FEd Summer 2002 Newsletter - Exploring the Alternative of Professional Master’s Programs

Summer 2002



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Exploring the Alternative of Professional Master's Programs

Hans M. Bozler

Like many faculty members in primarily Ph.D. oriented science departments, we became concerned by the diminished interest in physics graduate programs from U.S. trained undergraduates. While our graduate programs were filled by highly qualified students from abroad providing much needed diversity, there was also a message that we were not providing educational opportunities that were highly valued by students graduating from our own colleges and universities. The reasons for the flight of domestic graduate students are many and complex. They include better opportunities and more rapid access to professional careers in non-science graduate programs; higher salaries paid in professional careers including medicine (MD), law (LLD), and business administration (MBA), and, at least until recently, the attraction of careers in information technology.

Charged with the desire to attract more and better-qualified graduate students drawn primarily from colleges and universities within the U.S., we started looking at the issues that related to perceived values of graduate education. Supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, we initiated a series of experimental professional master's degree programs with the intention of providing a high value alternative to the traditional Ph.D.: the Professional Master's in Physics for Business Applications, Computational Biology, Computational Linguistics, and Environmental Risk Assessment. These programs are intended to be self-supporting, interdisciplinary alternatives to the Ph.D. All of the University of Southern California professional master's programs require substantially more coursework than traditional master's degrees in the sciences. In addition to the coursework, these programs include internships and participation from industry. All of these programs develop skills in the areas of computation, modeling, and problem solving.

The vision of our new programs is to provide an interdisciplinary education that in turn focuses on potential careers and provides a fast track to those careers. Many other universities have also started professional master's degree programs. A more complete description of the vision for professional master's degrees and information about universities that have initiated these programs is available on the web site www.sciencemasters.com.

Initiating new graduate programs involves a variety of challenges. They include challenges from getting the right students to motivating employers. Additional challenges come from university administrations, competing schools within the university, and from our own colleagues. Some of these are due to the culture and traditions of academics and employers  the very thing we would seek to change. Below, I will focus on our experiences with the physics program.

In our planning process for the Physics for Business Applications program, we proceeded to ask two constituencies about physics graduate programs. The first involved a lengthy questionnaire to our alumni (at all levels). This questionnaire drew a high level of response and the message was pretty clear. There was a lot of interest and enthusiasm for programs that combined physics skills with aspects of business and other professional but non-traditional skills. In fact, many of our alumni had already gone that route in an ad hoc fashion in order to enhance their own careers by going back to school in one or more professional areas.

The second constituency has been a group of industry contacts. There the message has been less clear. Their focus was more on industries' need for immediate job skills, rather than on enhancing the careers of the students. In fact one research division head in a large technology corporation referred to his employee's promotion to a management position as "going over to the dark side." Although it seemed surprising at first, there is a natural tension between academics whose primary interest should be the successful careers of their graduates, and traditional industry employers whose success does not particularly depend on enhancing the career of their employees, but rather their skills and productivity in doing their current job.

The program design for the USC Professional Master's in Physics for Business Applications called for a rigorous basic training in physics plus training in our business school (the Marshal School of Business) as well as an internship with the requirement of having the students write and defend a report based on the internship. Likewise, the other USC programs emphasize combinations of disciplinary training and practical skills. For the Sloan funded programs at USC, the total number of professional master's students taken in the last three years is close to 60, with the Professional Master's in Computational Molecular Biology being the most successful in attracting students. It has averaged about 12 new students per year. The university mandates that the majority of students provide their own support and that they must be capable of competing with our Ph.D. students. These conditions greatly limit the number of students. In Physics for Business Applications we have taken seven students, from which three have graduated and four are in progress -- a smaller number than we anticipated, but nevertheless they provide quite a bit of insight on how such programs can operate.

Initiating a new type of degree program involves changing culture, perceptions and expectations both within the academic community and externally with future students and employers. The culture issues start with the rather checkered history of master's degree programs. Most science departments and their associated schools are not in general comfortable with these programs because they have primarily used master's degrees as a means of "out-placing" Ph.D. students who either cannot or do not wish to complete their degree. National ratings of graduate programs do not consider anything but the Ph.D. programs. Master's students are not major contributors to the research in their departments. Most importantly master's students do not become faculty at universities.

Potential employers need to be convinced that carefully trained professional master's students are excellent candidates for positions in business and industry. In many cases, traditional employers have been deluged with applications from Ph.D.'s even though their positions do not require the specific training that the Ph.D. program adds. We hear comments, roughly paraphrased, like: "The value of the Ph.D. is that we know that the candidate is smart." Several of our business and industry contacts pointed out that the greatest interest in graduates from professional master's programs would come from smaller, more entrepreneurial employers who expect their employees to perform a wide range of tasks. This prediction appears to be quite correct. In analogy to MBA's being partial to hiring more MBA's, a tradition of hiring professional master's students in the sciences needs to come from successful placements of those students  a long process.

Even in an academic setting, patience with new programs can run short. Administration goals can change more rapidly than programs. Old perceptions of master's programs linger, while there remain suspicions that master's programs detract from Ph.D. programs in some sort of "zero sum" manner. Financial aid for students who would otherwise be fully paid and receive full tuition support by going into a competing Ph.D. program, is a particularly difficult issue. In the physics community, students are frequently advised to start a Ph.D. program even though their academic record indicates a small chance for completion.

The physics departments should consider restructuring graduate programs to make them more reflective of the talents and job prospects of their students by:

  • substantially reducing the number of students in Ph.D. programs;
  • creating really high quality masters' programs;
  • getting administrators to understand that by supporting high quality master's programs they can actually improve their Ph.D. programs;
  • and finally, encouraging their undergraduate students to take a look at the new options.

Relevant web sites:




Hans Bozler is Professor of Physics in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA 90089-0484. He can be reached at hbozler@usc.edu