The Chronicle of Higher Education From the issue dated April 6, 2001
Earning a master's degree instead of a Ph.D. in the sciences has long been "like having an incomplete on your report card -- for life," says Sheila Tobias, a science-education consultant.
Yet despite the widely held bias in favor of the Ph.D., a recent study reports
The Changing Population of Graduate Students in the Physical Sciences
Since 1997, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has been encouraging students and departments to reconsider -- and reconfigure -- the science master's degree.
Through grants to 17 universities, the foundation has promoted new master's degree programs to train scientifically educated people for the increasingly high-tech work force without turning every student into a researcher.
With Ph.D. programs in the sciences struggling to recruit American students, proponents of the new master's degree hope it will entice more of them to stay in the sciences. The new programs have no standardized name, though "professional master's degree" is starting to gain steam.
The programs vary, but here's the general concept: a two-year graduate program, often cross-disciplinary, with close ties to industry, lighter on the research than a Ph.D., heavier on the practical technology, and with a dash of business training. For instance, the Georgia Institute of Technology offers a master's in human-computer interaction that combines computer science, psychology, and communication studies. The University of Southern California offers computational linguistics, while Michigan State University has a program in industrial microbiology. Administrators from the 17 programs, as well as a few who are applying to the foundation for money, came to Tucson last month to discuss their successes and failures.
Michael Recce, an associate professor of computer science at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, says businesses want to hire scientists but don't need crowds of Ph.D. researchers with their own labs.
"It's like chiefs and Indians," he says. "We tell them we could produce 10 chiefs for you next year. 'Great,' they say. 'Who are we going to staff them with?' "
Savvy students understand that the Ph.D. may not always be the most marketable degree.
One professor at the Tucson meeting spoke of colleagues who discovered that their graduate biology students were taking simultaneous "stealth" master's degrees in the engineering school.
While people with a master's in science may be generally unknown, administrators and professors say businesses are clamoring for something new from &nbps;
But figuring out exactly what businesses want can be tricky; administrators and professors worry about turning graduate education into "training" for specific jobs or technologies. Visionaries at the top of a corporation may see something that those making the hiring decisions don't.
"You talk to the H.R. people and they say they're looking for these skill sets," says Michael S. Teitelbaum, a program director for the Sloan Foundation. "And then you talk to Bill Gates and he says, 'We don't care about skill sets. We want them to be smart problem solvers.' "
The key, says Jesse Ausubel of the Sloan Foundation, is to broaden the faculty's knowledge of nonacademic workplaces. Law professors have a clear idea of what goes on in a law firm, and journalism professors know what a newsroom looks like. In contrast, he says, many scientists have little understanding of industrial workplaces.
Getting professors to visit businesses, however, is way down on the list of priorities for many of these programs. Administrators said they would be happy just to get them to teach these new master's students. Most of these programs have shed the traditional master's thesis and graduate committees, comparing the new degree to the M.B.A. But administrators acknowledge that getting scientists to buy in to a type of graduate education they were never a part of is a major challenge.
Mr. Smith of Georgia Tech says earning that coveted "faculty buy-in" has been the hardest part of getting the professional master's degrees off the ground. Faculty members, he says, are reluctant to spend one-on-one time with a professional master's student.
At Michigan State, Charles R. MacCluer, a mathematics professor, suggests that including professors' pet courses as part of the curriculum gets their attention -- and brings more students to the courses that might otherwise not have enough to be held. But junior professors have reasonable concerns about participating in such efforts when they seem to fall outside the bounds of what they'll be judged on at tenure review time.
"My solution," says Mr. MacCluer, "would be to not let a nontenured person be involved in this type of program. It's death."
At the University of Arizona, the curriculum resembles other professional master's degree programs. After starting with the same core curriculum as Ph.D. students, the Arizona program adds an internship, laboratory research, and a colloquium series that has brought in speakers from science-related careers, including a patent lawyer and a marketing manager from a pharmaceutical company. "The most interesting thing is that it's graduate school without being a Ph.D.," says Feliza Sibayan, a student in Arizona's applied bioscience program.
The final ingredient in Arizona's program is a business basics course, billed as a mini-M.B.A. in a semester, which covers topics such as management and intellectual property.
