OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Professional Science Masters degrees gaining national interest

11/17/2008

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The move towards a degree concept called the professional science masters – a terminal degree that’s a science-oriented version of the MBA – is now picking up speed nationally, as more businesses see the need for graduates who have both business and scientific literacy.

Traditional science graduate degrees are usually narrow and focused on research, and traditional MBAs often possess little or no background in science. The “PSM” is seen as the perfect combination for managers who need to function in an increasingly competitive, high-tech and scientific-based business world, and in just a few years it has evolved from a curiosity to a national trend, educators say.

“This is really an exciting time for this educational concept,” said Ursula Bechert, vice president of the National Professional Science Master’s Association and director of off-campus programs for the College of Science at Oregon State University. “Graduates with this degree are increasing their employability and easily finding jobs. Both California and New York now have system-wide initiatives to develop more PSM programs. Leaders from across Oregon are meeting this week to learn more.

“The NPSMA just held its first annual conference in Georgia to provide support for PSM program directors, industry partners, and PSM students and alumni. It’s just an idea that makes so much sense.”

Students in these programs take many of the same core science courses as traditional master of science students, but they also receive training in ethics, communications, business management and other fields. An off-campus internship substitutes for a research thesis, allowing students to see how their science skills become applied in the world of business or government agencies.

A $540,000 grant last year to the NPSMA from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has helped to spur more support for the concept, and in the last decade over 100 PSM programs have been developed at more than 50 universities.

OSU has been a leader in these initiatives, Bechert said, and now has one of the most complete and rigorous PSM programs of any in the nation. This week, on Nov. 19, a workshop will be held in Oregon for university administrators who want to learn more about PSM programs. The university plans to explore adding four new programs, in alternative energies, bioinformatics, chemistry and fisheries and wildlife. And work is under way to provide the professional skills component of these programs through distance education by next fall.

“You’re going to see a dramatic increase in both the number of PSM programs and their quality in the next few years, as this idea really takes off,” Bechert said. “Graduates with a PSM already have the skills that in past decades business leaders had to pick up along the way, as best they could.”

One student, Lalithambigai Ananthan, had an undergraduate degree in biology and engineering from Anna University in India, but came to OSU specifically for its PSM program in applied biotechnology.

“The PSM has the right mix of science and business classes,” Ananthan said. “I’m taking courses to study molecular biology from an evolutionary perspective, but also work in marketing, management, accounting and finance. I want to get into a biotech company that does research on developing drugs and unraveling the causes of diseases such as cancer.”

Towards that goal, Ananthan hasn’t had to wait long.

She’s already doing her internship at a Eugene, Ore., biotech company that develops diagnostic kits to detect mitochondrial diseases, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease and cancer. She’s comfortable working with molecular biology and protein chemistry, and is learning new skills in her PSM program about budgets, product development and venture capital.

“This program really enables students to be productive members of the biotech field,” Ananthan said. “There’s lots of potential for commercialization. Many science people know the science, but they don’t know the business. We can take scientific discoveries, turn them into commercial products that can be sold profitably, fund future research and help cure diseases.”

OSU already has more than 30 graduates with the comparatively new PSM degree, and more than 90 percent are currently employed in their field. Also of some interest is that more than three fourths of them stay in the Pacific Northwest to practice their new skills, and two thirds remain in Oregon.

This year, Oregon was also selected as one of six states chosen through the National Governor’s Association to explore development of the PSM program statewide. The need for more specialists in engineering and the sciences was cited in a survey of Oregon business needs, and the PSM concept is seen as one key way to help address that, officials say.