Lets reinvent the masters degree

In Boston, where I live, there are two stereotypes of taxi driver: the recent immigrant who speaks little English and has even less knowledge of Boston`s confusing topography and the unemployed Ph.D. who came to the Boston area as an undergraduate and doesn`t want to leave. There are fewer of the latter than the former, of course, but I`ve met enough highly educated cabbies to recognize that there`s a problem here.

Let`s reinvent the master`s degree

Jeffrey Bairstow

Editorial Director

In Boston, where I live, there are two stereotypes of taxi driver: the recent immigrant who speaks little English and has even less knowledge of Boston`s confusing topography and the unemployed Ph.D. who came to the Boston area as an undergraduate and doesn`t want to leave. There are fewer of the latter than the former, of course, but I`ve met enough highly educated cabbies to recognize that there`s a problem here.

And it`s not just a Boston phenomenon. Writing in a recent edition of The Washington Post Weekly Edition, newsletter editor Daniel Greenberg claims that "the Ph.D. production system is so obviously out of whack with the needs of the economy that even its ardent defenders concede the need for some change." Greenberg cites a new study by the Rand Corporation and Stanford University that concludes that doctoral production in science and engineering averages about 25% above employment opportunities. The study notes: "Doctoral production depends more on academic production needs than on the job market for Ph.D.s."

In other words, the doctoral "mills" continue to churn out freshly-minted Ph.D.s even though the demand has dropped remarkably. Over the last few years, industry has revamped itself in the face of changing customer demands and harsh economic realities. Now it`s time for the universities to do the same for the Ph.D. industry. And the answer is not to press for more research money. Providing jobs for more professors will simply encourage them to turn out more Ph.D.s. The demand for cabbies is not infinitely elastic.

The professional degree

No, a much better idea is to rethink the education of scientists and sto¥regarding the Ph.D. as the "only" terminal degree. In a new book, Rethinking Science as a Career, by Sheila Tobias, Daryl Chubin, and Kevin Aylesworth (Research Corp., Tucson, AZ), the authors envision a "professional" master`s degree as the most appropriate terminal degree for many scientists. As the authors note, about 300,000 master`s degrees are awarded each year in the USA, but a mere 2% of those are given in all the physical sciences combined. Compare that with 23% in management and business and 26% in education.

That discrepancy arises because most master`s degrees in the physical sciences are given to Ph.D. candidates who, for one reason or another, decide not to complete their doctoral degree. So the master`s degree in the physical sciences is often a sort of booby prize that gets scant respect in academia and industry. Yet master`s degrees in business and engineering are highly regarded, and degree holders are highly sought after. Their master`s degrees are considered "professional" in the sense that they prepare the recipients to enter their respective professions. Such master`s degree courses are harder to find in the physical sciences.

It seems to me that there are a couple of directions universities ought to consider for graduates in the physical sciences. One is a master`s degree program with an emphasis on applied research. The intent would be to prepare scientists for an industrial career in research and development. Some students might go on to pursue a Ph.D. but the majority would complete their master`s and go into industry.

A second direction is to consider joint master`s programs with other departments such as management and business. There`s nothing new in this idea: for several years Temple University (Philadelphia, PA) has had cooperation between its chemistry department and the school of business to prepare chemistry graduates for an MBA degree. Students in this program do the usual MBA courses but also take graduate-level courses in advanced chemistry. Speaking personally, I`d welcome more master`s-degree professionals with a double major in physics and science journalism. On Laser Focus World, we need capable scientists who can write.

I`m sure I`m unaware of some excellent master`s programs in the USA and overseas, and I`m equally sure that there are many undergraduate scientists who might prefer that route instead of a doctoral program. We`d like to help: send me details of your master`s programs for scientists and we`ll list them on the Laser Focus World Web Server (with hyperlinks to your site). Send me e-mail: jeffb@pennwell.com. And check out our server at http://www.lfw.com.

Now: does anyone have a solution to the lost-cabbie problem? How about a navigational computer that accepts customer input in English but offers output in anything from Arabic to Zulu?

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