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Duke '4 + 1' program students discuss pros, challenges of completing two degrees in five years

<p>The offices of the Graduate School now occupy what used to be House 2 for faculty.&nbsp;</p>

The offices of the Graduate School now occupy what used to be House 2 for faculty. 

As if finishing your bachelor’s degree in four years wasn’t enough, several Duke students have elected to complete both their undergraduate and master’s programs in five years thanks to Duke’s “4 + 1” programs. 

These programs—which typically involve taking a combination of undergraduate and ​​graduate programs during  undergraduate senior year and switching to full-time graduate studies for the fifth year—range from engineering to global health.

One reason students said they chose to complete a “4 + 1” program was their desire to add depth to the knowledge they gained from their undergraduate major classes.

After her junior year, Arthi Kozhumam, Trinity ’21 and MS ’22, felt like she knew “quite a bit,” but not enough, inspiring her to pursue the accelerated Master of Science in Global Health through the Duke Global Health Institute. 

“I felt like I had a shallow dive into a lot of fields [from undergraduate coursework], like one epidemiology class and one methods class, but I never really felt like I got a deep dive into anything. So the master’s let me focus in more, and it kind of showed me what research area I wanted to pursue for my PhD and otherwise, I don’t think I would have had that clarity,” Kozhumam continued. 

She plans to pursue a joint medical and doctorate degree at Northwestern University next year. 

Gracie Joo, Trinity ’22, echoed Kozhumam’s sentiment, deciding to pursue the Sanford School of Public Policy’s accelerated Master of Public Policy because she wanted to focus on health policy. 

“If you’re taking other classes and trying out different degree programs, it’s really hard to focus on one area of policy,” Joo said. “But in the grad program, you have the option to concentrate... so the depth that you can achieve in your understanding of one policy area is amazing.” 

Another reason students cited as influential in their decision to pursue one of Duke’s “4 + 1”  programs was the reduced price of obtaining a master’s degree in just one additional year after undergraduate study. 

Joo said that while she would have hoped to get an MPP even if Duke didn’t have the accelerated program, she may not have been able to afford the degree “at a place like Duke.”

“The big pull of the ‘4 + 1’ for me was definitely the financial aid aspect of things,” she said. 

For other students, an accelerated master’s program was simply the fastest way to reach their professional goals. 

For Jordan Hepburn, Trinity ’21 and Nursing School ’22, pursuing the University School of Nursing Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing was the most practical option after he decided he wanted a career in nursing.

“I think for anybody that goes to Duke and wants to do nursing, it makes a lot of sense to do the bridge program,” Hepburn said. “I wouldn’t wait until after senior year to start [nursing school].” 

Duke’s accelerated master’s programs vary in structure, from the MS-GH, which requires students take one graduate-level course per semester of their senior year, to the MPP, which expects undergraduate seniors in the program to take a full graduate course load as seniors and overload with any remaining undergraduate requirements. 

Similar to the accelerated MS-GH, the Pratt School of Engineering’s accelerated Bachelor of Science in Engineering and Master's Degree Program only requires that senior undergraduate students take two graduate-level courses. 

Vanessa Tam, Pratt ’22, said that the academic transition wasn’t “too difficult,” since she chose to take business-oriented classes during her senior year as an undergraduate rather than the more technical engineering courses she will be taking during her fifth year. Tam is currently pursuing her masters degree in biomedical engineering. 

While Joo overloaded both semesters of her senior year for the first time because she had two Trinity courses left to take, she said that the Sanford graduate classes were manageable for her. 

“Academically, the difficulty wasn’t too big of a difference,” Joo said. “The one thing that stood out to me was that the grad classes were a lot more application-based. That was one of the reasons I decided to apply, because I really noticed that gap in my education.” 

Even though Joo felt prepared for the academic rigor of graduate school, she struggled with imposter syndrome at first. 

“I think that’s a constant battle for ‘4 + 1’ students — knowing that just because I don’t have any professional experience doesn’t mean I’m any less intelligent, less qualified.”

Several students said that navigating the social transition was a bit more challenging than the graduate-level coursework itself.

Despite being in a full master’s-level course load, Joo said that she is “still figuring out” the transition to graduate school on a social level. 

“This year I definitely prioritized my undergrad social circles way more than my graduate school social circles,” she said. “But next year I think will be the real transition.”

However, Joo added, she has had nothing but positive experiences with her graduate cohort classmates, many of whom are much older than her. 

“They don’t look down on me for being young,” Joo said about groups of classmates who are ten years older than year, colleagues who have kids or had full-blown careers. 

Hepburn said that his enrollment in the nursing school made his senior year and graduation feel “not as final.” 

“I think what it did was kind of take away the permanence of everything. I do think the fact that I was going to stick around made it feel like I was seeing friends off rather than us going our separate ways,” Hepburn said. 

Despite the unique social and academic challenges that come with being an accelerated master’s student, all four students are grateful for the opportunity and think that their degrees will help them in the future academic and professional pursuits. 

“I’m getting to learn from other grad program peers about their careers in the past and what they’ve experienced,” Joo said. “I really feel like I’m gaining a lot of wisdom from them.” 

Anna Zolotor profile
Anna Zolotor

Anna Zolotor is a Trinity senior and recruitment chair for The Chronicle's 118th volume. She was previously news editor for Volume 117.


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