Is a professional science master’s degree right for you?

The transition between college and graduate school isn’t always as clear-cut as one would like. Most science majors are encouraged to matriculate into Ph.D. programs after graduation. Some choose to get advanced degrees in medicine, dentistry or veterinary science. But if none of these options works for you, what are some other choices?  What if you are a nontraditional student looking for a career change but would still like to acquire additional training and knowledge? Are there training opportunities worth considering?

In 1997, the Sloan Foundation began an initiative that awarded grants to research universities to establish professional science master’s programs in the natural sciences and mathematics. Over the years, the initiative funded more than 50 universities and established more than 100 degree programs. PSM programs have expanded to include training in biotechnology, bioinformatics and social sciences.

The rise of PSM programs coincides with the recent economic recession. More and more graduates are worried about their competitiveness in today’s job market. What distinguishes a PSM from other advanced science degrees is that, in addition to offering advanced training in math and science, these programs also help students gain practical experience through internships.

Both the institutions that offer PSM degrees and the types of degrees offered are diverse. Michigan State University offers a master's in industrial mathematics. Rice University offers master's degrees in a variety of areas, including bioscience, health policy and nanoscale physics. The University of Connecticut’s master's program has applied genomics, microbial systems analysis, and applied financial mathematics options.

The University of Oregon has an industrial internship program that prepares students for work in industrial research labs and offers tracks in bioinformatics and genomics, polymers and coatings, optical materials and devices, and photovoltaic and semiconductor device processing. Students begin with intensive summer courses and then interview for internships with partner companies. Successful candidates complete nine-month paid internships and, according to the program’s director of recruitment and marketing, Lynde Ritzow, the average annual internship pay is about $46,000.

“What's wonderful about this program is that it enables students to graduate with work experience — something every employer seeks in their hires,” Ritzow says. She notes that 98 percent of the program’s students have completed internships successfully, and 90 percent have been offered jobs at host companies.

A professional science master’s is obviously not the right fit for everyone. But even for those who think this may be a viable career option, is a PSM a worthy investment? A survey conducted by the Council of Graduate Schools in 2013 found that the majority of PSM graduates from the 2011 – 2013 classes earned more than $50,000 annually while working full time. The survey also found that earning a PSM degree provided value and benefits that go beyond annual salary. The benefits include fulfillment of personal interest, acquiring specific skills and knowledge, and more opportunities for promotion.

 

Council of Graduate Schools Outcomes of PSM Alumni 2012-13

 

To learn more about PSMs, visit the National Professional Science Master’s Association or ScienceMasters.com’s searchable directory.

Weiyi Zhao Weiyi Zhao is the program director at Grocery Manufacturers Association Science & Education Foundation.

This article first appeared in Enzymatic, ASBMB’s undergraduate newsletter.