Perspectives: A New Science Degree to Meet Industry Needs

Perspectives: A New Science Degree to Meet Industry Needs

MICHAEL S. TEITELBAUM

A New Science Degree to Meet Industry Needs

All of us are aware of urgent calls for new and energetic measures to enhance U.S. economic competitiveness by attracting more U.S. students to study science, mathematics, and engineering. In the case of scientists, one reason for the lack of science-trained talent prepared to work in industry (and some government positions) is that the nation does not have a graduate education path designed to meet industry’s needs. A college graduate with an interest in science has only one option: a Ph.D. program, probably followed by a postdoctoral appointment or two, designed to prepare someone over the course of about a decade for a university faculty position. If the need for scientists to contribute to the nation’s competitiveness is real, the nation’s universities should be offering programs that will prepare students in a reasonable amount of time for jobs that will be beneficial to industry. What is needed is a professional master’s degree.

The demand for more science-trained workers appears to be real. In 2005, 15 prominent business associations led by the Business Roundtable called for whatever measures are necessary to achieve no less than a 100% increase in the number of U.S. graduates in these fields within a decade. In 2006, a panel of senior corporate executives, educators, and scientists appointed by the National Academies called for major national investments in K-12 science and mathematics, in the education of science and math teachers, and in basic research funding to address what it saw as waning U.S. leadership in science and technology. This National Academies report was endorsed by leading education associations and served as a basis for several legislative proposals (such as the Bush administration’s American Competitiveness Initiative) now moving through the Congress. Supportive articles and editorials have dominated journalistic coverage of these arguments.

Few would contest the general proposition that it would be highly desirable for the nation to encourage more of its students to become knowledgeable about science, mathematics, and technology—at all levels of education, from K12 through graduate school. The current century, like the past half-century, is one in which all citizens, no matter their level of education, need to possess considerable understanding of science and technology and to be numerate as well as literate. Indeed, it would be reasonable to argue that such knowledge is now close to essential if young Americans are to become knowledgeable citizens who are able to understand major world and national issues such as climate change and biotechnology that are driven by science and technology, even if their own careers and other activities do not require such knowledge. Efforts to improve math and science teaching at the K-12 and university levels make a great deal of sense.

So too do calls for substantial federal support for basic scientific research. Such research is a public good that can produce benefits for all, yet it is unlikely to be adequately supported by private industry because its economic value is so difficult for them to capture. Moreover, there is considerable truth in the various reports’ claims that support for basic research in the physical sciences and mathematics has lagged well behind the dramatic increases provided for biomedical research.

The key question, though, is not whether the goals are appropriate but whether some of the approaches being widely advocated are the best responses to claimed “needs” for scientists and engineers with the capabilities needed to maintain the competitiveness of the U.S. economy. Improving the quality of U.S. K-12 education in science and math is indeed a valuable mission. But if the proximate goal is to provide increased numbers of graduate-level scientists of the kinds that nonacademic employers say they want to hire, a focus on K-12 is necessarily a very indirect, uncertain, and slow response.

Increased federal funding for basic research also is a worthwhile contribution to the public good, but its effects on graduate science education would be primarily to increase the number of funded slots at research universities for Ph.D. students and postdocs who aspire to academic research careers. Extensive discussions with nonacademic employers of scientists indicate that they do wish to recruit some Ph.D.-level scientists (more in some industries, fewer in others), but also that they value the master’s level far more highly than do most U.S. research universities.

In addition to strong graduate-level science skills that a strong master’s education can deliver, employers express strong preferences for new science hires with

  • broad understanding of relevant disciplines at the graduate level and sufficient flexibility in their research interests to move smoothly from one research project to another as business opportunities emerge
  • capabilities and experience in the kind of interdisciplinary teamwork that prevails in corporate R&D
  • skills in computational approaches
  • skills in project management that maximize prospects for on-time completion
  • the ability to communicate the importance of research projects to nonspecialist corporate managers
  • the basic business skills needed to function in a large business enterprise

In light of employers’ stated needs, there appears to be a yawning gap in the education menu. U.S. higher education in science, often proudly claimed as the world leader in quality, is strong at the undergraduate and doctoral levels yet notably weak at the master’s level.

