August 1, 2008 (Vol. 28, No. 14)

New Views on the Master’s Degree in Science

Graduate school is a fact of life in our industry. But what type of graduate school is most appropriate for preparing someone to find a job in biotechnology? A recent report from the National Research Council (NRC) suggests that one might consider the professional science master’s degree program.

Professional science master’s degree programs are relatively new but growing quickly. The W. M. Keck Foundation provided funding to launch the Keck Graduate Institute of Applied Life Sciences in 1997; now, the A. P. Sloan Foundation has taken up the cause and provided seed funding to initiate over 120 of these programs across the U.S. The professional master’s programs aim to provide both deep and broad training to individuals who desire a professional but nonacademic scientific career. Individuals with this type of training are needed, not only in industry, but also in government agencies and in nonprofit organizations.

The NRC report, “Science Professionals: Master’s Education for a Competitive World,” takes a broad look at the need for a master’s education in all of the natural sciences. However, the professional master’s degrees may be especially valuable to those who have interests in biotechnology and the life sciences.

Educationally, the U.S. is producing a large number of individuals who are trained in the life sciences—4.5% of all bachelor’s degrees granted in 2004 were in the life sciences, for Ph.D. degrees the number was even higher—a whopping 14.1%. Unfortunately, in 2004 only 1.4% of all master’s degrees were in the life sciences.

These statistics reflect the reality that most research universities do not have strong master’s degree programs in the life sciences or in chemistry. Instead, a master’s degree is often awarded in these fields to those who prematurely terminate from a Ph.D. program. (Though there are some notable exceptions, for example, San Diego State University’s Biology Department Master’s Program)

Compare this to the professionally oriented master’s degrees awarded in education and business, which accounted for 29% and 25% of all master’s degrees granted in the U.S. in 2004.

The authors of the NRC report want to change these statistics. They believe that strong, science-based, professionally oriented master’s degree programs are important to enhance U.S. science-based industries. Leaders from academia, industry, and government agencies undertook a 12- month study of science-based master’s degrees, and results indicate that the U.S. should reshape its master’s education in science.

Program Highlights

The new professional science master’s programs are structured more like an MBA program, with a typical two-year time to degree, and often with significant input from industry in curriculum design.

Professional science master’s programs emphasize effective communication and problem solving, entrepreneurship, and technical innovation. These programs often include teamwork and real-world applications including internship programs within the industry.

Does this recommendation make sense in the life sciences? The NRC report makes the case that there is industry demand for professionally trained employees with master’s degrees. These individuals can enter with a higher level of professional skills and knowledge than can be obtained from a bachelor’s degree program, but need not have the laboratory skills and in-depth training and knowledge acquired in a U.S. Ph.D. program.

The report identified key workplace skills such as understanding the legal, regulatory, and international dimensions of science-based products and services, which are important in the bio/pharmaceutical industry. These are exactly the skills that were identified as hard-to-find in a survey of pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies both in the U.K. and in New Jersey, and as noted as important by senior staff at the FDA.

The NRC report summarizes interesting statistics such as the relatively high median salaries of science master’s degree holders compared with those holding doctoral degrees. The data indicates that the extra years of education do not pay off immediately for Ph.D. holders, at least in the life sciences where the median salary of master’s degree recipients is higher than that of doctoral degree holders one to five years after receipt of the degree.

Furthermore, the median salaries of master’s degree recipients have grown faster over the past 10 years than either bachelor’s or doctorate holders. There has been a recognition that the Ph.D. is sometimes not the appropriate degree (or at least not necessary) for many nonresearch positions in the pharmaceutical industry.

Case studies of senior, nonresearch individuals in pharmaceutical and biotechnology roles suggest that university degrees do not provide straightforward paths into the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries.

In Alternative Careers in Science: Leaving the Ivory Tower, the editor Cynthia Robbins-Roth asked individuals who have nonacademic “alternative careers” to describe their career paths. Most of these personal histories involved people who realized—post-Ph.D.—that their interests did not lie in either academic or commercial research.

While the individual circumstances differed, two themes emerged from these personal histories. First, there was often a winding path that led to the position that they described. Second, many of these positions were a surprise to these individuals—they had to discover that such jobs even existed. Could some of these individuals have found their careers more efficiently with a professional master’s degree? Probably.

Until you work in industry, or talk with people who work in industry it’s difficult to imagine all of the jobs that are needed to bring products to market. Most traditional graduate training in the life sciences is focused on scientific research, leaving many students with the impression that the importance of their graduate training is in laboratory skills.

In 2007, the bio/pharmaceutical industry spent $58B on pharmaceutical research and development. The U.S. Labor Department estimated that in May 2007, 292,940 people worked in pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing, which includes everyone involved in the discovery, development, and commercialization of pharmaceutical products, from the CEO to the janitorial staff. Since there were only 19 new drugs approved by the FDA in 2007, what are all of those people who work for bio/pharmaceutical companies doing?

In a study undertaken to examine types of jobs in the bio/pharmaceutical industry, career opportunities listed on company websites were functionally categorized. The data showed that the “laboratory” category comprised around 17% of job openings advertised by large and small companies that had products on the market. The remainder of the positions were dominated by jobs that were oriented toward bringing the products through the regulatory process and commercializing them—clinical/regulatory (25%), marketing/sales (27%), manufacturing (7%), and in support roles (general and administrative—24%). Thus, over 80% of positions in the bio/pharmaceutical industry seem to be alternative careers. These positions require scientific understanding of the products or services, but the actual job functions may be primarily communications, marketing, business development, legal, project management, regulatory affairs, or manufacturing.

With the estimated $800 million and 10–15 years required to successfully discover and develop a drug, a lot of people performing a wide variety of functions in mostly alternative careers are working hard in the bio/pharmaceutical industry to successfully bring new medicines to patients.

The NRC report asks the U.S. Congress and state governments to provide funding for additional science master’s programs, and asks students to consider the professional science master’s programs. If you’re interested in science, but not in working at the bench, you may find a professional science master’s degree an attractive route to one of the many alternative careers in the life science industry.

National Research Council. Science Professionals: Master’s Education for a Competitive World. Web:

Professional Science Masters. Web:

National Science Foundation. Science and Engineering Degrees: 1966–2004: Division of Science Resources Statistics; 2007. Web:

Full article can be found on GEN’s

Molly B.Schmid is a professor at the Keck Graduate Institute of Applied Life Sciences. Web:

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