What is a Professional Science Masters (PSM degree)?

Professional Science Masters degree

PSM degrees, sometimes described as a science version of the MBA degree are being hailed as one of the most promising innovations in graduate education in years. – Valerie Straus, Washington Post Jan 28, 2008

What is a PSM degree?

Professional Science Masters degrees were developed in the late 1990’s to address concerns that future leaders of scientific organizations and companies would need to be scientifically based and still have a solid interdisciplinary skill set to manage increasingly complex organizations.  According to the Council of Graduate Schools, the PSM degree is:

“a unique professional degree grounded in science and/or mathematics and designed to prepare students for a variety of career options in business, government, or non-profit organizations. The degree combines advanced coursework in science and/or math with an appropriate array of professional skill-development activities to produce graduates highly valued by employers and fully prepared to progress toward leadership roles.”

The term “Professional Science Master’s” is a trademark of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and licensed to universities that have formally approved programs.  All “PSM” programs have met the following guidelines and you can see that format and structure are significant common features that directly relate to students.

  • Length: approximately 2 years, full-time equivalent (including projects and internships).
  • The majority of course work is technical, graduate-level science and/or mathematics courses. Interdisciplinary curricula are encouraged.
  • A “plus” component of professional skills development that may consist of a variety of relevant courses and activities developed in consultation with prospective employers.
    • Some examples include business basics, legal and regulatory issues, finance and marketing, communication and teamwork, and are often developed in collaboration with academic units outside the sciences or taught by adjunct faculty from the targeted employment sector. In addition to courses and workshops, professional skills are usually enhanced by internships and problem-based projects sponsored by employers. The professional component should result in a portfolio of experiences recognized by and involving the client employers.
  • Program quality assurance comes from faculty-based mechanisms normally used by the institution for graduate programs. The professional nature of the program may also lead to substantial participation by adjunct faculty course instructors or student internship mentors.
  • An active and engaged client advisory board. Examples of board and/or individual-member functions include providing advice on the program curriculum, assisting with internships and placement, assisting with project-identification, and/or interacting individually with students.
The end result of a PSM program is a professional with a “T” shaped qualification profile.  The technical coursework creates a deep area of specialization while the interdisciplinary coursework gives students a broad ability to interpret and interact with different organizational departments or functions.  It allows you to speak many different languages and improves expertise in one.

“No masters degree in my lifetime, with the possible exception of the MBA and MPA has been as successful as the PSM.” Cornelius Kerwin, President of American University at CGS Biennial Meeting, November 2008


What a professional science masters isn’t…

A PSM degree is no substitute for an MBA nor is it a substitute for a PhD.  Simply put, there is much more business in a full MBA program and there is much more science in a PhD.  This isn’t a bad thing, but you should know that you make certain tradeoffs when considering your MBA, PSM, PhD decision:

  • A PhD will not typically include business courses at all
  • An MBA will not have scientific or technical coursework.

A PSM has a significant science or technical component to it, so you will benefit from increased technical skills, but they are not equivalent to the rigorous training of a PhD.  Neither will the business or “plus” component of a PSM be equivalent to an MBA.

With a PSM, you will not typically be prepared to lead lab research but will be ready to interface with those that do.  Likewise, a PSM does not prepare you to become an advertising expert, but you could interface with those that are.  In short, you will know the language of science and the language of business and can translate for those that do not.

Another important facet of the PSM degree is that it isn’t actually a single degree called a “PSM”.  It is more accurate to say that the PSM is a family of different degrees that all meet the standards of the PSM qualification.  There is increasing brand recognition for the term PSM, but there are very many different degrees conferred.  Some of the actual degree names include: PSM, MBS, and MS.

Having many different degree names means there will be some confusion about the degree you earn and how you market the PSM.  The PhD and MBA degrees have been around for decades and have developed brand recognition (and a kind of generic status).  The PSM community is varied and so are the actual degrees.  You need to acquaint yourself with the specific programs you are considering so you know exactly what you are getting from the program.


Who offers Professional Science Masters programs?

PSM programs are widespread across the US and starting to expand into Canada and the UK.  They exist in large public and small private institutions alike.

You can easily find the current list and a map of all PSM programs with information for each university listed at www.Sciencemasters.com.  Contact the ones you might be interested in and start a dialogue as early as possible.