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Frequently Asked Questions

Note: The following discussions pertain to graduate schools in the U.S. Comments are invited from knowledgeable persons regarding the situation in graduate education in other countries.

Q. What does the Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (SEPP) field encompass, and why is it important?

A. SEPP is understood to include a variety of interdisciplinary academic fields which are known by such names as Science Policy; Technology Policy; Science and Technology Policy; Science, Technology, and Public Policy; Engineering and Public Policy; and other similar labels. In addition, many programs in Science and Technology Studies (STS) include a policy component, and some programs in public policy administration provide for a science and technology concentration.

In general, SEPP programs use social science methods and perspectives to study and analyze the activities of scientific and technological sectors of society. These may include academic, industrial or government-sponsored activities in fields from physics to health care to civil engineering. Social science methods of analysis may be drawn from the disciplines of economics, sociology, political science, or history, and their derivative schools of policy analysis. Generally, SEPP fields are concerned with understanding the social processes of research, development and innovation as they are managed, regulated, or supported by societies and their institutions.

The SEPP fields are important because their object of study is important to social welfare and economic growth. Research, development and innovation have become the hallmarks of advanced societies. The impacts of science and engineering extend far beyond the laboratory bench. Thus scientific and engineering professionals who are concerned with the interactions of their technical fields with the larger society have a vital concern with the topics of SEPP, and many scientific organizations employ SEPP professionals to represent their constituents. Moreover, there are many fields of public policy, from defense to commerce to education, where science and technology issues are of critical importance. Education in SEPP fields provides a valuable competence to policy makers and analysts in these fields as well.

Q. Is graduate education in SEPP for me? What kinds of careers does a SEPP graduate degree lead to?

A. Of course, only you can decide if graduate education in SEPP is best for you, but the following information should help you reach that decision.

The core science and technology policy career field is a relatively small one, centered on Washington, D.C. These analysts and decision makers work for government agencies, organizations of scientists and engineers, advocacy groups, think tanks, and other organizations concerned with aspects of national science and technology policy. In general, this includes both organizations concerned with policies about scientific and technological activities and also organizations concerned with the impact of scientific or technological knowledge on their field of interest.

Because the educational field of SEPP is a relatively new one, many persons filling science policy jobs earned their degrees in some other field, often a technical or managerial degree, or a general degree in public policy. As these jobs become available through promotion or retirement and as new jobs are created, there is likely to be a steady increase in opportunities for new SEPP graduates.

In addition to the core career jobs, however, there are a large number of professional positions in our society for which an advanced degree in SEPP can be an asset. Among these are certain managerial and executive positions in science and technology-oriented businesses which are concerned with government support of R&D, with government regulation which is based on scientific or technological knowledge, or with the provision of high technology products to government clients. Military officers in a variety of specialties can benefit from a SEPP degree. Numerous other professions, such as science reporting, environmental advocacy, and library science, to name a few, can benefit from the preparation provided by an SEPP degree.

In discussing careers, it is necessary to distinguish between the utility and value of a masters’ degree and the Ph.D. The M.A., M.S. or M.P.A. degree is an excellent entry level degree for employment in a core SEPP field. It is also common for technical professionals to undertake a mid-career degree in a SEPP field as they seek advancement into positions involving strategic planning or representing the firm or organization in a broader social context. The Ph.D. is prerequisite for a career in higher education. A Ph.D. in a SEPP field can support an academic career in STS, public policy, engineering education, history or political science. Many academic holders of SEPP doctorates have significant consultancies with government agencies. The top jobs in the core field outside of academia are also generally filled by people holding a Ph.D., who must represent doctoral-level scientists, manage a variety of intellectual assets, or provide policy guidance at the highest levels of government.

Q. What kind of undergraduate background do I need for SEPP graduate school?

A. Different programs have different admissions requirements, but in general SEPP applicants fall into two groups. One group brings a bachelor’s degree (or higher) in a scientific or technical discipline. These prospective students have typically decided for one reason or another to pursue a career beyond the laboratory bench, the field, or the clinic. The second group brings an undergraduate degree in one of the social sciences, history, or an interdisciplinary field related to issues of science and technology in society. Some students, whose interests lie in such fields as science journalism or technical communications, enter SEPP programs with a degree in fields such as English, journalism or communications. A few come from entirely different backgrounds such as music, foreign languages or the fine arts.

In general, students should have an interest in one or more scientific or technical fields. They should have at least enough technical knowledge to be able to read and analyze scientific publications in their field of interest, and to understand the issues of current interest to the scientific community. Candidates for SEPP graduate study should be able to write analytically and to communicate their work to a variety of technical, lay, and managerial audiences.

