Presentation by Sheila Tobias: Clearinghouse on Women's Issues

On Tuesday, January 28, 2014, the Clearinghouse on Women's Issues presented Women and STEM: The Professional Science Master's - Changing Lives and Careers with featured speaker Sheila Tobias. Tobias is the author of numerous books on math avoidance and reforming college science, including Overcoming Math Anxiety, Breaking the Science Barrier, and Rethinking Science as a Career, as well as books on feminism such as Women, Militarism, and War and Faces of Feminism.

Tobias often speaks publicly about college and university curricula, general education, post-baccalaureate alternatives, professional master's in science and mathematics, and women's studies. For the Clearinghouse event, she analyzed the appeal to women in STEM of a new program that she and others launched in 1997 called the Professional Science Master's (PSM). The PSM is a 2-year Master's degree in any math or science subject area featuring "plus courses" in communications, management, regulatory affairs, that especially appeal to fully trained STEM majors who want a career outside of research science.

The idea for a new graduate degree in science germinated in the 1990s, when Sheila Tobias and two colleagues stumbled on a "gap" in hiring at the master's level in the science/math/technology work force that she persuaded first the publisher of the book, Rethinking Science as a Career (1995), and then a major Foundation (Alfred P. Sloan), only a freshly conceived "professional science master's" could fill.

Today, 300 PSM programs offer "science/math PLUS" master's programs in 127 universities around the country, attracting and graduating 38% women. "For women," Tobias explained at the Clearinghouse meeting, "professionalizing" a science or math bachelor's degree offers many advantages: a terminal degree at age 24; a career up and running by age 30; and portability ("you can take the degree anywhere"). Graduates find that the degree functions as a differentiator when competing for positions in biotech, environmental policy, forensics, and financial mathematics in particular.

PSM programs are not only "academic." The Sloan Foundation required them to solicit input from local business leaders in curriculum planning, particularly of the programs' signature "plus courses" in business fundamentals, regulatory affairs, communication, project management, and entrepreneurship. Future employers also provide on-site internships, career guidance, and eventually jobs for PSM graduates. Of approximately 3,300 graduates from PSM programs currently being tracked (2000-2012), 95% are employed, many having begun at starting salaries of $60,000.

Tobias told the Coalition that she thinks of the PSM as a "third-generation feminist intervention," one that benefits women without explicitly stating that it is for women. PSM does this by enabling STEM graduates to complete their "terminal" degree early, and get a STEM-based career up and running before 30, which in turn gives them the flexibility to take time off and to take care of a family, or even change careers. She was at pains to demonstrate that the PSM is not for women only but for all STEM majors who are looking for adventure outside of research. Tobias' eloquent words were empowering to all who attended.