A PhD Less Ordinary
They study insects to build better robots, work with psychologists to develop more effective ways to learn a foreign language, or grow tiny wires inside living cells to produce smaller circuits.
At the University of Arizona, students in interdisciplinary graduate programs have a unique set of choices. To equip them to tackle contemporary challenges in technology, society, health care and environmental sustainability, the UA offers opportunities that bring together ideas and expertise from different disciplines.
Interdisciplinary graduate programs and professional master’s programs programs place a strong emphasis on connecting students to relevant job opportunities long before they graduate. The UA’s Professional Science Master’s Programs, or PSM, are a good example. The PSM programs provide innovative graduate degrees that allow students to pursue advanced training in science or mathematics, while simultaneously developing workplace skills highly valued by employers.
According to a recent report commissioned by the Council of Graduate Schools, PSM programs stand out for their domestic enrollment trends: In the last three years, first-time enrollment of domestic students in PSM rose 19 percent, compared with only 2 percent for graduate education as a whole between 2007 and 2012. Additional studies on the career outcomes of PSM graduates show high levels of student satisfaction and strong employment rates – helping boost popularity of such programs. A 2013 survey done by the council showed that 91 percent of responding PSM graduates were employed in a job related to their field of study, and 68 percent of those employed full time reported annual earnings above $50,000.
In a recent update to its employment forecast, the Arizona Department of Commerce identified professional and business services as well as educational and health services as sectors with larger projected job gains or smaller projected job losses compared with its previous forecast. The UA’s PSM programs position graduates favorably in that regard by providing two years of academic training with a professional component such as an internship or cross-training to provide exposure to communication, project management and other business fundamentals. All UA PSM programs are part of the University’s new Workforce-Ready Master’s Fellowship.
The three PSM programs offered at the UA are:
- Applied Biosciences: The Professional Science Masters in Applied Biosciences is designed to prepare students to enter a competitive, scientific workforce. The program consists of foundational and practical training in various areas of applied biosciences, along with a professional component that includes internships and cross-training in workplace skills, such as business, communications and regulatory affairs.
- Medical Physics: The joint program between the departments of physics and radiation oncology provides didactic and clinical training in medical physics. Course work covers radiation physics, imaging physics, radiation oncology physics, radiation safety, radiation biology and business. Students also have the opportunity to participate in a clinical radiation oncology physics internship.
- Economic Geology: This program is designed to provide geologists with the technical and leadership skills required by mineral industries around the globe. The program covers a broad spectrum of mining-related activities, from discovery to production to mine closure.
Graduate interdisciplinary programs – bridging disciplines
While the PSM programs marry advanced science training with the skills needed for today’s workforce, the UA’s Graduate Interdisciplinary Programs are bridges connecting faculty and students in different disciplines to enable them to take on challenges in ways no single discipline could on its own.
“The Graduate Interdisciplinary Programs serve as a bridge between disciplines by connecting faculty and students around critical questions such as the biological underpinnings of Alzheimer’s disease, early detection of cancer and second-language learning, among many others,” saidAndrew Carnie, dean of the Graduate College, faculty director of GIDPs and professor of linguistics.
“This approach to graduate study is attractive to students whose goals could not be achieved through the study of a single discipline, as well as to granting agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation because of the emphasis on nontraditional, innovative methods of research.”
Currently, the UA offers 15 GIDPs, including:
- Cancer Biology.
- Biomedical engineering.
- Entomology and Insect Science.
- Remote Sensing and Spatial Analysis.
- Second Language Acquisition and Teaching.
“Our motto is ‘working ourselves out of a job since 1988,'” said Anne Cione, coordinator of thecancer biology GIDP. “All our students work on cancer biology, with the goal of doing their part in eradicating the disease. Most of them have been affected by cancer in one way or another, either themselves or somewhere in their families, and they are passionate about solving one little piece of the puzzle at a time.”
Doctoral student Nadia Bassam Hassounah said she chose the UA because of its excellent cancer biology program.
“What I enjoyed most was the exposure to clinical aspects of the field, which reminds us of our ultimate goal: performing research that can benefit cancer patients,” she said.
The students in the cancer biology GIDP tend to graduate earlier than their peers in traditional programs – on average less than five years after enrolling. Over the years, several have accepted positions in highly specialized industries such as Tucson-based Ventana Medical Systems, one of the powerhouses of innovative cancer diagnostics, and the Translational Genomics Research Institute, known as TGen, in Phoenix.
The GIDP in biomedical engineering is where biomedical sciences, the medical and life sciences and engineering meet. Biomedical research is at the cutting edge of understanding how to deal with human pathology, new treatments, devices and new imaging techniques. Engineers are the ones who design, model and manipulate. Students in this program get hands-on, real-world experience preparing them for strong careers in the biomedical engineering field.
“Unlike traditional graduate programs housed in departments that usually have their students work in the labs of that department, our GIDPs have the advantage that we can pair a student with a professor who is not traditionally considered to be in their discipline,” said John Szivek, a professor of orthopedic surgery in the UA College of Medicine, who heads the biomedical engineering GIDP.
“In our biomedical engineering program, we have grad students work with professors studying cancer biology, or systems physiology, or optics to develop optical techniques to better image patients,” said Szivek, who also is a member of the UA’s BIO5 Institute. “We have access to almost the entire UA research community.”
The next piece in this series will look at the path to graduate school: What students and their families can do now to ensure that undergraduates are ready to move into a graduate program at the end of their undergraduate career.