A new model Master's

Students torn between the worlds of business and physics may soon have fresh options thanks to a novel hybrid course gaining popularity in the US.

Margaret Harris examines the rise of the professional science Master's degree

Suppose you have just finished your undergraduate degree in physics. You would like to go into industry – perhaps even found your own technology start-up – but unfortunately you have no formal business training. Alternatively, maybe you already work in a physics-related industry and now you would like to move into management – but again, you lack appropriate business experience. What do you do?

Traditionally, graduates who sought a career combining business and science had to choose between an MBA rock and a science Master's (or PhD) hard place. Within the past 15 years, however, a new option has emerged that aims to combine some aspects of a both degrees. Known as the professional science Master's (PSM), this hybrid degree is designed to give would-be scientific managers and laboratory administrators the skills they need to make their mark in hi-tech industry.

To this end, students on a PSM course typically take graduate-level courses in both business and a scientific field. Often, they are taught alongside students specializing in just one of the areas, although some institutions have separate courses or modules specifically tailored to the PSM. In many cases, students also complete an internship or thesis project with a particular company – potentially leading to a permanent job in the same firm once they graduate.

"Companies love our students because they can 'speak' science, business and innovation," says Ed Caner, director of the Physics Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, US, which has offered PSM courses since 2000. "We're training jacks of all trades, people who can write a computer program one day and present a business plan to investors the next."

A growing trend...
The PSM movement began in 1997 with a handful of programmes at a few US universities, supported by grants from the Sloan Foundation. Since then, the idea has spread rapidly: as of last month, there were 197 different PSM courses available from 96 affiliated institutions, including two outside the US. Many of the earliest PSM programmes were geared towards the fledgling biotechnology industry, but this focus has widened and there are now almost 20 programmes in physics, including sub-specialities such as health physics and nanoscience.

Although the idea began at high-profile research universities like Rice University in Texas and the Illinois Institute of Technology, some of the most enthusiastic new players in the PSM field are institutions that have long focused on Master's-level education. A case in point is the University of Northern Iowa (UNI), which began offering a PSM in applied physics in 2006 after a two-year consultation period in which regional businesses helped develop the curriculum. The programme has been a real boon to students, director Cliff Chancey told Physics World, noting that one graduate with four children to support even saw his starting salary double, to $62,000, after completing the degree.

The university has also benefited, Chancey says. High tuition fees and low operating costs mean that the programme runs at a profit – a sentiment echoed by directors at other institutions. Other, less-tangible, rewards include closer ties with local businesses and a raised profile within state government, which in UNI's case provides 45% of the university's funding. "The state likes hi-tech, high-skills employees, and at a time of budget cuts it's very valuable to show that we're providing them," says Chancey.

Not every PSM programme has been so lucky, though. Budget cuts eliminated all but two such courses at the University of Arizona, says Chris Watchman, who leads the programme in medical physics. He attributes his course's survival to robust demand from students, who benefit from learning how to manage budgets and personnel in a clinical setting. "I wish I'd known these things when I was starting out as a researcher," he says. Students in the Arizona programme also get hands-on experience in the university's hospitals. Watchman spoke to Physics World at 6.30 a.m. local time, when he was on his way to the operating room with a student.

...but will it catch on elsewhere?
The US is not the only country with tightening budgets and a need for employees who understand both business and science. So could the PSM phenomenon spread to universities in Europe? Although some institutions already offer hybrid master's courses with a business component (the University of Cambridge, for example, awards an MPhil in "bioscience enterprise"), so far the only university in Europe formally affiliated with the PSM movement is the UK's Open University (OU), which caters to part-time and non-traditional students. It accepted its first two PSM students in February 2010. Other universities may be adopting a "wait and see" attitude before deciding whether to follow its example, says the OU's programme director Hazel Rymer.

One possible pitfall for European universities wishing to adopt PSM-type degrees is the need to comply with the Bologna process, which aims to create a common degree structure across 46 European nations. Under the terms of the Bologna process, a student must earn 90–120 "credit points" to qualify for a Master's degree, usually over the course of two years' study. Although the OU's PSM programme – which grants students 180 credit points for 2–3 years' part-time study – is fully Bologna-compliant, Rymer says that compliance could be an issue for more traditional universities.

Another potential issue is that while Rymer notes that the OU has received "plenty" of positive feedback from employers interested in the PSM, some in the business world have expressed reservations about its usefulness. "I can see you might find a situation where, say, a biotechnology start-up is fairly short on finance and business know-how, and the 'scientists' there might see the need for someone to 'lead' them," says Cliff Bowman, a professor of strategy at the UK's Cranfield School of Management. "But normally, my view would be that if you want to lead scientists, the best way is to be a good scientist yourself."

Caner acknowledges that input from business experts is crucial to the success of PSM programmes. Many have started and failed, he says, in part because of poor coordination between science and business departments. Relationships with local employers are also important, adds Dagmar Beck, director of Rice University's nanoscale-physics PSM. When the Rice programme began in 2002, the nanotechnology industry was still very new, and faculty members initially struggled to find companies willing to participate in the internship component of the degree.

Reaping the benefits
Evidence from the US, however, suggests that once PSM programmes take off, they prove popular with both students and companies. In August 2009 a survey conducted by the US National Professional Science Master's Association found that PSM alumni were in high demand with employers. Almost one-fifth of the 281 graduates surveyed said they received starting salaries of $90,000 or more, with a median of $60,000–65,000 per year. Graduates with only a bachelor's degree in physics, in comparison, earn about a fifth less, according to the American Institute of Physics' 2009 salary survey.

And in a tight job market, the internship component of many PSM courses can also give students a valuable "foot in the door". For example, Bret Halbe, a 2010 graduate of the nanoscale-physics PSM at Rice, credits his internship at a local company, Nano_Ridge, with helping him secure his current job as an application engineer at KLA Tencor in San Jose, California.

For students wondering whether a PSM is for them, however, the main thing to consider is where they see their careers heading. "Some people don't want to just put on a suit and become a business person," says Caner. "The great thing with [a PSM] is that you can learn business and not give up the science."

About the author
Margaret Harris is reviews and careers editor of Physics World


This article originally appeared in the June 2010 issue of Physics World.

last edited: March 28, 2014



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