Ask any master’s student about school, and they’ll tell you it is highly demanding. Classes advance in difficulty and narrow in focus. Professors’ expectations intensify. And the amount of time required for studying, research and writing papers increases exponentially.
“The graduate program is very intense, more than I thought. The first year, we all put in an average of 60 hours a week and that went up during finals,” says Nate Brown, a master’s student in landscape architecture. “At the end of the day I am glad that we are pushed so hard because it only better prepares us for the job market.”
Jason DeLoach remembers just a few years back when he was an undergraduate at Cal Poly Pomona who had time for a part-time job, girlfriend, friends and parties. As a graduate student, he still works as a waiter on weekends and has a girlfriend, but the majority of his life is devoted to school.
“I knew that it was going to be a lot harder and more of my time would be taken up, but I would have almost felt gypped if it were too easy for me,” says DeLoach, who received his bachelor’s in psychology in 2009. In addition to classes, second-year psychology graduate students work 20 hours a week at an outside counseling service.
Cal Poly Pomona’s graduate program, which has 1,500 students (including about 600 part-time students), provides a life-changing opportunity for individuals to advance in their profession, change careers, seek managerial positions or realize their aspirations. Many degree programs — education, business, and public administration, to name a few — are tailored specifically for working professionals, offering classes in the evenings, weekends and online.
“I just had a graduate student who met me at my house this last weekend,” says engineering Professor Kamran Abedini, who coordinates the engineering management master’s program. “Many of the assignments and the projects are on Blackboard, and if students miss a class due to a business trip they only lose the face-to-face lecture.”
Some programs, such as engineering, recommend at least a few years of work experience. About 80 percent of Abedini’s students have full-time careers.
“A graduate student who has some industry experience would have deeper understanding of concepts and would know the reason for learning the course material,” he says. “A combination of experience and education leads to better jobs and promotions in the industry.”
After years of working in music services for the film and television industry, Karen Guthery wanted to extend the technology skills she had developed. She enrolled in the master’s program in the College of Business Administration to help launch a second career in information assurance.
“This program was a logical next step for me,” Guthery says. “The master of science in business administration program supports a natural outgrowth of the business and technical skills I began developing while working in the music industry. My ultimate career would be a combination of information assurance, management science, research and teaching.”
Brown, who majored in environmental studies at the University of Colorado, says his liberal arts education introduced him to a variety of subjects, including science, foreign languages, history and literature. His bachelor’s degree opened doors to various jobs in the environmental field, but to be a landscape architect, he needed specialized education.
“In graduate school you focus on one thing day-in, day-out,” he says. “You get a much deeper understanding of the field versus a somewhat superficial look at a variety of fields in your undergraduate years.”
Before he started his master’s courses, Brown imagined spending most of his time at the drafting table, completing drawings by hand. He quickly learned that graduate courses also require significant and thorough research, data collection, analysis and writing.
Indeed, many graduate programs at Cal Poly Pomona emphasize research. Jae Ming Jung, an associate professor in the international business & marketing department, says developing research skills and a research mindset is important for all graduate students, not just for those who plan to earn a doctorate.
In a business setting, for example, managers should approach decisions with educated analysis, he says.
“Oftentimes, students will want to learn about the most effective promotion strategies, but you can’t always use the same strategies you learned from a class because each situation is different,” says Jung, who established a behavioral lab in the College of Business Administration to study consumer behaviors. “You need to do research and think critically. That’s why managers fail in marketing. They rely too much on intuition, not research.”
Public administration student Elke Azpeitia describes her first course, quantitative analysis, as her “baptism” into the master’s program. While most students dread number-crunching and statistical analysis, Azpeitia discovered an opportunity to use data and research for improving society — in this case, her group analyzed the effectiveness of an ethics awareness program in Los Angeles World Airports.
“It gave me the opportunity to work with real issues, and it showed me what I can do with my education,” she says. “Research helps identify what’s going on. Research is a powerful tool that can help people.”
Cal Poly Pomona’s hands-on learning approach also applies to its graduate program. Students serve as research assistants (sometimes conducting their own experiments), co-author papers, teach classes, contribute to scholarly discussions and work on real-world projects. Group assignments, discussions and presentations are also the norm, as they foster intellectual give-and-take among students and faculty.
“Building friendships with my cohort has been one of the most rewarding parts of graduate school,” Brown says. “I’m always asking classmates for their opinions, as you can learn as much if not more from your classmates than from your professors.”
Guthery’s business classmates come from various fields, including computer science, economics, English literature, political science and environmental studies. She herself majored in jazz composition at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Part of the joy and challenge in group assignments, she says, is learning to work with and embrace each person’s talents, strengths and personalities.
“Much of what we’re learning about management comes through completing assignments with our classmates. The fact that we’re on the quarter system means that we have 10 weeks to quickly come together as a group and make the team work,” she says. “It’s exhilarating to go from being thrown together on a project to developing a well-oiled machine.”
The intellect and ambitions of graduate students are also noticeably greater, students say, adding to the quality of discussions and collaborations.
“I wouldn’t say that we’re a competitive group … Everyone wants to speak, everyone wants to be heard, everyone wants to contribute,” DeLoach says. “Graduate students are definitely more OCD, more perfectionists. I don’t think you get to this point without some sort of drive for perfection.”
(Photos from top: Nate Brown, Jason DeLoach, Karen Guthery, Elke Azpeitia)