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The Professional Science Master's Degree: 2nd generation outcomes and challenges (Pt. 2)

From all indications, based mainly on Council of Graduate Schools survey data--on applications, enrollments, and degrees earned—Professional Science Master (PSM) Degrees are thriving. But I see several challenges that the advocates and leaders of PSM programs must recognize and confront.

From its inception, my hope for PSM was that it would not replicate the race and gender biases of doctoral science education. Indeed, my vision touted the appeal of the degree and the doors it opens through the foresight of its employer-laden advisory committees and faculty who cherish what they do for their students today—instead of their personal legacies tomorrow. Alas, this is not quite the case.

While I see approaching gender parity among PSM enrollees and graduates, there is far less participation by students of color (though slightly more than what one observes at the baccalaureate level). US minorities and international students are comparably represented at about 20% in PSM graduate numbers. I envisioned more minority enrollees and graduates. 

As for fields, bio (fill-in-the-blank) is still favored with computational and environmental sciences just behind. On the horizon, I would expect a growth in health-focused programs such as "health informatics" and in "data science" programs. ("Big data" are datasets so large that they break traditional IT structures. Industry begs for the training of "data scientists" who are quantitative critical thinkers with a background in science, not business.) 

Which brings us to institutions ... Institutionally, PSM is still a matter of "onesies" mostly at research universities. I am struck by the universities with double-digit PSM programs—Rutgers, UMass-Lowell, and NC State. And the growth in "system"-wide programs heralds a kind of multi-campus cooperation and collaboration that better serves students in their educational transitions. I favor these "one-stop shopping" approaches.

And how about PSM alumni? PSM degree recipients seem satisfied with the distinctive nature of their training. Internships and real-world experiences make a difference! Alumni are concentrated in the private sector, which was the principal idea, but I'd like to see more PSMs pursue public policy.

After all, the jobs to which graduates are recruited all require skills in organizational behavior. This is the "value-added" by the PSM degree. However, the brand will only be enhanced if PSMs can write, talk, and reason about policy and organizations in intelligible ways. That's what employers want. Some reconsideration of what constitutes a PSM curriculum may be in order.

Finally, are more universities prepared to change and embrace the PSM? Not fast enough from my vantage. Just look at their responses to changing student demographics. College outcomes shape the composition of graduates who face options: graduate study—and the multiple choices therein—v. immediate workforce entry. Minorities are the most under-recruited, under-enrolled, and under-graduated segment of the student population.

PSM has a competitive advantage here. It can offer a baccalaureate science graduate a position in science without the uncertainties of what a PhD can promise. Yet too many students don't know that? Two-year college students in particular who transfer to a four-year institution—currently one in five—should see PSM as a postsecondary alternative pathway to a "science plus" job? Recruitment does not begin when students decide to apply to graduate school; it begins before, when they matriculate in college, if not earlier.

My point is this: PSM should become a magnet for undergraduate science majors who are not bent on seeking a doctorate or a career immersed in research. But they must be informed. Outreach is essential. Vigilance about outcomes is critical. And as PSM programs intervene in conventional graduate education, data must be collected and disseminated. 

Program interns and alumni are the chief outcome and best PSM advertisement—an attractive alternative that reflects the diversity of this nation. 

PSM programs illustrate what universities are doing well for their student clientele.

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