The Professional Science Master’s (PSM) degree is a relatively new
development, but about 300 such programs exist in the United
States as of 2014. Touted as “the MBA degree for science,” these
programs train students who intend to go into law, government
policy, management, journalism, or other non-laboratory careers
that nevertheless require an advanced knowledge of scientific
The coursework and internships
in PSM programs give students job-focused experience in their areas of
interest. Generally, PSM students do not
do basic research, and not all programs
require a thesis project. PSM students
have their eyes on a specific career path,
and their internships give them and
their potential employers a chance to
check each other out.
It’s critical to investigate what a particular PSM program has to offer before
signing up. The best PSM programs
provide students with a course of study
and practical experience specifically
geared toward their target careers, as
well as access to potential employers
and career entry points. Smaller and less
well-developed programs may have PSM
students taking the same science classes
as students pursuing M.S. and Ph.D.
degrees, with some internship experience added in.
PSM graduates are of most interest to employers in the
industries and geographic regions where they get their degrees.
Universities attract corporate cosponsorships by promising local
companies a supply of highly focused graduates trained in relevant skills.
Employers not directly involved in PSM sponsorships commonly make no distinction between the PSM degree and the M.S.
degree, so cross-disciplinary training and productive internships
are of key importance to getting the greatest value from the PSM.
Graduate certificate programs
Certificate programs attract students who need to meet state
or national licensing requirements or those who already hold a
bachelor’s degree but seek to launch a new career not related
to that degree. Certificate programs typically consist of 3 to 12
courses that help you develop career competency in a single
subject within 12 or 18 months, but the programs can vary
greatly. For example, Arizona State University offers certificates
in conjunction with conventional Ph.D. programs as a formal
recognition that a student has completed additional coursework
in areas such as business administration or communications.
Stevens Institute of Technology (Hoboken, NJ) takes a different approach, offering science and engineering graduate certificates upon completion of one of several four-course programs,
geared toward working professionals who want to broaden their
Making the choice
skill sets and advance their careers.
Montgomery College (Germantown, MD) offers a third type of
graduate certificate, for students seeking careers in the biotech
industry. This effort started as a two-year associate’s degree pro-
gram, but now it also provides supplemental training to students
who already have their bachelor’s degrees. Collins Jones, bio-
technology industry coordinator for the program, works closely
with local biotech businesses to design
coursework and lab facilities and indus-
try internships. Students gain hands-on
experience with the equipment and
methods that they will encounter in the
workplace, and the companies often hire
their most promising student interns.
In the final analysis, getting the most from
a graduate program is a balancing act.
Going after a targeted, specific goal can
help you land a job in a specific employment sector, but pursuing a broader education can give you basic reasoning, investigative, and problem-solving skills that
you can apply just about anywhere.
The conventional Ph.D. program offers
definite advantages in respect and rec-
ognition, and the independent research
provides experience that can be applied
to a wide range of fields. Graduates who
make the commitment of time and effort and see their programs
through to completion are valued assets for many employers.
Master’s degree, PSM degree, and graduate certificate pro-
grams offer advantages to students who are pursuing specific
career paths. Students can enter (or re-enter) the workforce more
quickly, and they may eventually return for a higher degree.
Choosing the best program for you requires a general idea
of the direction you want to go, along with the flexibility to
pursue unexpected opportunities along the way.
Nancy McGuire is a freelance writer based in Silver Spring,
MD. She has a Ph.D. in solid state chemistry and began her
career doing applied research.
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