OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

NEW MASTER'S DEGREE CONCEPT TAKING ROOT IN ACADEMIA

09/02/2004

CORVALLIS - A new program launched last fall at Oregon State University, the professional science master's, or PSM degree, is being hailed by some educators as the science equivalent of the MBA, as it attempts to satisfy the increasing need for business-minded scientists through a terminal master's degree.

Master's programs in many areas of science have earned a reputation as non-terminal degrees, and for good reason, said Kevin Ahern, one of the managers of this new program at OSU.

Depth of knowledge in a specific field is emphasized in traditional master of science programs, Ahern said, but the ability to communicate these ideas to non-scientists is not, and interdisciplinary work is discouraged in favor of increasing knowledge in very narrow fields. Traditional master of science degrees really only prepare students for a doctoral program or academic research, he said.

"Typically people look at a master's degree and say 'that's nice, but why didn't you continue and finish your Ph.D.?'" said Ursula Bechert, the other PSM coordinator and director of Off-Campus Programs for the College of Science. "The master of science degree is viewed as a stepping stone, but we're trying to change that perception and create a master of science degree that has value in and of itself.

"We need people with scientific expertise who also want to develop their ability to interact with other scientists and work as part of a team to implement and apply research results," Bechert added.

OSU's new program is the only professional science master's degree now being offered in the Pacific Northwest, officials say.

While traditional master of science programs are valuable, they too often fail to provide students with the skills employers in industry seek, say OSU officials. Scientific jobs outside academia require that individuals are knowledgeable in their field and are able to work collaboratively across disciplines.

"Business people, in my experience, are leery of students coming out of a master's program without any business experience," said Ahern. "Someone fresh out of a typical science program will need a certain ramp-up time while they gain the real world perspective you need to succeed in industry."

A new student in the program, Kimi Grzyb, came from the Peace Corp with a bachelor of science degree in biology, and was attracted to the well-rounded course options and the real-world applicability of the communication courses.

"This program seems to be more geared towards personal interaction, rather than just working at the lab bench," said Gryzb. "The exposure to the multiple specialty topics has been really helpful in terms of deciding what I'm interested in."

Another new student in the program, Christine Neou, was also drawn to the breadth of focus that one usually doesn't get in a traditional master's program, as well as the opportunity to complete an internship in her chosen field.

"I see the internship as a trial run, to see if I can actually do it," said Neou. "I also like not having a single focus, like there would be in another master's degree program with a defined research question. It's a mixed bag, plus you get to choose an elective to fill whatever your interests are."

At OSU there are four different tracks within the PSM program: applied biotechnology, applied systematics in botany, environmental sciences, and applied physics. The new program blends master's-level coursework with other courses in subjects intended to provide a real world and practical aspect, and also requires students to complete an internship of three to six months in industry.

The other courses, which all students are required to take, cover business skills such as entrepreneurship and innovation management, ethics, and probably the most desirable skill to employers in industry - communication.

"We really tried to work with various industry representatives to design the cohort courses," said Bechert. "All of their suggestions were incorporated into our curriculum and include business, communication, and ethics, but the topic I kept hearing over and over again was communication. We anticipate having other non-PSM graduate students register for these cohort courses as well."

"One of the things that happens in the business world that students in the sciences don't have that much experience with is working as part of a project," added Ahern. "We keep hearing from industry how students need to learn about project management and how to work as part of a team."

The internship is intended to help students start establishing relationships with people in industry, gain additional scientific training, and develop important business skills.

"Being responsible for organizing their own internship helps students learn interviewing and resume writing skills, and they learn how to make that first cold phone call to a company," said Bechert. "Generally, companies are keen to pay students because they look at the intern as an investment. We're trying to develop win-win relationships."

Highly motivated and well prepared students might be able to complete the PSM degree in about one year, but the program generally takes two years to finish. Although students complete an internship in lieu of a thesis requirement, the PSM program is very rigorous and students otherwise have the same requirements for graduation as traditional master of science degree programs. Students are required to complete a project on their internship experience, and take oral exams in the style of a thesis defense.

More program information is available on the web at http://professionalmasters.science.orst.edu.