As you might expect for a big public university with several professional schools, my university offers a lot of different degrees. In the Faculty of Science most of our degrees are the usual BSc, MSc, and PhD, but we also have a couple of professional science masters degrees: the MES and MMASc. The number of these degrees is likely to grow in the future (and I should know, because overseeing these things is part of my current positions). So what are these things anyway?

Professional science masters (PSMs) are similar to degrees like the MBA, MEng, or MFA in that they are designed to prepare students for a professional career. But wait, you say, don’t we already have a degree that prepares you to be a professional scientist – the PhD? Well, yes and no: the MSc and PhD aim to produce professional researchers, but not necessarily people who will apply science training to a different field. An example in the master’s realm might be the two programs at our nursing school: the Master of Nursing (MN) prepares students “for leadership in advanced nursing roles” while the Master of Science in Nursing provides “the foundation for doctoral studies”. This long document from Western’s Teaching Support Centre has lots more information.

PSMs are a relatively new thing and their implementation varies. Compared to regular MSc degrees (I’m using this in the Canadian/UK sense of a separate program rather than the US sense of “something you get on the way to the PhD, or if you don’t make it to a PhD”) they typically include more coursework, less (or no) research, (sometimes) higher tuition, and some kind of work experience– an internship, co-op placement, etc. At Western our PSMs involve 8 months of courses and a 4-month co-op work term, but the University of Toronto’s MBiotech has more courses and a longer work term. PSMs are usually interdisciplinary, involving courses in several fields (e.g. biology and management and communication, or statistics and computer science). They are generally designed for students with an undergraduate degree in science although specific requirements vary – Industrial Mathematics and Biomanufacturing would presumably be quite different!

So why do we need these degrees? Is it just a case of credential inflation, where jobs that used to require a high school diploma now require a bachelor’s degree, and those that formerly required a bachelor’s now need a master’s? There is probably some of that, particularly in Canada where post-secondary education rates are very high. But I think there is also the realization that, for example, most people who think they’re going to medical school don’t yet it’s perhaps a waste for society to just put aside their undergrad science training. The research-based MSc-to-PhD route is not for everyone, and research-based graduate programs also haven’t done a great job of helping their graduates to sell their skills to the non-academic market. Of course, the people who run research-based grad programs are in academia, often don’t have much experience elsewhere, and have a lot of other things to do besides training as career counsellors on the side.

While some of my colleagues would argue that “going to university shouldn’t be about getting a job,” the fact remains that, for most people, that is what university is for. The Council of Ontario Universities certainly understands this and tries to demonstrate that a university education is worthwhile. Given this, and scientists’ general complaints that not enough members of the public understand science, it seems worthwhile to try to produce more people with a science background who also understand areas outside science. In most science areas, the undergraduate curriculum – which must produce people who can go on to research degrees as well as other things – is already full, so an additional degree may be the only way to broaden students’ background. PSMs are one road to this end, and it will be interesting to see how they evolve.