Michigan State's professional master's degrees require a similar, but more intense, business certificate. Students get no course credit, but are required to attend 10 two-day workshops that cover business, negotiation, and communication skills. "This helps them distinguish themselves from the Ph.D. candidates," says Estelle J. McGroarty, associate dean of the college of natural sciences. But the extra credential comes with a steep price tag: $4,500. (Tuition for these programs varies. At Michigan State, residents of Michigan pay $12,000 and others pay $19,000.)
Ms. McGroarty is working to lower that extra cost, and others are hoping that they will soon be able to point to the well-paying jobs the early graduates of these programs land. Georgia Tech's human-computer interaction program, at three years old the granddaddy of such programs, has been successful, attracting more than 100 applicants for 20 spots and leading to jobs with major software companies paying $65,000 to $85,000, said Anderson D. Smith, associate dean of the college of sciences.
Other practical concerns, such as graduate stipends, highlight the tension inherent in trying to build a professional degree inside an academic department. In theory, administrators of nearly all these programs agree that the future is a tuition-supported program that doesn't offer graduate stipends or assistantships. But the reality is far different. At some universities, the students do receive financial support. Georgia Tech doesn't offer stipends to students in the program, but allows them to seek out other teaching assistantships around the campus, which several have done. At N.J.I.T., Mr. Recce says, some students have realized that they can get a better financial package if they enter the Ph.D. program and then take a fallback master's degree.
David Goodstein, a physics professor at the California Institute of Technology who has written frequently about science education, isn't critical of the professional master's degree effort, but suggests that an earlier focus is necessary. Undergraduate education, he says, needs to be refined to attract more students, giving them the scientific background necessary for the future's more technical careers.
Tinkering with the Ph.D., "the jewel in the crown," isn't necessary. "It's the only part of the American system of education that the rest of the world admires," Mr. Goodstein says. "We should just leave it alone."
At the Keck Graduate Institute, an effort to create a professional master's degree in the sciences doesn't require cajoling longtime professors into participating. And no one has to defend complaints that the master's students will rob resources from doctoral students. At Keck, there are no longtime professors and no doctoral students.
Founded in 1997 with a $50-million grant from the W. M. Keck Foundation, the Keck Graduate Institute is the newest of the Claremont Colleges. Its initial 28 students are nearing the end of their first year, and they're all seeking the only degree the institute offers right now: a master's in bioscience. Keck professors and administrators expect virtually all of their students to take jobs in industry rather than pursue an academic career, and the curriculum is designed that way.
At first blush, Henry E. Riggs, the president of Keck, might seem an unlikely revolutionary at the meeting in Tucson. He's not a scientist, and unlike almost every other professor in the room, he doesn't have a Ph.D. Bald-headed and bow-tied, he's unassuming and approachable. Yet on further review, it's clear Mr. Riggs almost perfectly reflects the collaboration of industry, science, and technology that these degrees are about.
An engineer and manager for several high-tech companies, he spent many years at Stanford University, teaching in both the business and engineering schools. He later served as Stanford's vice president for development before coming to Claremont as the president of Harvey Mudd College.
Before the professors, the students, or the $50-million, Keck was a glimmer in Mr. Riggs's eye. Starting from scratch has certain advantages, he says. "Certainly one of the motivations was the chance to start with a clean sheet of paper and put professional master's degrees as the centerpiece and recruit faculty who knew that that was the goal," he says.
The faculty members place considerable emphasis on teaching, Mr. Riggs says, and they stress that this degree is not a steppingstone to a Ph.D. In fact, when an application hints that the student seems more interested in pursuing a Ph.D. or a medical degree, Keck administrators will call the student to make sure the institute's mission is clearly understood.
Mr. Riggs says remodeling the Ph.D. to confront needs it wasn't designed for seems to make less sense than creating a new type of degree. "Ph.D. training is highly specialized, and it's a scholarly activity," he says. "The way industry works is almost every problem is messy, involves several disciplines, and is done by teams. So that's how we've designed our place."
Ms. Tobias, the consultant, who organized the Tucson meeting, says that now that many of the programs have been started, attention must turn to finding jobs for the first graduates, tracking them over the coming years, and convincing industry leaders that these degrees are valuable. In addition, the Sloan Foundation has approved grants for three more institutions, and is considering expanding the program beyond research universities to master's-oriented institutions.
Ms. Tobias says she hopes the conference inspired people who are
toiling individually to make the science master's initiative a
success. "I think they left as true believers," she says.