OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Conference to explore latest step in “professional science masters” evolution

09/15/2009

PORTLAND, Ore. – Oregon educators will launch a statewide initiative in Portland this week to take the next steps in developing new “professional science masters” degrees in the state – a degree concept that continues to gain national attention.

One program would be focused on renewable energy – as a combined effort of Oregon State University, Portland State University and the Oregon Institute of Technology – to provide students with the scientific, business and leadership training they need to pursue careers in renewable energy technologies.

The move also would mark an expansion of the PSM degree concept, which is seen as the high tech, scientific alternative to the masters of business administration, or MBA – a degree that has been extraordinarily successful since it originated at Harvard University 101 years ago.

The PSM goes even further in helping to bridge the gap between science and business. It adds advanced scientific training through an internship experience instead of a research thesis, and provides a range of communication, business, accounting, ethics, management and other professional skills to create leaders for the high tech positions of the future.

For too long, educators say, almost all masters degrees in the sciences have been purely research-oriented and seen as a “stepping stone” toward the doctoral degree, rather than an end destination for non-academics. The broader range of skills encompassed by the PSM is a fundamental effort to change that, in the same way that the MBA revolutionized the world of business education a century ago.

PSM degrees are now offered by about 70 institutions in more than 20 states and are one of the fastest growing educational concepts in the nation. OSU has been a leader in the evolution of these programs nationally and until now was the only university in the Pacific Northwest to offer PSM options.

“The professional science masters is a degree for the future,” said Ursula Bechert, director of off-campus programs in the OSU College of Science and president of the National PSM Association. “It makes sense, and it gives students the type of skills that business leaders are looking for.

“In difficult economic times, we’re also finding that this degree is ideally suited to working adults with a science background who want to continue their education and broaden their employment opportunities,” Bechert said. “While some other educational programs around the nation are struggling, the PSM programs are booming.”

The collaboration that’s envisioned for the renewable energy PSM in Oregon would allow students to take courses from different schools, Bechert said, as well as tap into the best areas of strength at different institutions, and tailor their degrees to differing interests and employment needs.

A workshop will be held Sept. 16-18 at Portland State University to discuss the needs and opportunities in this area, and also hear from leading experts about the progress being made across the country in the evolution of PSM programs. Education, business and agency leaders will participate.

OSU already offers four options for professional science masters, in areas of applied physics, biotechnology, botany and environmental sciences. Others are being considered and support is being sought from the National Science Foundation.

And the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, one of the early and prominent advocates of this degree concept, has provided a grant of more than $180,000 to set up a statewide PSM office in Oregon. “There’s a lot going on, it’s really amazing how quickly this degree concept is spreading and the level of interest it’s generating,” Bechert said.

Among the latest steps in the evolution of this degree:

  • About 2,600 students are now enrolled every year in PSM programs around the nation, and 2,700 have completed their degrees.
  • More than three out of five graduates work in industry, and almost 80 percent of OSU’s PSM graduates have stayed to work in the Pacific Northwest.
  • The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is supporting the concept through an initial $15 million grant to the National Science Foundation, which sees the degree as critical to educating the next generation of students with skills in science, technology and business.
  • Internships that are routinely incorporated in the programs make graduates highly employable and often result in job offers from the internship provider.
  • Professional courses developed at OSU for its PSM programs include accounting and finance for scientists, project management, marketing scientific technologies, innovation management, communication, ethics and other topics.
  • Some states, such as California, New York and North Carolina, already have statewide plans for PSM programs across their campuses to meet specific economic needs.

Rita Colwell, former director of the National Science Foundation, said recently that “the creation of PSM programs could provide the United States with a competitive advantage” by providing the wide range of scientific and business skills that many businesses of the future will demand.