The other path

Journal name:
Nature
Volume:
469,
Page:
569
Date published:
DOI:
doi:10.1038/nj7331-569a
Published online

The professional science master's degree is growing in popularity but is losing its initial funding. Can it survive?

Brian Godwin is a group leader in molecular sciences research at the biotechnology company 454 Life Sciences in Branford, Connecticut. But he has never done a postdoc. And he doesn't have a PhD.

Godwin, a biotechnology researcher since 1997, has a professional science master's degree (PSM) in genetics from the University of Connecticut (UConn) in Storrs, where he earned his undergraduate degree in molecular biology. He says that he has never regretted his decision to eschew the conventional route of completing a doctorate, doing a postdoc or two and striving for a tenure-track academic research post. Industry, he says, is the right fit, and his degree provided the right background. “I was asked to stay [to get a PhD at UConn],” he says. “But I was tired of being in school and tired of not earning much money.”

Applied Sciences

Since the PSM was launched in 1997, some 5,000 degrees have been conferred by more than 100 US universities and academic institutions. About 3,000 students were enrolled in 229 programmes (see 'An alternative degree') for the 2009–10 academic year, according to the US Council of Graduate Schools (CGS), a non-profit organization based in Washington DC that has been promoting the PSM since its inception and certifies PSM degree programmes at US institutions.

SOURCE: CGS

Employers and academics agree that the degree is a good idea — a way to funnel science postgraduates into a practical job track rather than into a PhD system that, even after five or more years of experiments, publications and courses, often fails to deliver the hoped-for research post. But with funding from the PSM's primary supporter, the New York-based Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, about to end, it's unclear whether the degree has sufficient backing and credibility to deliver real job opportunities, despite encouraging indications.

The degree typically comprises two years of academic training in an emerging or interdisciplinary area of science, technology, engineering or maths. The programmes are co-developed by industry and the universities that offer them, and incorporate professional components such as business fundamentals, project management and communication.

It worked well for Godwin, who had thought about a PhD but opted for the PSM and industry. At 454 Life Sciences, a subsidiary of the drug-maker Roche, based in Basel, Switzerland, Godwin is a senior researcher on high-throughput-sequencer development projects. He likes the job's generous compensation and benefits, its team focus, and the possibility that his research will help to treat or prevent disease. Godwin has also co-authored four papers on sequencing, two of which were published in Nature. He says that his degree provided relevant and specifically targeted career training. “It gave me the foundation to build upon,” says Godwin.

The Sloan Foundation has backed the programme nationwide with US$22 million in planning and development grants since 1997. Also giving a boost to the PSM in 2009–10 was $15 million in US National Science Foundation (NSF) grants to about 20 universities to help them create their own programmes. On 4 January, the CGS, which since 2003 has received $3.8 million from the Sloan Foundation for PSM programme support, announced the latest, and last, round of this funding — $490,000 for PSM promotion and a data-collection project to compile information on PSM enrolment and degrees, key student characteristics and hiring outcomes for graduates.

Already, managers in industry give holders of PSM degrees high marks for the business-oriented skills that augment their scientific background. “These PSM graduates are trained to walk right into an industrial environment and be ready to go,” says Todd Arnold, vice-president of development at 454 Life Sciences, which routinely takes on UConn PSM students as interns and often hires them after graduation. “PhD graduates don't have a clear understanding of how they need to communicate” with non-scientists, Arnold says, noting that scientists at 454 must liaise with colleagues in many different departments. “PSM graduates can work with a whole spectrum of individuals,” says Arnold. “And they have the scientific rigour we require.”

Uncertain future

But the PSM could be headed for a bumpy road as funding ebbs. With the current CGS grant, the Sloan ended its 14 years of support for the programme. “We announced our intention to phase out several years ago,” says Michael Teitelbaum, a PSM consultant for Sloan. Potential sources of federal funding remain unclear: neither the NSF nor any other agency has committed funds to the programme, says Carol Lynch, CGS's senior scholar in residence and PSM programme director.

Nevertheless, there is optimism that the programme has gathered enough momentum nationwide to sustain itself. “Local industry likes it,” says Stanley Maloy, a biologist and dean of the college of sciences at San Diego State University in California, where biotechnology and biomedical firms are a cornerstone of the regional economy. Maloy points to significant financial support from local companies for his university's PSM programme, which is heavily weighted towards those sectors.

Teitelbaum remains upbeat about the PSM's future. “The momentum is very strong among faculty and institutions,” he says. “We believe a critical mass has been established around the country.”

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