Different SEPP programs have different emphases. It is probably fair to say that a prospective student from any academic background can find a SEPP program to fit his or her needs, but that some programs will not provide a good match to their individual background and interests. For example, some programs emphasize economic analysis and require a sound preparation in economics, while others do not include economic analyses as an important part of the program. Students should carefully compare the programs at different schools and even visit the school for personal discussions with students and faculty members before deciding where to apply.

Q. Do I need work experience before beginning SEPP graduate school?

A. No, although you might find such experience to be desirable. Many students come to SEPP programs in mid-career, subsequent to work as a technical professional, but most of these students are making a career shift, or seeking promotion to a higher level within their organization. If you know early-on that you wish to pursue a career in science and technology policy, it is reasonable to proceed with your education. In many ways, the masters’ degree has become the entry level professional degree, a condition which applies to most SEPP fields.

Students should be aware that a variety of internships — paid and unpaid — exist in the field of science and technology policy. Summer internships with an organization such as AAAS can provide a way for students to get valuable job experience without interrupting their educational progress.

It is also possible to continue your education in an SEPP field while working in the science policy field. Several universities in the Washington, D.C., area, for example, offer programs which may be taken on a part-time basis.

Q. What are the differences between social science-based (SSB) and engineering-based (EB) programs?

A.Although the boundary between these categories is a fuzzy one, in general, social science based programs emphasize analytical and methods and theory borrowed from the social sciences, whereas engineering based programs emphasize analytical methods based on systems approaches. Social science based programs may emphasize economics, political science, or sociological methods of research. And seek to explore foundational questions about the institutional characteristics of science and technology. Engineering-based programs may emphasize operations analysis, decision analysis, and other, often highly quantitative methodologies.

In general, the distinction between SSB and EB programs is a matter of emphasis rather than exclusion. Some programs are emphatically interdisciplinary. Often, a good idea of the methodological commitments of a program can be gained by examining the required or core curriculum for the degree.

Q. What are the differences between STP departments / programs, STS departments / programs, and public policy/public administration schools? How do these programs’ curricula and degrees differ?

A. There are no categorical or universal distinctions among these types of programs. The difference in name may or may not reflect a difference in substance. Nonetheless, some generalizations may be made.

Science and Technology Studies (STS) represents the liberal arts approach to the study of science in society. STS is generally understood to be an interdisciplinary field incorporating philosophy, history, sociology and the other social sciences as applied to the study of science and technology in society. STS programs typically embrace policy studies as the “applied” part of the field, which is concerned with developing theoretical frameworks for understanding the historical role of science and technology. Science and technology fields are studied both as knowledge systems and as institutional systems which interact with all of the other elements of society. Most STS programs offer the M.S. or M.A. as the first graduate degree.

Most public policy / public administration programs grow out of the tradition of education for public service. They typically award the M.P.A. as the first graduate degree. These programs emphasize a curriculum of public management, policy analysis and program administration. Often, science and technology policy is one option among several, that is to say, it is an area of concentration within the field.

Programs and departments which are labeled as Science and Technology Policy may represent one of the two models described above, or they may represent some other interdisciplinary combination. Engineering and Public Policy programs are typically engineering-based programs which emphasize the intersection of technical and political issues of technological innovation.

Q. What other things should I be looking for in an SEPP graduate program?

A. If you are considering applying to a master’s degree program, here are a few questions you might want to ask:

  • How many semester hours are required for the degree? On average, how long do students take to complete it?
  • Are both a thesis and a non-thesis option available? If both options are available, what does the program recommend?
  • Does the program offer opportunities for internships that might provide job-related experience in the SEPP field?
  • What percentage of graduates go on for a doctorate? Where do they go? With what success?
  • What jobs have recent graduates taken?

If it’s a Ph.D. you’re interested in, here are some other questions:

  • Are there one or more faculty members whose research interests in some way parallel my own, and who are looking for dissertation students?
  • What is the average time required to complete the program?
  • How much of my prior graduate work can be transferred in and count toward the degree?
  • What is the rate of completion of the degree of students entering the program? Of those admitted to candidacy (ABD)?
  • Where have recent graduates been employed?

For both master’s degree and Ph.D. programs:

  • Is the program associated with a particular political or philosophical perspective? What is the scope for diversity in perspective or approach?
  • What is the availability of interdisciplinary course work and research?
  • What is the availability of technical course work in the fields of my interest or concentration?
  • How much flexibility is there to tailor graduate study to my particular interests and objectives?
  • How do faculty members and students interrelate?
  • What is the institutional status of the program? Does it have a secure position within the university structure?
  • Where is the program located? There are certain advantages in the SEPP field to a Washington, D.C.-area location in terms of exposure to science policy in action. There are other advantages to location in a major technical university, an urban center, or a more rural, pastoral setting, depending on your preferences and needs.