Ryan Chartrand

When Alexandra Kirkpatrick graduated from Cal Poly’s forestry program in March 2007, she never thought she’d come back for more.

But, now, Kirkpatrick is just one of the more than 750 graduate students enrolled at Cal Poly.

“I honestly wasn’t sure that I was going to go to graduate school while I was in college,” said Kirkpatrick, a forestry science graduate student. “But, I graduated, and looking at the job market these days, a lot of people have a B.A.A bachelor’s degree doesn’t take you as far as you think it might.”

However, because of Cal Poly’s strong focus on technical undergraduate fields, the university’s graduate enrollment is below average for the California State University system.

The most recent data on Cal Poly’s graduate program from the institutional planning (IPA) and analysis department shows that 768 of the university’s 19,777 students in 2007 – or roughly 4 percent – were working toward a masters degree.

Cal Poly is at less than half of the 10 percent CSU average for grad students, according to Unny Menon, graduate program coordinator and professor for industrial and manufacturing engineering.

According to data from the IPA department, Cal Poly’s graduate enrollment hasn’t been above the 5 percent mark since 1995, and in 2007, there was a 4 percent decrease from 2006.

Menon attributes the low number to Cal Poly’s long-standing image as an undergraduate campus, leaving the grad student population neglected.

“Being in a rural area… we have to rely on full-time grad students, while in the big cities, lots of working professionals sign up as part-time students,” Menon said, adding that, in that circumstance, there is a larger pool of possible students who do not need financial support.

Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Bill Durgin has big plans for increasing Cal Poly’s graduate enrollment in upcoming years.

“As part of Cal Poly’s last strategic plan, we had a goal to increase that percentage to 10 percent,” Durgin said. “Unfortunately, it wasn’t realized, so really we’re continuing our goals.”

Durgin said the university would have to increase outside support for graduate resources through federal agencies and focus on areas that have a high demand, like engineering, agriculture and business.

Because Cal Poly’s “4+1” plan allows students to work toward a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree at the same time through an extra year at the university, Durgin said the graduate program is heavily reliant on Cal Poly undergraduate students.

He wants to increase recruiting from outside sources and form joint programs with other universities.

Starting in fall, the first phase of a joint program with USC’s master’s program will take shape when six Cal Poly students will split their research time between the two schools.

For students who want to get graduate school done with quickly and more cost-effectively, Menon says the 4+1 program is the answer.

The program allows students to earn graduate credit for several of their senior electives with overlap of up to nine units.

Requirements include a completion of 180 units and at least a 2.5 GPA for the most recent quarter completed.

“Even if you think you do not meet the published admission requirements, you should explore viable alternatives to make up for any perceived deficiency,” Menon said, noting that many programs will allow “conditional admission” with remediation to overcome any academic gaps.

Jen Montrose is a student making the transition to the engineering graduate program with a specialization in integrated technology management through the 4+1 system.

“For me, it makes financial sense because I’m saving money here and making more when I’m done,” Montrose said.

She said students with the financial capacity to get real world experience before pursuing a graduate program should probably do so, but said that the required internship in the 4+1 program is just as serious as a real job.

Plus, Kirkpatrick said there are advantages to doing both undergraduate and graduate studies at the same school.

“I’ve heard that it’s probably better that you go to a different school because it looks better on your resume; it looks like you’ve got some diversity,” Kirkpatrick said. “But at the same time, I know the school really well, I know the professors.”

Because one of her professors, Chris Dicus, wrote a grant proposal to the Joint Fire Science Program, Kirkpatrick’s senior project receives grant funding.

The grant pays for expenses while she and two other colleagues travel California to study negative environmental effects that result when people purge wildlife from their homes as a means of fire safety.

“It’s a lot harder to get funding for your master’s degree,” she said. “You don’t get financial aid per se. You have to apply for scholarships, and that can be really difficult.”

Most of the university’s graduate program funding comes from faculty grants, said Associate Dean for the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences Mark Shelton.

“It’s a laborious process. Writing grant proposals is pretty sophisticated work,” he said.

For a grant proposal to be effective, the writers must understand what the granting agency is asking for and must make a strong technical or scientific case as to why they, among the many other people applying for the money, should get funded.

The success rate for getting research funding is sometimes as low as 10 percent, Shelton said.

“So you could do a lot of work for little return,” he added.

Faculty can learn how to write grants for the graduate program through on-campus grant writing workshops and through occasional grant-writing consultants who give lessons.

“But by and large, it’s on-the-job training,” Shelton said.

Menon said the additional expenses of going to graduate school are worth it for the eventual payoff.

“There is an extra cost and they may pay for that through extra loans,” Menon said. “But with the increased salary you’re going to get right away within a year or two years, you can pay off the loans you took. That’s the trade off.”

Gloeta Massie, a 1996 graduate of William Jewell College in Missouri and a 2008 graduate of Cal Poly’s biological sciences master’s program, is a shining example of this theory in action.

Because her nationally and internationally recognized research focused on the new concept of toxoplasma gondii – cat feces parasites that end up in whales and dolphins – it was hard to get outside funding.

Massie relied solely on student loans while at Cal Poly and it put her $30,000 in debt – a debt which she has already paid off.

“I’m already making more money,” she said.

She’s currently a part-time honors biology teacher at Mountain View High School until she gets her doctorate degree.

“There’s no question to me that I would not have gotten this position if I did not have a masters in biology,” Massie said.

Massie has been featured in publications like Harpers Magazine, Science Daily and Cosmos Magazine and has spoken at conferences around the United States for her studies.

She cited the professors and class sizes as the strongest point of Cal Poly’s graduate program.

“I can just walk down the hall, knock on the door and say, ‘Dr. Kitts, I have a question about this,’” she said. “The very one-on-one interaction that I had with professors, I wouldn’t have found that at a large school.”

Shelton also cited professor quality as a strength.

“Just the kind of faculty that come to Cal Poly seem to be pretty espoused to doing applied research, doing practical research and that’s not often the case at universities around the world,” Shelton said.

But every program has its drawbacks, and at Cal Poly, Shelton sees two major weaknesses.

“We need more research space at Cal Poly,” he said. “It’s something that we really haven’t developed to the degree that we need so that the students can do the high-tech, cutting-edge kind of research that we need.”

He said it’s not a problem limited to Cal Poly; it’s a state university struggle.

“We also need to look at faculty workload as it relates to research activities,” Shelton said, adding that the deans and provost are currently looking into a solution to adequately support faculty.

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