Increasing numbers of students are getting professional master's degrees in the biosciences, preparing them for jobs in the nation's tech-based workforce.
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“Exciting experiments in master’s education over the last decade, such as the Master of Biosciences program at the Keck Graduate Institute of Applied Life Sciences and the Professional Science Master’s initiative seeded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, have shown that graduate education in these fields can prepare professionals with both scientific knowledge and workplace skills (1).”
So concludes a 2008 National Academies review of non-thesis master’s degrees in science and mathematics. The Academies believe the degrees “prepare a new kind of scientist with multidisciplinary skills and experiences.”
Indeed, after 13 years of program expansion (from 15 programs in five universities launched in 1997 to nearly 200 in 97 universities in 2010), a sizeable cohort of PSM/MBS graduates now are moving steadily into new, and in some cases not so new, job categories that were never properly filled before. The positions carry with them significant value, authority and remuneration throughout the nation’s tech-based workforce. It is no wonder that professional master’s students are competitive. They don’t need further on-the-job training beyond their bachelor’s degree in science (or mathematics) and the two-years of “science-plus” coursework (culminating in a supervised business or government internship) required for the professional master’s.
Once on the job, they move comfortably into research management, regulatory affairs, clinical trials management and quality control in government agencies and the private sector; they also find jobs in forensics, intellectual property, tech transfer, food safety and consulting. Employers in financial services prize them as well for their familiarity with marketing, risk assessment and being able to evaluate new product development. They often are lured to tech start-ups because of the breadth of their education.
Until the National Science Foundation (in 2009) launched a parallel science master’s program, extending the professional science master’s to engineering, professional master’s degrees were directed largely toward biotech, with a sizeable subset of programs in bio-, medical and laboratory informatics. Enrollees either start their PSM/MBS immediately after getting their bachelor’s degree or after spending a few years trying to parlay a bachelor’s degree into a profession. A growing number are working professionals with science bachelor’s degrees, whose employers underwrite their professional master’s. (For this population, the internship is waived, and some of the work is done via remote video and online.)
At least as innovative as the programs’ “plus” courses in business fundamentals, communication, regulatory affairs, ethics and/or intellectual property, is the participation by local and regional employers. Indeed, employers usually are the first group convened when a university has just begun to think about professionalizing a science (or mathematics) master’s. While admissions, program design and assessment remain in the hands of faculty and deans, employers are an essential part of program planning and participate in designing internships and selecting case studies.
What are the prospects for continued expansion in the biosciences? There are enough potential students: Nearly 80,000 bachelor’s degree holders are produced each year in the biological sciences (excluding agriculture), but, fewer than 9,000 receive master’s degrees and only 6,700 get doctoral degrees (2). There’s definitely room for growth. For the past 20 years, the number of undergraduate biology degrees awarded has risen by 40 percent, whereas master’s degrees only have risen 23 percent. This may be, in part, because over the same period many biology departments have removed the thesis master’s altogether from their official offerings.
But, even more significant will be the career trajectories of science master’s graduates. Many already are being asked by hiring managers where they’re employed to “find someone for us just like yourself” for their next hire. In five years time, PSM/MBS graduates will be hiring managers themselves. The programs are expanding, programmatically, into new fields bearing on stem cells, renewal energy and climate change, and geographically into statewide and systemwide configurations.
1. The National Academies (2008) Report in Brief. Science Professionals: Master’s Education for a Competitive World.
2. The National Science Foundation (2007) Figures for Science and Engineering Degrees.
Sheila Tobias (firstname.lastname@example.org) is co-author of “Rethinking Science as a Career” and a field organizer for PSM.