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The Scientist 14[7]:41, Apr. 3, 2000

Designer Degrees or Academic Alchemy?

Professional master's programs attempt to teach skills for today's world

By A.J.S. Rayl

What skills does a research scientist need to get ahead in the profession? Sometimes it's what you know outside of science that fits the bill. There is a growing need in the biotech and biomedical industries for science-trained professionals who also have practical computing skills and business acumen--graduates with hands-on experience and an interdisciplinary background.

To fill that need, some institutions are offering various versions of a professional master's degree (PMD). Designed to blaze new career paths in an ever-shifting science job market, these degrees also promise a solution to what has been referred to as the Ph.D. glut, or too many doctorates for the employment market. "The professional master's degrees are terminal degrees with breadth and direction, and not just a degree one gets on the way to a Ph.D.," explains science education consultant Sheila Tobias. For the most part, these are two-year, in-residence programs that will lead to distinct degrees involving a combination of disciplines. One of the most prevalent--computational molecular biology, or bioinformatics--blends molecular biology with computer science.

Leslie Wainwright has seen Northwestern's program produce successful graduates already.
Various colleges and universities across the country have been gearing up to enroll the first students this fall. A few other institutions have already launched similar programs.

Beyond meeting demands of industry, the new professional master's degrees also offer students an alternative. "It's clear that the existing master's degree and the existing Ph.D. tracks are not effectively designed to meet the needs of ... students who want to further their careers in nonacademic, industrial, private sector, and occasionally national laboratory environments," says Eugene H. Levy, program director at the University of Arizona (UA).

"These degrees are for people who can't or don't want to do a Ph.D. or research degree, who don't want to go to law or med school, or go for an MBA, but don't want to leave science," explains Tobias. "Until now, there hasn't been anything available to them."

Tobias says there are a couple of other big-picture goals: "To keep people of all walks, races, and sexes selecting science and math as majors or, in other words, to keep the pipeline flowing; and to reshape the profile of American leadership."

An Idea Whose Time Has Come

The concept for the PMD has been emerging for some years. In 1995, Tobias, Daryl E. Chubin, and Kevin Aylesworth published a small paperback, Rethinking Science as a Career (Research Corporation, Tucson, Ariz.), in which they recommended reinvention of the master's degree for the sciences.1 Not long afterward, in an article titled "Malthus and Graduate Students: Checks on Burgeoning Ranks of Ph.D.s," published in The Scientist in February 1996, Rockefeller University's Jesse H. Ausubel, also a program director for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, explicitly mentions "that valorizing the master's degree in sciences" is one solution to the Ph.D. glut.2 Meanwhile, the idea was also brewing in Georgia, according to Anderson D. Smith, the PMD program director at Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech).

Hybrid Life Sciences Degrees

The Keck Institute of Applied Life Sciences will be offering "a widely interdisciplinary program" focusing on three technical areas: biological systems, which is basic molecular cell biology and biochemistry with applications relevant to the industry now; computational biology, which ranges from bioinformatics through mathematical and molecular modeling; and bioengineering, which includes instrumentation, laboratory automation, and other topics still being defined, according to David Galas, chief academic officer. At the end of the program, students will receive a master of biosciences degree.

The five institutions that are creating professional master's degree programs with Sloan Foundation start-up funds are offering a variety of hybrid, life sciences-oriented degrees. Among them:

* University of Arizona: Applied Biosciences, a combination of cellular and molecular biology and business and technology.

* Georgia Institute of Technology: Human-Computer Interaction, a combination of computer science and psychology. Bioinformatics, a combination of molecular biology and computer science.

* Michigan State University: Integrated Pest Management, Industrial Microbiology, and Computational Chemistry.

* University of Southern California: Computational Molecular Biology, Environmental Science.

* University of Wisconsin, Madison: Environmental Monitoring, Remote Sensing and Spatial Information Management, Biomedical Informatics, and Computational Sciences.

The Sloan Foundation also recently awarded grants to the New Jersey Institute of Technology; University of California, Los Angeles; University of California, Santa Cruz; University of Texas, El Paso; and Keck Graduate Institute for programs in computational molecular biology or bioinformatics.

--A.J.S. Rayl

An early version of the concept was put into the curriculum at Northwestern University in 1991 with a 13-month program that culminates in a master of science in biotechnology. Now also known as a PMD program, it has produced successful graduates. Several other institutions have also created hybrid degrees in recent years. State University of New York at Stony Brook, for example, offers a master of science in instrumentation; the University of California at Irvine offers one in chemical and material physics; the University of Pennsylvania, one in biotechnology; and the University of Idaho, one in waste management and environmental science.

Elsewhere, students pursued the concept in an ad hoc manner. "We discovered when we actually go and survey our alumni, for example, that some of them fashioned their own version of these degrees," says Hans Bozler, program director for the PMD project at the University of Southern California. "They're telling us, for example, that after earning their bachelor's or master's in physics, and then going into the workforce, they went back to school and took some business courses and sort of pieced together what we're now packaging up ..., and there's a certain amount of evidence that that's been done on a fairly broad basis."

