A new report from the American Institute of Physics (AIP) identifies 22 US schools with the strongest professional master's degree (PMD) programs in the country, an issue of great concern to educators because of declining enrollments in physics. The report, which was supported by the Sloan Foundation, defines PMD physics programs as those that address the current needs of the economy, as well as the needs of students, by providing both fundamental knowledge and specialized skills. The complete report, including the list of the 22 best PMD programs, can be found at http://www.aip.org/professionalmasters/profmshigh.html .
Report co-author Roman Czujko, who heads AIP's Employment and Education Statistics Division, says that the rationale behind compiling such a study is that while physics enrollments are declining, the demand for students who are technologically trained is on the rise. "We tried to identify schools that were doing a good job of preparing physics students for the workforce," he says. In addition, students must be prepared to work in a variety of industrial settings, according to Jim Stith, director of AIP's Physics Resource Center, ranging from technical positions in traditional engineering companies to analysts in financial firms. "Their education must provide the foundation that enables them to quickly assess problems in diverse situations and allows them to formulate solutions," he says.
PMD physics programs are needed because of the increasing demand for employees with scientific and technological skill who are also able to work outside of an academic setting. Over the last decade, the US economy has been growing at an unprecedented rate, driven to a large extent by technological innovation, and this has resulted in an especially strong demand for employees with scientific and technological skills. "Physics skills are superb preparation for employment, but they are more valuable and useful if accompanied by the broader set of skills needed to be a successful employee," says Bernard Khoury, executive director of the American Association of Physics Teachers. In fact, the growth of PMD programs "is a clear indication that universities are acknowledging this employment reality."
Of course, master's degree programs come in a variety of shapes and sizes, according to Czujko. While some are focused on only one specialization, many have multiple specializations, some have a general track along side of a specialized focus, and still others only offer a general academic curriculum.
Nevertheless, the report found that successful PMD programs have a combination of features that fall into four general categories: bridge building (connecting the physics department to the world outside academics); programmatic emphasis (drawing on the expertise of physics faculty, as well as faculty from other disciplines at the university); research experiences (internships or other off-campus work experiences based on a collaboration with a corporation or government laboratory); and non-technical aspects, such as classes that address the unique needs of students in areas like oral and written communication, and team work.
In addition to the 22 strongest PMD physics programs, the report also lists 17 other strong PMD programs and 22 new programs still to young to be evaluated. The University of Arizona is among the latter, having recently initiated a professional master's degree program, in industrial and applied physics. Launched last year and sponsored by the Sloan Foundation, the program educates students to work in interdisciplinary teams on complex problems involving rapidly changing science and technology and to gain proficiency in computational techniques. Students also learn how to effectively communicate their scientific mission at all levels, and to understand business and legal issues associated with their scientific projects. The university has parallel PMD programs in applied biosciences and mathematical sciences.
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