Nearly 25 years ago, University of Vermont faculty hatched a novel idea: empower undergraduate students to take a step forward in their career pursuits by dipping into master’s-level courses — accelerating the pace at which they could obtain a degree.
“Graduate faculty realized that senior students interested in pursuing graduate study often had time — and motivation and background — available in their undergraduate curriculum to pursue one to two courses that were at the graduate level,” explains Cynthia Forehand, PhD, Professor of Neurological Sciences and Dean of UVM’s Graduate College. “They realized that if students could do that, they would be able to finish their master’s degrees in less time.”
How do the accelerated master’s programs (AMPs) work? Second-semester junior-year students typically apply to their desired graduate program, and then take 6 to 9 credits of graduate-level course work in their senior year. That means not only a reduction in hours spent toward a goal, but also a drop in dollars invested.
UVM defines a full-time undergraduate as 12 credits, says Dean Forehand, charging them the same amount of tuition for 12 to 18 credits. “But graduate students are charged for every credit hour. So if a student can take 9 credits of graduate coursework in the 12 to 18 credit framework of tuition, they effectively receive a scholarship for 9 credits of graduate course work.”
That’s an important driver of student interest in AMPs, as is the motivation to enter the workforce sooner rather than later. “In just three years, we’ve nearly doubled the number of programs,” says Forehand, “and tripled the numbers of students.”
One of those students is Alexandra Ojemann, whose childhood on a 20-acre farm in New Hampshire, raising goats, chickens, turkeys, pigs, and more led to a fascination with biology and chemistry. “The vet was always at our house,” she says. “It was co cool, seeing things like a tube in a horse’s nose.” During her high school years, she began volunteering at a veterinary clinic with an eye toward an animal-oriented career. Now, after completing UVM’s undergraduate program as a biochemistry major in May 2016, she’s already finished her master’s thesis and will graduate with her master’s in May. She's also secured a spot at the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School of Medicine starting in September 2017.
“I chose to stay at UVM to gain a clearer understanding of what research actually looks like,” says Ojemann, who overcame a fear of public speaking and collaborating with other people defending her thesis on the Runx2 protein in breast cancer cells to her lab group of 20-plus participants. “I developed the skills I need to be part of a team effort, and I learned to use resources available to further my project; it was also rewarding to be able to work alongside so many dedicated and patient people.”
The feeling is mutual, adds Dean Forehand. “The rapid increase in the numbers of participating students is increasing the number of graduate students at UVM, which aligns with one of our specific Academic Excellence goals,” she says. “The AMP students are outstanding, which increases the national profile of our graduate programs. It’s also rewarding for the faculty to have these motivated students in their programs.”
Year over year, UVM and its students are learning lessons in how to pace themselves — perhaps not unlike a lesson Ojemann learned when, as a girl, she took a horse named C.J. to swim in a nearby pond on a hot summer day. “She sank for a few moments,” says Ojemann, former UVM Equestrian Team captain who aspires to become a vet for the U.S. Armed Forces, which could see her doing anything from vaccinating a herd of cattle in Africa to tending to service members’ pets on base in, say, Arizona. “And then she started swimming. That’s what horses do; they know these things naturally.”