Training Physics Professionals for the Nonacademic Workforce
By Eleanor L. Babco, M. Nancy Vincent, and Donald N. Langenberg
Danielle and Jake Philipson
Physicists can do almost anything if they put their minds to it. Most physicists would probably agree with that claim, but when it comes to the academic preparation of young physicists, they focus almost entirely on traditional PhD programs aimed at training them for research careers in physics. That is changing. In this article we introduce the reader to some young physicists who are alumni of a new type of graduate program, the Professional Science Master’s (PSM) degree program.
“To effectively apply innovative science towards technology in a business setting one should not only be proficient in the science…, but also in skills required to excel in a business environment,” says Wilfred Kittler, a Magnetic Resonance Applications Engineer at Magritek Ltd. Mr. Kittler is a graduate of the PSM program in Nanoscale Physics at Rice University, and one of a growing number of science students interested in training for a career outside of academia.
PSM programs are cropping up across the country as students seek careers in science in the business, government, or nonprofit sectors, and employers want hires who are productive from day one. These new and innovative programs combine an internship and rigorous study in a science or mathematics discipline with highly valued workplace skills such as communication, management, regulatory affairs, and entrepreneurship. After only a dozen years in existence, there are nearly 170 PSM programs underway at 86 institutions, including 16 in physics in fields such as engineering physics, health physics, nanoscience, medical physics, and applied physics, (see Table 1).
A hallmark of PSM programs is the involvement of employers who provide insight on the skill sets and academic preparation they would like to see in new hires, and provide guidance to ensure that PSM programs are responsive to the changing demands of the 21st century workforce. At the institutional level, employers may serve on PSM program advisory boards, as adjunct professors, as mentors, and provide feedback on curriculum development. At the student level, employers may offer internships or sponsor team projects giving students an opportunity to interact with potential employers in “real world” settings outside of the lab. The internship is often a springboard to full time employment.
Typically, individuals who are interested in pursuing a PSM degree are looking for an alternative career path in science and mathematics, not a stepping stone to a PhD. PSM programs attract students who: (1) want careers in the business, government, or nonprofit sectors; (2) find the two-year full-time-equivalent time-to-degree appealing; (3) thrive in team oriented environments; (4) find work in managerial or other professional level positions desirable; (5) value the flexibility afforded in such programs; and (6) seek to gain a competitive edge in the job market. PSM programs tend to attract more women and U.S. citizens than do research-based master’s programs in the natural sciences.
So how are graduates of these pioneering degree programs faring with their PSM degrees? After completing his undergraduate degree, Richard Norris wanted to get a master’s degree but was uncertain about a PhD. He felt that “academic careers in physics are respectable and rewarding, although do not fit everyone’s personality.” Mr. Norris found that the PSM in Engineering Physics: Instrumentation and Automation at Appalachian State University was just what he wanted–a degree that would “blend together all of the engineering physics traits I enjoyed with some accounting, strategic human resource management, and entrepreneur classes.” He is currently an Energy Systems Analyst with Brite Engineering Consultants, Inc. and found that this degree has enabled him to “talk to accountants, manage people, help the company evaluate its position and vision, and perform engineering physics tasks.” Additionally, he noted that, “Traditionally, there has been a large gap in the effective communication/ understanding between different fields, for example engineers and accountants or electrical circuit designers and chief officers.” The PSM provided the skills needed to bridge this gap.
William Griffin was an undergraduate student nearing the end of his studies in physics and discovered the PSM was the perfect fit, since he didn’t want a career in academia. He said the PSM in applied physics at the University of Northern Iowa provided an opportunity to “hone the scientific skills I had learned as an undergraduate into tools that I could easily employ outside of academia. PSM programs “develop the practical skills that employers are looking for while preparing you to succeed in your career,” he added. Mr. Griffin is currently employed as a test engineer for DISTek Integration Inc., with his primary responsibility being to create test systems for clients.
The flexibility of the PSM is illustrated by the husband and wife team of Jake and Danielle Philipson, and provides an example of how the PSM can fulfill both professional and personal goals. As working professionals, they understood the need to augment their skills as industry continued to demand more of their employees. At the same time, the online PSM program in Health Physics at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) provided the professional skills they required to be dynamic and innovative in industry, but on their own time. They feel the PSM has given them a “competitive edge not only in our repertoire of skills but in our personal confidence.” Mr. Philipson is Section Manager of Radiation Protection and Senior Health Physicist for Ontario Power Generations Nuclear Waste Management Division. Ms. Philipson is Lead Auditor at Bruce Power Nuclear Site, where her duties consist of auditing and program assessment in environmental monitoring, radiation protection programming, and at Bruce Power’s licensed dosimetry service.
Chris Fennig is a physicist turned entrepreneur thanks to the PSM Program in Physics Entrepreneurship at Case Western Reserve University. He is convinced “the PSM approach is the key to developing the next generation of entrepreneurial leaders.” Currently responsible for ODIN technologies’ Self-Inventorying SMART Container product line, his team won the Outstanding Achievement in RFID Technology award in 2009. Mr. Fennig launched a RFID consulting firm during the second year of his PSM program and is now running a multi-million dollar product development initiative inside the high-tech venture he helped create. He credits much of his success to the interdisciplinary nature of the PSM program stating, “My belief in the power of combining technical expertise with business acumen has only been reinforced through on-the-job experience.” He feels that he could not have “received this level of professional experience so quickly without the PSM as a growth accelerator.”
These are just a sampling of the success stories that PSM graduates have achieved. This exciting innovative degree is also catching the attention of federal policymakers. The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus bill appropriated $15 million to the National Science Foundation for PSM program development, with the accompanying Senate report lauding the role of the PSM in creating a strong science and engineering workforce essential to maintaining the Nation’s competitive edge. This recognition by the U.S. Congress of the value of professional science education at the master’s level adds credence to the idea that a new type of science professional is needed to respond to the needs of continued technological innovation and economic growth. Additionally, the National Research Council of the National Academies produced a 2008 report, Science Professionals: Master’s Education for a Competitive World, which was in agreement with this sentiment and strongly endorsed the PSM, encouraging even broader support and concluding that these programs provide a powerful contribution to our nation’s competitiveness.