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Blog

T-shaped scientists

By Margaret Harris

Are you a T-shaped scientist? No? What about I-shaped? Or pi-shaped?

According to Rita Colwell of the US National Research Council, a T-shaped scientist is one with a broad, shallow background in a lot of scientific topics (the top of the T), plus deep expertise in a single area (the base). This, she argues, is the kind of scientist that many technical and managerial jobs require, but that traditional science postgraduate courses usually fail to produce.

Colwell’s solution is a relatively recent innovation in science education: the professional science master’s (PSM) degree. She described the PSM as a two-year programme that gives students some research experience beyond undergraduate level whilst also providing training in topics like leadership, dealing with government regulations and patent applications, and communication. There are now 135 such programmes in place at more than 60 US universities, said Elizabeth Friedman of the National Professional Science Master’s Assosciation, and that number is growing every year.

Unlike their counterparts in fields like business and public health, master’s degrees in science have often been seen as “consolation prizes” for students who can’t hack a PhD. But in many cases, Friedman said, graduates with only a bachelor’s degree lack the technical knowledge needed to lead a team of scientists in industry. And not everyone wants to spend five or even two years as an apprentice academic — effectively the situation for students doing PhDs or research masters degrees. So in principle, the PSM sounds like a nice middle route, and Friedman said it’s already proving extremely popular with students in biotech fields.

Yet there are drawbacks as well. Colwell noted in passing that universities love the programme because it’s a real “cash cow” for them; PSM students or their industry sponsors pay stiff tuition fees, and some universities rely heavily on cheaper adjunct professors to supply the non-academic part of students’ training (a practice Colwell deplored as short-sighted).

I asked Colwell whether PSM students have any problems fitting in with their home departments, curious as to whether their fee-paying status and industry focus would set them apart. Colwell said that she’d seen no evidence for such divisions within her field of public health, but I’m not sure that would be the case for physics.

Perhaps physicists are more U-shaped…

This entry was posted in AAAS Annual Meeting 2009. Bookmark the permalink.
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2 comments

  1. JJEHerrera

    What we have seen through years of trainig phycisits is that what really counts in the end is how flexible they are, in the sense that they are able to learn easily, and what abilities they develop. Very often, former physics students adapt easily to new environments because they are “trained to learn.”

  2. T-shaped researchers have been produced in the US by departments labeled as Engineering Science (Penn State), Engineering Physics (UW Madison), etc.. for several decades. Such departments are rare.

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