30 March 2009

Can Master’s degrees make a comeback?

Professional Science Masters logoThe frequently asked questions regarding the National Science Foundation and the Recovery Act mentions a Science Masters program. Intriguing.

I’ve commented to NSF staffer multiple times about Master’s degrees. The NSF have lots of programs for undergraduate research (I run one), and how they have programs for doctoral research, but Master’s are almost completely ignored. For department like mine, which has a Master’s program but no doctoral program, this is a real issue.

The problem is that in many institutions with doctoral programs, Master’s degrees are viewed as a consolation prize. It’s lovely parting gift for those who can’t
hack it in the Ph.D. program. And that point of view seems to have permeated the funding agencies.

But in an institution like ours, a Master’s degree for our students, can be an important stepping stone to a doctoral program at another institution, or the key to a higher entry level in a job. It’s not an “also ran.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, Science magazine featured a policy forum on Master's degrees this week. The model it explores is something called a professional science Master’s degree. At a glance, it seems to be a degree for industry technicians (and, just to be clear, I am not disparaging that). Students take academic courses in their scientific discipline as well as in business.

The NSF will have $15 million to fund new professional science Master’s programs. My concern is that this doesn’t address – or justify – continuing to ignore the more traditional academic Master’s programs.

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