This site uses cookies. By continuing to use this site you agree to our use of cookies. To find out more, see our Privacy and Cookies policy.
Skip to the content

Share this

Free weekly newswire

Sign up to receive all our latest news direct to your inbox.

Physics on film

100 Second Science Your scientific questions answered simply by specialists in less than 100 seconds.

Watch now

Bright Recruits

At all stages of your career – whether you're an undergraduate, graduate, researcher or industry professional – can help find the job for you.

Find your perfect job

Physics connect

Are you looking for a supplier? Physics Connect lists thousands of scientific companies, businesses, non-profit organizations, institutions and experts worldwide.

Start your search today


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.
View all posts by this author  | View this author's profile


  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.


  • Comments should be relevant to the article and not be used to promote your own work, products or services.
  • Please keep your comments brief (we recommend a maximum of 250 words).
  • We reserve the right to remove excessively long, inappropriate or offensive entries.

Show/hide formatting guidelines

Tag Description Example Output
<a> Hyperlink <a href="">google</a> google
<abbr> Abbreviation <abbr title="World Health Organisation" >WHO</abbr> WHO
<acronym> Acronym <acronym title="as soon as possible">ASAP</acronym> ASAP
<b> Bold <b>Some text</b> Some text
<blockquote> Quoted from another source <blockquote cite="">IOP</blockquote>
<cite> Cite <cite>Diagram 1</cite> Diagram 1
<del> Deleted text From this line<del datetime="2012-12-17"> this text was deleted</del> From this line this text was deleted
<em> Emphasized text In this line<em> this text was emphasised</em> In this line this text was emphasised
<i> Italic <i>Some text</i> Some text
<q> Quotation WWF goal is to build a future <q cite="">
where people live in harmony with nature and animals</q>
WWF goal is to build a future
where people live in harmony with nature and animals
<strike> Strike text <strike>Some text</strike> Some text
<strong> Stronger emphasis of text <strong>Some text</strong> Some text