No one planned it this way. The structure of the modern research university is a reasonable response to the environment created by the explosive growth of federal research in the decades after World War II. But that period of growth is over, the needs of industry have evolved and become more important, and now the nation faces a gap that has significant negative implications for the U.S. science workforce outside of academe. That gap can be filled with the creation of a professional science master’s (PSM) degree designed to meet the needs of today and of the foreseeable future.

For at least the past half-century, even outstanding bachelor’s level graduates from strong undergraduate science programs have been deemed insufficiently educated to enter into science careers other than as lowly “technicians.” Over this period, rapid increases in federal support for Ph.D. students (especially as research assistants financed under federally supported research grants) propelled the Ph.D. to become first the gold standard and then the sine qua non for entering a science career path. More recently, and especially in large fields such as the biomedical sciences, even the Ph.D. itself has come to be seen as insufficient for career entry. Instead, a postdoc of indeterminate length, also funded via federal research grants, is now seen as essential by academic employers of science Ph.D.s.

Over the same period, the average number of years spent in pursuit of the Ph.D. lengthened in many scientific fields. More recently, the number of years spent in postdoc positions has also increased. The result has been a substantial extension of the number of years spent by prospective young scientists as graduate students and postdocs. Postgraduate training is now much longer for scientists than for other professionals such as physicians, lawyers, and business managers.

The lengthening of time to Ph.D. and time in postdoc coincided with deteriorating early career prospects for young scientists. Indeed, many believe that the insufficiency of entry-level career positions for recent Ph.D.s was itself an important cause of the lengthening time to Ph.D. and lengthening postdoc periods. As Ph.D.-plus-postdoc education became longer and career prospects for those pursuing them more uncertain, the relative attractiveness of the Ph.D. path in science waned for many U.S. students, even those who had demonstrated high levels of achievement as undergraduate science majors.

COMPETITIVENESS HAWKS WANT TO EXPAND THE SCIENTIFIC WORKFORCE. PROGRAMS TO TRAIN MORE PEOPLE WITH PROFESSIONAL SCIENCE MASTER’S DEGREES COULD HELP.

Yet there was this odd gap. Had the same talented students chosen to pursue undergraduate degrees in engineering, they would have had the option of pursing one of the high-quality engineering master’s degrees that are highly regarded by major engineering employers. But there was no such alternative graduate education path for those who would have liked to pursue similar career paths in science.

Estimates by the National Science Board suggest that surprisingly small proportions (well under one-fifth) of undergraduate majors in science continue on to any graduate education in science. This low level of transition to graduate education has prevailed during the same period that numerous reports have been sounding alarms about the insufficiency of supply of U.S.-trained scientists.

What has happened in the sciences, though not in engineering, is that as heavy research funding has made the Ph.D. the gold standard, the previously respectable master’s level of graduate education had atrophied. Indeed, many graduate science departments have come to see the master’s as a mere steppingstone to the Ph.D. or as a low-prestige consolation prize for graduate students who decide not to complete the Ph.D. At least some members of graduate science faculties came to look down their collective noses at the master’s level, and some graduate science departments simply eliminated the master’s degree entirely from their offerings.

The PSM degree, a rather newly configured graduate science degree that has been supported by numerous U.S. universities with financial support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Keck Foundation, was designed to meet strongly expressed desires of nonacademic science employers for entry-level scientists with strong graduate education in relevant scientific domains, plus the knowledge they would need to be effective professionals in nonacademic organizations. In only a few years, the number of PSM degrees has grown from essentially 0 to over 100 (and at over 50 different campuses in some 20 states). They are by no means clones of one another, but they do generally share many core characteristics.

They are two-year graduate degrees, generally requiring 36 graduate credits for completion. The credits are course-intensive, with the science and math courses at the graduate level. In addition, many PSM degrees offer cross-disciplinary courses (such as bioinformatics, financial mathematics, industrial mathematics, biotechnology, and environmental decisionmaking). Most PSM curricula include research projects rather than theses; some of the projects are individual, some are team-based. Courses in business and management are also common. Depending on the focus of the PSM degree, there may also be courses offered in patent law, regulation, finance, or policy issues. Finally, many PSM programs provide instruction in other skills important for nonacademic employment, such as communication, teamwork, leadership, and entrepreneurship.

One of the most important elements of nearly all PSM degrees is an internship with an appropriate science employer; most of these take place during the summer between the first and second year. These offer PSM students the chance to see for themselves what a career in nonacademic science might be like, and they likewise afford employers the opportunity to assess the potential of their PSM interns as future career hires.

