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The Professional Science Master's Degree as a grand experiment (Pt. 1)

Earlier this month I spoke at the annual meeting of NPSMA—the National Professional Science Masters Association—in Denver. According to NPSMA, the PSM is "a two-year graduate degree designed to fill a management need for technology-based companies, governmental agencies, and non-profit organizations. Students pursue advanced training in science, while simultaneously developing valued business skills... with coursework in management, policy, or law. Professional Science Master's programs emphasize writing and communication skills, and many include project management.  Most PSM programs require a final project or team experience, as well as an internship in a business or public sector enterprise."

PSM programs have grown nationally (and even in the UK and Australia) to almost 300 in over 120 institutions of higher education.  They represent a grand experiment that has taken root. 

The degree has much to offer science baccalaureate graduates who seek a science-based career in something other than research. As PSM enters its second generation, it has grown and diversified not just for the students who will enter a technological workforce well-equipped for a "knowledge economy," but moreover, for the institutions of higher education that must embrace the PSM model. 

The PSM is the right degree at the right time because it:

1. is a flexible addition to the suite of graduate degree offerings, as the Sloan Foundation originally intended.  PSM does not replace or displace, but enriches both the public and private sectors of the S&T workforce.

2. is demand-driven, sensitive to market, i.e., overwhelmingly nonacademic, needs. In contrast, PhD production is supply-driven, unleashing fresh talent narrowly trained and research-oriented to entertain few options.

3. is not only economically self-sufficient, but by aligning its program content with employer requirements, a potential revenue generator for the university.

4. recognizes the diversity of career paths that a baccalaureate recipient in science can pursue, better matching skills and aspirations to opportunities. 

5. is policy-ready and multidisciplinary at its core. The scope of PSM is bound only by the ingenuity of the faculty, PSM advisory committees, and university administration. 

6. is adaptable to various kinds of settings in higher education—research universities, state systems, comprehensive institutions serving specialized local and regional business and industry.

Yet PSM defies the reward system of universities, which favors individual published scholarship over human resource development and teamwork.

Arguably, the historically tried-and-true degrees—baccalaureate and doctorate— and the pathway that links them as entry credentials into the technical (science and technology, or S&T) workforce are suffering market indignities. As far as I can tell, to complete a BS degree today, one must incur a not-inconsiderable debt created by student loans and job prospects that are slim and, furthermore, smack of underutilization, i.e., demanding skills that often insult the competencies and capabilities of the degree-holder.

Likewise, the new Ph.D. recipient in most science-based fields faces a marketplace of indifference. No longer does the doctorate suffice as entry credential to a faculty or corporate research position.  The tenure track can now accommodate no more than one in three postdocs. Thus the ranks of those with a postdoctoral position continue to swell, and this temporary status can grow to a decade in length. Clearly, PhDs feed a federally-funded research system that rewards tenured professors, but precludes the access of new doctorates to faculty positions. 

The alternatives to these besieged degrees are the Associate and Masters degrees. Two-year college graduates are now in demand and beginning to narrow the wage gap with graduates of four-year colleges.  And within the post-baccalaureate envelope, the PSM graduate (with a combination of research, laboratory, business, communication, and other skills) seems to appeal to an industrial market seeking what I call a new "hybrid" professional that academics label "interdisciplinary." 

What PSM has achieved is something that transcends boundaries and labels, shifts the focus from degree alone to the skill set, from a single career path to a more variegated future, from inherent constraint to boundless possibility.  That will be examined in Part 2.

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