LOWELL -- UMass Lowell will offer graduate degrees in pharmaceutical sciences next fall, a new program that university officials say is tailored to meet the commonwealth's workforce needs.
The Massachusetts Board of Higher Education recently approved UMass Lowell's proposed master's and doctorate degrees in pharmaceutical sciences, poising the school to become the first public university in Massachusetts with such a program.
"There are other pharmaceutical-science programs, but they're in private schools, so the tuition price tag, so to speak, is much higher than it is at UMass Lowell," said Shortie McKinney, dean of the university's College of Health Sciences. "So, of course, there's a very positive factor for anyone who's interested in getting into this field."
The field of pharmaceutical sciences is growing at a rate faster than the average for all occupations, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Employment in the industry is expected to grow 36 percent by 2020, with 36,400 jobs added since 2010, when there were 100,000 jobs in the field.
UMass Lowell Provost Ahmed Abdelal said in a statement that the new program will provide "increased opportunities for interested professionals in Massachusetts and strong support for the biopharmaceutical industry, thus enhancing economic development in the commonwealth."
A survey earlier this year by PayScale Inc. ranked UMass Lowell as providing the 10th-best return on investment out of 437 public universities nationwide.
UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan attributed that and similar scores in other surveys in part to the school's focus on providing programs designed to meet growing demands in career fields like the pharmaceutical sciences.
"The new pharmaceutical-sciences program is a prime example of UMass Lowell responding to the workforce-development needs of a key industry in Massachusetts," Meehan said.
Lab space for the new program will be housed in the Mark and Elisia Saab Emerging Technologies and Innovation Center, which opened last fall on North Campus.
A $10 million grant from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, awarded in April 2012, was used to purchase new equipment for the biopharmaceutical labs, cell-culture areas and instrument room.
The pharmaceutical-sciences doctorate will allow students to choose from among six research specializations: clinical research; drug discovery; medicinal chemistry; nuclear pharmacology and imaging; nanopharmacology; and pharmacogenomics.
Students in the master's program could choose between a master's in pharmaceutical sciences or a professional-sciences master's degree.
Based on recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences, the professional-sciences degree requires business courses in finance, marketing and management, an internship and courses in technical communication and pharmaceutical sciences.
"That's also a little bit different," McKinney said. "And we think that'll be popular with people who might already be working in the pharmaceutical industry and want to get a master's degree that would help them advance their career."
The university has started accepting applications for its new programs, with plans to start classes in September 2014.
McKinney said the school's initial plan was to recruit five to 10 students a year for the doctoral program, with up to 40 new students a year for the master's program.
Next year's classes may be on a smaller scale, she said, depending on how long it takes the university to recruit and hire the founding chairman of the Pharmaceutical Sciences Department.
The university hopes to make a hire sometime within the next three months, McKinney said.
More than 30 UMass Lowell faculty members from various academic disciplines across three colleges -- including biology, chemistry, engineering, physics and nutritional sciences -- will teach the pharmaceutical-sciences students. About 25 faculty members from the UMass Medical School in Worcester will be serve as mentors for the doctorate students conducting research.