todd is chief scientist at Techshot in Greenville, Indiana. Techshot is a firm that custom designs software for complex engineering projects and hires what it describes as “some of the finest, widest-ranging, most innovative minds in the country.” Dr. Todd was the only one of the seven employees of nonacademic laboratories interviewed for this article who flat out said that he would prefer to hire the PhD over the PSM, but he acknowledged that such a choice comes with a price. He also conceded that other factors besides the degree type would be considered.

“If we could afford it, definitely the PhD,” he says. “This is because this individual has typically been through a thesis process and understands the significance of peer review of his or her work and is quite likely to have learned a certain level of dedication in the form of the work ethic that involves more than 40 hours a week to complete a thesis. That being said, we also have to balance individual issues like will this personality fit the company? Will the individual’s skills prove adequate to the tasks expected of the open position?”

This is where the PSM can make up some ground, even in the eyes of someone who has a doctorate and had never heard of the PSM degree. Besides having a willingness to accept a lower salary than a PhD would likely command, the PSM graduate would be trained in practical business skills, while the PhD probably would not. Even if the job is technical and/or purely scientific, the business skills may give the PSM perspective that may affect how he or she approaches the job.

“We like to have our workers understand that they have something at stake, because if a project is successful, the company thrives,” Dr. Todd says. “If the project is unsuccessful, that creates problems for the future of the company.”

This understanding that the job is not just about test results, but how these results impact the company and how the success of the company affects the lives of all the employees and their families, is probably the most abstract and least scientific concept that one needs to understand about having a job. This understanding is especially important in a weak economy. It is not a skill, nor is it something that can be effectively taught without having actually experienced it. Perhaps the true benefit of the PSM, the PhD or any other type of degree cannot be measured statistically but through whether or not it has the ability to allow the student to experience the process that leads to this understanding. If the PSM can do this, its value to the degree holder will surely overcome its obscurity.