Professional science master’s (PSM) may be business-savvy alternative to PhD

By NISHAD H. MAJMUDAR, Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal


Twyla Tiongson Pohar expected her bachelor’s degree in molecular biology to help launch her career.

But employers told her she needed either a doctorate, requiring years of research, or business experience, which she didn’t have, to land her ideal job as a biological information analyst.

She turned instead to a newly available alternative: a degree that combines science and business. In 2002, Ms. Tiongson Pohar earned a professional science master’s, or PSM, in computational biology from New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark. She parlayed it into a $55,000-a-year job managing the development of software for researchers at Ohio State University’s cancer center.

“I feel I’ve been given a tremendous opportunity,” says the 26-year-old New York native.

Unknown as recently as seven years ago, the professional science master’s degree has expanded rapidly. About 900 students are currently pursuing PSMs at 45 colleges and universities in 17 states, in fields including bioinformatics, biotechnology, financial mathematics and environmental sciences.

Unlike traditional graduate science programs, which concentrate on academics and research, the PSM programs have a strong real-world component. PSM students typically take many of the same courses as in traditional programs but instead of conducting research for a dissertation, as they would in a doctoral program, they embark on industry internships, learn business and patent law, and work with other students on business-oriented projects in the classroom.

PSM-granting schools say the programs will increase the number of students in the sciences, promote greater science literacy in business and government, and reduce the outsourcing of higher-skilled U.S. jobs abroad. But critics, particularly in the Ivy League and other top colleges, say the degree waters down standards in graduate science courses and accentuates textbook learning over independent thought.

Proponents say PSMs can prepare non-academia-bound students for jobs taken by PhDs – at biotech and financial firms, for example – and reduce universities’ dependence on foreign students.

Detractors say PSMs don’t adequately foster leadership qualities needed in industry, academics and government, and many faculty don’t take PSM students seriously.

Traditionally, top graduate programs in the sciences have enrolled only students who are capable of the independent research needed to receive a doctoral degree. At elite schools, would-be doctoral candidates who don’t win that top degree usually end up with a master’s of science degree as a consolation prize.

PSM proponents argue that students with aspirations outside academia are discouraged from majoring in science. The PSM degree, they say, can prepare students for some of the same jobs as those taken by students with Ph.D.s who don’t aim to work at universities, including jobs at biotechnology companies and financial firms.

The typical PSM graduate is 24 years old and starts out earning $55,000 in business or $45,000 in government, says Sheila Tobias, whom the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York employs to promote PSM programs nationally. Amgen Inc., Lockheed Martin Corp. and Putnam Investments hired some of the earliest graduates as midlevel managers.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 16% of the 1.2 million bachelor’s degrees given out each year in the U.S. since the late 1990s were in science or mathematics, while the share of degrees in business, humanities and social sciences has gradually grown to 41% today from 39% in 1995.

“In Malaysia, they want 60% of their college graduates to be in science, math, engineering or computer science,” says Ms. Tobias of the Sloan Foundation. With this emphasis in developing nations, “the worry is that the next level of outsourcing [of U.S. jobs] will go up the food chain.”

Ms. Tobias and other proponents also contend the PSM degree will reduce U.S. universities’ dependence on foreign students, who travel here on temporary visas and often take their expertise back to their home countries. Of the 16,000 U.S. doctorates awarded each year in science, engineering, computer science or mathematics, 40% go to non-Americans.

Philanthropy has played a big role in promoting the degree. Since 1997, the Sloan Foundation has doled out seed grants totaling $12 million to dozens of institutions to set up PSM programs. Universities use the funds to develop a curriculum, often relying on local employers to tell them their work-force needs. The Keck Graduate Institute in Claremont, Calif., which specializes in PSM degrees in biological sciences, was founded in 1997 through a $50 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation.

These ties to local businesses help graduates find work. Students in the PSM program in financial mathematics at the University of Pittsburgh, for instance, work on statistical models for big banks and insurance companies there, as well as for banks in New York and Toronto. Simon Donkor, who earned his M.B.A. in the Netherlands, went on to get a PSM in financial math from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Mass., and wound up working in financial modeling at Fidelity Investments — 50 miles to the east in Boston — where he earns more than $65,000.

But being tied to regional economies means PSM programs are sensitive to local downturns. “We get a sense of what the marketplace is doing by how easy it is to place our interns,” says Greg Dewey, vice president of academic affairs at Keck Graduate Institute.

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In 2000, Ms. Tobias traveled to Cornell, in Ithaca, N.Y., where she once worked as an administrator, to try to persuade faculty to launch PSM degrees in their departments. Although some were old friends, Ms. Tobias says few were interested in her pitch. It was much the same at Princeton and Harvard.

“Harvard tries to create leadership in industry, academics and government, and our philosophy is we don’t think that with a master’s degree people can fill that role very easily,” said L.J. Wei, a biostatistics professor at Harvard’s School of Public Health in Boston.

Cornell Statistics Prof. John Bunge says faculty and administrators are indifferent to a PSM program in applied statistics he co-founded five years ago and still runs. Unlike Ph.D. students, his PSM students aren’t assigned academic advisers. “Some faculty refuse to call them graduate students,” Mr. Bunge says.

Others are more interested. The University of North Carolina and California State University systems are currently considering a wholesale adoption of the PSM. If all goes as planned, as many as 39 more campuses in the two states could get the green light to offer PSM degrees.



This article is reprinted with permission from Career Journal, the executive career site of the Wall Street Journal. is committed to presenting diverse points of view. However, the viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at IMD.