Many industry and government scientists have been enthusiastic supporters of emerging PSM degree programs in fields relevant to their own activities. They serve as active advisors to PSM faculty, offering guidance on the science and nonscience curricular elements. Over 100 employers have offered PSM students paid internships, and many have mentored them in other ways. Employers also often provide tuition reimbursement to their own employees who wish to enhance their own scientific skills by undertaking a PSM degree while still employed full-time. Employers also often serve as champions for the PSM initiatives with university administrators and state and local officials.

Perhaps most important, employers have been offering attractive entry-level science career paths to PSM graduates. Data are incomplete, but since 2002 we know that at least 100 businesses have hired PSM graduates, with good starting salaries by the standard prevailing for scientists: generally in the $55,000 to $62,000 range. In addition, over 25 government agencies have hired PSM graduates, starting them at $45,000 to $55,000. Hiring employers indicate that they value PSM graduates’ scientific sophistication, but also their preparation to convey technical information in a way that is comprehensible to nontechnical audiences and more generally to work effectively with professionals in other fields such as marketing, business development, legal and regulatory affairs, and public policy.

Meanwhile, faculty involved in PSM programs have found the students to be highly motivated additions to their graduate student numbers. The programs have also facilitated valuable faculty contacts with business, industry, and government. Finally, at the national level, the rapidly increasing PSM movement has begun to contribute efficiently and nimbly to U.S. science workforce needs.

PSM curricula are configured by their faculty leaders to respond to the human resource needs expressed by nonacademic employers of scientists. In the fast-changing scene of scientific R&D, the PSM degrees are attractively agile. Universities that seek to contribute to economic advance in their regions see the PSM degrees as responsive to nonacademic labor markets for science professionals in ways that are quite attractive to science-intensive employers. Finally, as two-year graduate degrees, PSM programs are “rapid-cycle” programs that can respond quickly to calls for increased numbers of science professionals.

If PSM degrees produce science-educated professionals with capacities that nonacademic employers value, why have they not yet been embraced by all universities with strong science graduate programs? Are there reasons why one might expect some faculties to be skeptical or negative about such new degrees?

There is, first, inevitable inertia to be overcome, rendered more powerful because of the diminished status of master’s science education over the past decades. Nonetheless, there have been numerous energetic and committed faculty members who have perceived a strong need for this kind of graduate science education. For them and others, however, the incentive structures do not generally reward such efforts. As has often been noted, research universities and federal funding agencies generally reward research—publications, research grants and the overheads that accompany them, and disciplinary awards—rather than teaching, and certainly tenure decisions relate primarily to research achievements. Master’s-level students themselves often are seen as contributing little to faculty research activities, since their focus is primarily on graduate-level coursework rather than working as research assistants on funded research grants.

One difference among research universities may be the extent to which they envision their role as contributing directly to the economic advancement of their region or country. Among the leaders in PSM innovation and growth have been a number of prominent public and/or land-grant research universities such as Georgia Tech and Michigan State. From their early days, these and similar institutions have seen themselves as engines of economic prosperity, and important parts of their financial resources come from state legislatures that consider such economic contributions to be essential. One can also think of a number of leading private research universities that include regional economic prosperity among their goals, and it is notable that some of these universities have also pursued PSM degree programs.

With over 100 PSM degrees in operation or development around the country and the pioneer programs of this type generally prospering, one could easily conclude that there has been at least a proof of concept. Still, the programs are mostly quite new and relatively small, and hence the numbers of PSM graduates are still modest.

The challenge over the coming few years is to move the PSM concept to scale. This will not be easy, although there is reason for optimism. Ultimate success will depend on recognition by both government science funders and universities of the odd gap that prevails in U.S. graduate science education, as well as on continuation of the attractive early career experiences of PSM graduates and enthusiasm for their capabilities on the part of science-intensive employers.

The recent series of reports urging action to encourage more U.S. students to study science and mathematics could be well answered by support for PSM initiatives. In addition to the large amount of energy and money the nation might be devoting to convince more teachers and young people to pursue undergraduate education in science and math, it would also make a great deal of sense to focus attention on the large number of science majors who are already graduating from college and yet are deciding not to continue toward graduate education and careers in science. The PSM initiatives currently underway at over 50 U.S. universities offer an alternative pathway to careers in science that might literally transform this situation, and one that has real prospects for near-term success.


Michael S. Teitelbaum () is vice president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York City.