Since I’m more than halfway through the first semester of my fifth year and well on my way to getting my master’s, I figure this is a good time to talk about my experience moving from an undergrad to what is effectively a grad student.
Coming back for a fifth year is strange. On one hand, I’m already well on my way to getting a higher degree. On the other hand, I’m back for a fifth year. I’m still taking classes, hanging out in the Rensselaer Union, and going into downtown Troy. Academically, the biggest difference is that I’m primarily taking grad classes now, which actually isn’t all that different since I’m in computer science, and working on master’s research. Not a big deal. A larger workload coupled with more research just means that I have to manage my time better. Definitely doable.
Since I’m technically still an undergraduate student (the bursar says so), I’m taking all graduate classes (6000 level), but I don’t have to worry about paid research or being the TA for a class. That means I can focus solely on my studies and the research that’s leading up to my thesis. Unfortunately, this also means that I’m still paying tuition. I’ve kept all my financial aid, and I’m lucky enough to still have money in a college fund my parents set up years ago. So financially, I’m effectively the same.
The largest difference is coming back to a campus full of people and realizing that most of the people that I know at RPI have graduated. One semester ago, I watched them all walk across the stage during Commencement, shake Shirley’s hand, and pick up a degree that certifies that they’re done with their program. Since I’m a photographer, I did what I do best—document the event by taking pictures. Actually, the documentation process began before Commencement; I also covered the big Senior Week events such as the cruise and dinner. I enjoyed myself covering these events, talking with everyone that I knew I wasn’t likely going to see for years. I didn’t realize just how much I would miss everyone until I came back a month ago and realized I barely knew anyone walking around.
But that’s okay. I’m not anti-social, so it’s easy enough to just go out there and hang out with people from the other classes whenever I actually have time to leave the lab. I’ve gotten to know some of the people I only knew as acquaintances before as more than that now. Every so often, I also run into someone from 2013, which is a nice little reminder that we’re not all gone. But after spending some time at RPI without my graduating class, I appreciate the moments I spent with them that little bit more.
For those of you on the fence about joining the co-terminal program, here’s some advice. Make sure that you’re doing the master’s for the right reason, and that RPI is, in fact, the best place to get your Master’s from. Many people would suggest going elsewhere to get a Master’s, and they’re not wrong. Definitely consider these other places, but consider RPI and its program as well. I suggest you apply to have the ability to withdraw from the program if you decide it’s not for you.
On the other hand, if you’re a third year student who is capable of finishing your undergraduate degree by the end of the year, I urge you to do the co-terminal program if you’re not set on graduate school somewhere else. It means you get to graduate in four years with a master’s while still experiencing senior week and Commencement with your graduating class.