UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Before he arrived at Penn State, Sean Parsons knew that he wanted to challenge himself academically. He had earned college credits while still in high school and was accepted into the University’s Schreyer Honors College. After beginning his undergraduate courses in the College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST), he learned that he could simultaneously work toward his master’s degree.
Parsons enrolled in one of the college’s integrated undergraduate/graduate (IUG) degrees, which enables students to begin pursuing their master’s degree during their senior year of undergraduate studies — setting them up to earn both degrees in five years.
“It prepares you more for the outside world,” said Parsons of his overlapping pursuit of degrees. “I’m picking up a lot of skills that I otherwise wouldn’t have.”
“The analytic perspective that IUG students develop from doing a master’s, whether the degree culminates in a professionally focused internship or a research-focused paper, helps them to view the world more critically,” said Lisa Lenze, director of undergraduate and graduate academic affairs in the College of IST. “That will set them apart from other students.”
Aside from the additional education, the program has other benefits. Students can earn credits that can count toward both degrees to maximize financial investment, reduce the time it takes to pursue a master’s degree, and participate in research earlier in their academic careers.
“The University’s mission is to educate,” said Lenze. “Offering these opportunities is part of our mission. We extend our reach with these students by helping to further their education.”
While the benefits of the IUG program are rewarding, it is also more demanding than earning the degrees separately. However, Parsons says that by putting a focus on pursuing his master’s degree, he’s gaining other critical skills in his pursuit of simultaneous degrees, namely prioritization, time management and delegation.
“More than anything, I think it points to your work ethic for a company,” said Parsons. “They can see you’re someone who works and isn’t afraid of putting your nose to the ground and getting the job done.”
While many college students display outstanding work ethics, Lenze recognizes that it takes a certain type of student to successfully complete the rigorous IUG program. From her experience these are typically students who are academically advanced and who have earned credits prior to enrolling in college, or ones who have challenged themselves to take interesting and heavy course loads in their first three years. The key, she said, is that they are both inquisitive and eligible to graduate a semester early if they were completing only their undergraduate degree.
“Our most commonly subscribed IUG degrees — one with a bachelor’s in IST and a master’s in informatics, and the other with a bachelor’s in security and risk analysis and a master’s in informatics — are research-focused programs,” she said. “They really are for students who are intrigued by questions and want to know more. Students who are interested in discovery.”
David Fusco, director of master’s programs in the College of IST, encourages such students to begin exploring the program early in their academic career.
“Plan ahead,” he said. “Think about what research topics you might be interested in and plan your schedule during your sophomore year. Learn about the research being done in the college of IST and connect with faculty who do the kinds of things that interest you.”
Interested students should apply for an IUG program during their junior year, and start master’s-level coursework in their senior year. Throughout the process, Lenze encourages dedicated students to network with others who have preceded them.