When he was mulling an advanced degree in microbiology, Kyle Mak of Thousand Oaks, Calif., got some advice from his older brother, who had preceded him on that path: Think really hard before investing 10 years of your life only to come out buried in debt.
So Mak chose to earn a two-year professional science master's degree in bioscience from California's Keck Graduate Institute, part of the Claremont Colleges consortium. After graduation last May, Mak headed into a job as a supply chain manager at biotech giant Amgen, making nearly $90,000.
The professional science master's, or PSM, got its start in 1997 as a way to better and more rapidly equip students with much-needed skills in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. Now nearly 300 PSM programs are offered by KGI and 128 other institutions.
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The degree combines intensive study in science or math with courses in management, policy, or law and emphasizes writing, project management, and other industry-sought skills. Internships and capstone projects guided by mentors in industry are a key part of the curriculum.
Tuition runs between $10,000 and $40,000 annually. Grads fetch salaries equivalent to what a master's in science would get, says James Sterling, KGI's vice president for academic affairs, "but they are on a trajectory to leadership."
The recent rise of the PSM degree reflects the reality that recession-wary students have become significantly more pragmatic. They are scrutinizing offer packages, calculating the debt levels they would have to assume, and weighing costs against potential earnings.
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The problem, says Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW), is that "there is a disconnect" between what graduate schools tend to produce—the next generation of academics—and what employers seek.
Engineering programs like those at Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of Cincinnati, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, are offering graduate students co-op and other experiential learning opportunities. Short of getting a two-year MBA, many would-be business magnates are opting for a master's of entrepreneurship that's focused tightly on how to launch a start-up and entails producing a real product and business plan.
Meanwhile, schools from State U. to the Ivy League are launching programs similar to the professional science master's in all sorts of other disciplines. The hallmarks include strategically using professionals as adjunct faculty (as well as on-the-ground industry contacts), an emphasis on internships (often paid), and capstone projects.
Because these tracks may be shorter than traditional programs, they often come with lower price tags. Walter Rankin, interim dean of Georgetown's School of Continuing Studies—whose offerings include professional master's degrees in journalism, public relations, corporate communications, technology management, and real estate—notes that the $27,000 price tag is slightly more than half of the traditional master's.
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The 18-month master's in arts and entertainment administration at Valparaiso University provides artists or performers with marketing and business skills and businesspeople a foundation in the arts. Every program requires an internship or practicum. Most grad students get a grounding in career opportunities outside of academia, using an E-portfolio in the job search, and job-hunting etiquette.
Ph.D. candidates, too, are being given much more exposure to the real world. Engineering doctoral students at Purdue University get a shot at a program that supports them in coming up with a business plan and commercializing their research. The University of California—Davis offers science and engineering Ph.D. students and postdocs the option of coursework and a certificate in business development.
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Beyond workplace skills, experts say, grad students need much better career guidance. A Council of Graduate Schools commission issued a report last April that recommended beefing up career counseling services; connecting students with alumni; and adding opportunities to engage with professionals in industry and government.
Some universities are ahead of the curve. Michigan State University, for example, has hired a career services officer specifically to assist graduate students with landing nonacademic positions—to help English doctoral students find spots in company communications departments, say, and historians get work in a preservation society. Meanwhile, Ph.D. candidates who do want to teach can take a yearlong prep course in the art of managing and inspiring a class.
In another practical step, some schools are slashing the time to a Ph.D. Stanford University, for example, recently encouraged its humanities departments to make doctoral degrees achievable in five years. At the University of Colorado—Boulder, the Ph.D. program in English is being reworked to reduce the time to degree from as many as nine years to five.
To a growing number of people seeking postgraduate education, the most practical route of all is not even a graduate degree. Of the 1 million certificates awarded annually by community colleges and other career and technical training providers to recognize mastery of specific job skills, notes Carnevale of Georgetown's CEW, 15 percent go to people who have at least a bachelor's degree.
This story is excerpted from the U.S. News Best Graduate Schools 2014 guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings, and data.