The real momentum, however, began in 1997. The Sloan Foundation put up seed money for five institutions to each launch three of these new degrees in different areas of science, awarding approximately $450,000 per institution. The Keck Foundation donated $50 million to inaugurate a whole new graduate institution, the Keck Institute of Applied Life Sciences, specifically devoted to new two-year master's degrees.3

"Our view is that there should be an alternative path for people who would like to do science but who don't necessarily want to do it to the level of a Ph.D," says Michael S. Teitelbaum, program director for the Sloan Foundation. Keck's chief academic officer, David Galas, agrees. "The scientists seem to think it's really a timely thing to do. The interdisciplinary aspects are particularly important, [as is] training people to focus ... on what they'll be doing rather than on some potential range of jobs from professor to working in industry, which is the real spectrum."The Need for Reconceptualization

Even so, there are hurdles. "The problem is nobody right now is called a scientist unless he or she gets a Ph.D.--that's the union card," notes Teitelbaum.

"The master's degree in the sciences has a mixed reputation--it implies that it was a failed Ph.D, and you failed to achieve so they gave you a master's degree as a booby prize," elaborates Tobias. "That's unique really to the sciences. Elsewhere in the whole panoply of higher education subject matter, people opt for a master's degree in education, engineering, economics, journalism--it is a perfectly acceptable and legitimate degree. So in order to distance this degree from the failed or what we now call the incidental ..., it was necessary to rename it and reconceptualize it and to repackage it for marketing."

The professional master's degrees are not intended to replace or compete with Ph.D.s. "Everyone recognizes that there's an important role for the Ph.D. in science and in engineering," says Galas. "But these professional master's programs fill a need that has not really been met yet, and most people think it's a great idea."

During the last two years, the Sloan-funded institutions and the Keck Graduate Institute have been developing the curricula, defining the degrees, and determining the requirements for enrolling students. Although a handful of the programs in some of the institutions funded by Sloan have begun, the majority will launch this fall. That is when Keck will greet its first class as well.

Filling a Need

The Sloan Foundation, which has funded programs in science and engineering for the last three decades, viewed the PMD project from both demand and supply sides. Ausubel says, "From the demand side, there really is a feeling that there's a niche for technically trained people who have more than four years of technical training but fewer than 12 or 14." He continues, "The opportunities being created by the fusion of computer sciences with a whole range of other fields seems to be creating lots of new occupational opportunities. Some of the demand is for just two more years of specialization. In other cases the demand is for hybrids--where you're learning some finance and accounting, some law such as intellectual property, database management, and other aspects of information science--so in that sense, it's a new product."

On the supply side, Ausubel says, there are 200 or so universities in the United States that have "quite strong science faculties. Many of them now have low enrollments in courses they're teaching, but they have the capacity. It doesn't require new faculty."

At Northwestern, the master of science in biotechnology is still a 13-month program. Although it is somewhat different from the newer, reconceptualized professional master's degrees being developed right now, "we are calling it a professional master's degree," says Leslie Wainwright, associate director for the Center for Biotechnology. The program consists of three full quarters of coursework, which includes one academic residency research project and an industrial residency project, essentially an internship that lasts the summer quarter and one additional month, she says.

"We often compare ourselves to an M.S.-MBA hybrid," Wainwright continues. "Our students come in with both life sciences and engineering backgrounds. We have different tracks they can pursue, depending on their particular interest. Those largely focus on genetics and genomics, cell biology, bioengineering, medicinal chemistry, and bioinformatics. We introduce them to the biotechnology industry in the fall quarter through some of the core coursework, then we build on that with finance and marketing and other key business issues that are intertwined throughout the academic program. By the time they're done, they've really gotten graduate-level science training and been introduced to the business world ... and they're very much geared to becoming business professionals, entrepreneurs, and decision makers within the biotechnology industry."

Encouraging Beginnings for 'Degrees of the Future'

"We feel very encouraged by what's gone on in the last year and a half or so," says Ausubel. "One often talks about trying to catalyze or create model programs. But the foundations never have enough funds [for] every potential performer in something like this, so all you can do is try and support enough people until the idea catches on. Here we have a sense of something that's gaining momentum and being imitated."

So much momentum that the hope--and by many accounts, the projection--is that these new professional master's degrees of science will be the hot new degrees of the 21st century.

A.J.S. Rayl (ajsrayl@loop.com) is a freelance writer in Malibu, Calif.


1. S. Tobias et al., Rethinking Science as a Career, Tucson, Ariz., Research Corporation, 1995.

2. J.H. Ausubel, "Malthus and graduate students: checks on burgeoning ranks of Ph.D.s," The Scientist, 10:11, Feb. 5, 1996.

3. P. Gwynne, "Programs prepare scientists for business world," The Scientist, 12:4, March 30, 1998.