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Viewpoint: Professional Master's Degree Programs

A Case Study in Identifying Challenges and Orchestrating Successes

By Alaina G. Levine

There's been a lot of talk recently about professional master's degree programs (PMDPs) in applied physics. We've heard the rationale for and benefits of these initiatives: students who graduate from these programs have more career options and unique skills ranging from the highly technical to business acumen in communications, teamwork, and project management. Industry benefits because they get students who are specifically educated for industry and are ready and fully capable of contributing to the success and bottom-line of companies and organizations. Of course, physics departments benefit because PMDPs can foster new or reinforce existing partnerships with industry, cultivate connections with alumni, and invigorate departments by attracting a new crop of talented physics students who otherwise might not have considered graduate school

Alaina G. Levine
 Alaina G. Levine

So the word is out: PMDPs can do a lot of good for physics departments and the constituents they serve. But just because a PMDP is appropriate for one department, does this mean that every department should or even is able to jump on the PMDP bandwagon?

It is obvious that every physics department is unique and has its own individual needs and goals which must be adequately scrutinized before solidifying the decision to institute a PMDP. Since every situation is different, it would be impossible to provide a singular model program which other physics departments can emulate. However, one can examine a case study of a successful program, in which the sponsoring department, in initiating and administering the PMDP identified the desire and need for the creation, the challenges it faced and still faces, and keys which led to the program's ultimate fruition and success.

The Case:

The University of Arizona's Professional Master's Degree Program in Applied and Industrial Physics.

Background:

The University of Arizona (UA) launched its professional master's degree program in 2000, sponsored by the Sloan Foundation's nationwide initiative. The program was created "in response to the often- repeated complaint that physics professors typically train Ph.D.s to be carbon copies of themselves," said Daniel L. Stein, Head of the UA Physics Department.

"Meanwhile, there's a real and increasing demand in industry for people who bring the unique skills and perspectives of physics to bear on solving problems that arise in the development and manufacture of various goods and services. So, in the spirit of 'adapt or die', we explored ways in which we could take the initiative and provide a service to both students and industry while of course benefiting ourselves at the same time," Stein said.

The UA's program was organized around a series of learning outcomes designed to give students proficiency in teamwork, change management, computational techniques, communication, and basic business and legal issues associated with scientific projects. The components of the program consist of a core curriculum in graduate-level physics, specialty electives in any related subfield, two courses in business foundations and project management, a colloquium series with speakers from industry ranging from CEOs to intellectual property attorneys to lab directors, an internship, and a final project or thesis. The final project, which takes into account the learning outcomes and unites the physics with the industrial aspects of the degree, often is a culmination of research conducted or applied problems solved in the internship.

Challenges and Keys to Success:

The challenges of orchestrating a PMDP at the UA seem simple and straightforward, but many of them still exist. One issue the department realized early on is that it cannot assume that potential students will fully understand the uniqueness and more importantly the value of the PMDP in their career plans. Similarly, target companies for internships or permanent positions also did not comprehend the benefit of hiring students from the PMDP. The department realized that these problems could be solved through public relations efforts and a lot of one-on-one discussions with students and industry partners. However, it is a slow process, and since the PMDP is such a new concept, the department regularly seeks advice from other PMDPs on how to effectively recruit students and industry partners, most notably with other Sloan- funded schools, such as Michigan State University and Rice University.

One of the main reasons the department has had success in its program is because it continually reevaluates the program and its goals, fine-tuning any aspect that has deviated from the ultimate mission of the PMDP. Self-assessment, and constant and thorough consultation with industry, faculty, and students are certainly keys to success as the program continues to grow and prosper. In addition, great pains have been taken to ensure that the actual physics has not been compromised for the sake of the "professional" aspect of the degree. Yet, the program is flexible, allowing students to specialize in any subdiscipline of physics or related area (such as optics or satellite circuit design). Students constantly interact with industry leaders and have the opportunity to attend special industry-related conferences, tradeshows, seminars, and skill-building workshops.

By building the PMDP around not only the research strengths of the department and other units at the UA, but also the industrial strengths of the region, and by instilling in the program an inherent and perpetual alliance with industry, this PMDP has been able to effectively serve and benefit all of its constituents. Physics students receive excellent educational experiences uniquely preparing them for industrial careers, particularly geared towards regional enterprise. Industry benefits from a new workforce with strong technical skills, knowledge of business fundamentals, and consequentially, the connection between science and business in industry.

Alaina G. Levine is Directory of Special Projects, College of Science, University of Arizona. She currently oversees the University of Arizona's Professional Master's Degree Program in Applied and Industrial Physics, Mathematical Sciences, and Applied Biosciences, as well as public, media, and industrial relations for the UA College of Science and its 14 departments. She can be contacted at alaina@u.arizona.edu or 520-621-3374. More information on the UA PMDP can be obtained at http://cos.arizona.edu/sloan


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