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Stanford Engineering coterm students gain skills, experience and value in the marketplace

About 40 percent of the school’s undergraduates become coterms, leveraging their time at Stanford to add a master’s degree to their credentials.
Stanford coterm students Franco De La Paz, mechanical engineering, and Blair Huffman, electrical engineering, work in the Stanford Nanofabrication Facility. | Photo by Norbert von der Groeben

Today Justin Rosenstein is the co-founder of startup Asana and former engineering technical lead at Facebook. But only a few years ago he was an engineering student in Stanford’s coterm program, which allows students to pursue master’s degrees while still undergraduates.

"I was really grateful for the opportunity to seamlessly transition from undergrad into doing more advanced research,” said Rosenstein, whose company created a popular web-based productivity tool. “In particular, being able to go deep on my primary love – computer science – while continuing to take classes in my other areas of interest, including psychology and poetry, was a really special opportunity.”

Rosenstein isn’t alone. About 40 percent of School of Engineering undergraduates opt to pursue a coterminal master’s degree, according to recent data. Many do so for the reasons he cites – the opportunity to expand study of their majors and of classes outside their majors. For others, the primary reason is professional: An engineering master’s degree is highly valued in the marketplace.

“The coterm program brings a talented and diverse set of undergrads into our master’s program. They strengthen our student population – and faculty love them,” said Brad Osgood, a professor of electrical engineering and Associate Dean for Student Affairs in the School of Engineering.

Before he co-founded Instagram – the enormously popular photo-sharing app purchased by Facebook – Mike Krieger was a coterm student at Stanford. He earned his master’s and bachelor’s degrees in symbolic systems, an interdisciplinary field that blends cognitive sciences such as linguistics and psychology with technical fields such as artificial intelligence to explore how people and computers communicate through symbols.

In practical terms, Krieger credits the coterm for a direct impact on his success at Instagram. “While the undergrad degree offered broad perspective with a bit of everything, the coterm provided focus and depth. I learned how humans form networks and share information, both of which were valuable in the formulation of Instagram. Plus, I got to publish two papers, which I’m still proud of today.”

For Ashwin Bulchandani, chief risk officer at MatlinPatterson, an asset management firm in New York City, the coterm decision was one of precedence and personal necessity.

“My brother was also a coterm before me, so I knew the benefits. But as I approached graduation, I felt incomplete as a student. The coterm in engineering management offered the chance to add MBA-like skills in a relatively short time,” he said.

Bulchandani’s decision in 1991 helped him avoid the start-and-stop career path of many who go right into the workforce, only to return to graduate school later. Bulchandani found that the coterm made an immediate difference in his outlook.

“I was able to avoid the ‘Do I want to go back to grad school?’ question and found that the decision made me more committed to my chosen path because I wasn’t always wondering if and when to go back,” he said.

Krieger remembers his decision as a complex weighing of factors. “I debated between a full-on doctoral program, going straight into industry and the coterm,” Krieger said. “I decided I wasn’t ready for the six-year commitment of the PhD or for jumping straight into industry. So the coterm made a lot of sense, and it really wasn’t that much more time. I stayed extra summer and fall quarters.”

Time to graduation is a serious consideration for most students and one of the main reasons many undergraduates choose the workforce over further education. Master’s programs typically require three to five quarters of study after the bachelor’s degree. Although coterms have the same degree requirements, being able to pursue the degrees in tandem can shorten that timeline. Recent statistics show that 18 percent of engineering coterms are able to finish both degrees in four years. Nearly 70 percent wrap up both degrees in five years or less.

Interdisciplinary Welcome Sign

Krieger and Bulchandani came to engineering from symbolic systems, but they were not alone in joining from non-engineering disciplines. About 30 percent of coterms who receive their master’s in an engineering program are not engineering majors. There are, for instance, many economics majors in the graduate program in Management Science & Engineering, and many mathematics and symbolic systems undergrads in the Computer Science MS program.

The admission requirements vary by department, but interested applicants with strong academic records are eligible to apply when they’ve earned 120 units toward their bachelor’s degrees. For more information on applying to a coterm program, please visit the engineering coterms website or the specific department of interest.

Funding Pilot

Half of Stanford undergraduates receive need-based financial aid through the university, but that ends after four years of undergraduate eligibility. Engineering graduate support, in contrast, is merit-based, often PhD-focused and quite decentralized.

Coterms have several graduate funding options: loans, teaching or research assistantships, and fellowships. But the cost of additional quarters is a consideration for nearly three-quarters of those who choose not to pursue a coterm, according to a Stanford Engineering survey. For some, the unpredictability of funding was a particular concern. Coterms are often teaching assistants, for instance, but departments make those hiring decisions just weeks or days before each quarter begins.

To help address this and to expand the diversity of its coterm population, the school is piloting a one-year fellowship/assistantship award for those who qualified for financial aid as undergraduates. For more information on this pilot, see the coterm website or review information on applying for Dean's Office support. (A online application will be available by April 1.)

Hidden Benefits

For Bulchandani, the coterm paid dividends in subtle, and perhaps more important, ways in his growth as a person. “As an undergrad you are still a child, really. In graduate school you meet a different crowd. The experience was professional and collaborative, very much a real-world experience, and that prepared me well for business,” he said.

For Associate Dean Osgood, the coterm program is an example of how Stanford Engineering is finding ways to extend educational opportunities for as many students as possible.

“We’re fulfilling our mission to prepare students for leadership in engineering, and more and more that means earning a master’s degree before they go out in the world and do good work.”