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Fast-tracked to Success

With The Graduate School’s combined programs, students can earn both undergraduate and graduate degrees in five years, saving time and money

Posted in: Graduate School, Homepage News, University

Photo of Montclair State University students Aaron Smith and Nikki-James Soto
Aaron Smith, left, and Nikki-James Soto are each working toward both their undergraduate and graduate degrees through Montclair State’s combined degree programs.

Montclair State senior Aaron Smith of Clifton has his sights set on a career as a marketing executive and says the University’s 4+1 program is his ticket to get there.

“I do see myself in the more creative side of marketing and definitely in the sports, entertainment or pharmaceutical industry,” Smith says.

Based on his academic and job experience, plus a newly acquired business analysis and operations internship at Movado Group Inc.’s corporate headquarters in Paramus, Smith is off to a good start. He expects to graduate in May 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in Business with a concentration in Marketing and an accelerated MBA through the University’s combined programs.

Smith, 22, is one of many students across dozens of disciplines who are enjoying the benefits of Montclair State’s more than 70 combined programs through The Graduate School, which provides students a way to earn two degrees in just five years, saving them and/or their families up to $7,000 in tuition costs and fees.

While it was the financial savings that drew Smith and his family to the program, he also likes that he can balance his studies and a part-time job, which helps pay for school expenses.

Ultimately, it was the opportunity to earn a master’s degree sooner rather than later – and avoid having to juggle a full-time career and a master’s program in the future – that sold him. The MBA will also give him an advantage over the competition, he says.

“The hard work is worth it. There are more people with their bachelor’s now, and when it comes to having a master’s not as many people have that, so if you really want to make it, you have to take that next step,” Smith says. “The master’s also grants you a little extra money in terms of long-term career development.”

According to The Graduate School, Montclair State offers more combined programs than any other academic institution in New Jersey. The combined programs provide a seamless transition between undergraduate and graduate studies, allowing students to work toward both degrees simultaneously, says Scott Herness, vice president of research and dean of The Graduate School. In addition, most programs do not require standardized tests.

Ariana Leyton
Ariana Leyton ’17, ’18 MS

Ariana Leyton ’17, ’18 MS, who completed a combined sustainability science program, now works for Montclair State as the project coordinator for University Communications and Marketing. She says the program was the best choice for her.

“I liked that I was able to take graduate courses my senior year of my bachelor’s degree,” says the 26-year-old Bloomfield resident. “I was able to understand how demanding graduate courses are. It was nice to see how much I had to put aside mentally before I got there.”

As a bonus, Leyton says, “I made friends, and when I went into the program, I saw friendly faces and knew some of the professors there, so I didn’t feel like I was going to a whole new school.”

She says while some friends chose to pursue master’s degrees at different universities or take some time off between degrees, she chose the combo route.

“Once I was in it, it was such an easy transition,” Leyton says. “I’m glad I didn’t wait. I’m glad I didn’t put it off. And before I knew it, it was over. I knew that I’d made the right decision.”

Nikki-James Soto, a senior from Parsippany, combined a K-6 bachelor’s with a master’s in teaching program and is getting an early start to professional success as a teacher. She has a double major and expects to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in Psychology in spring 2022 and with master’s in Elementary Education with a Certification in Teaching Students with Disabilities in spring 2023.

Soto has taken advantage of the combined K-6 Bachelor’s/Master of Arts in Teaching program as she prepares to join Montclair State alumni in New Jersey schools, teachers who are addressing social inequalities that continue to impact educational experiences and outcomes for many students. She aspires to make real differences in the classroom and in the lives of her students.

“I could have also gone into the teaching workforce with only my Elementary Education certification but then I would not be able to teach students with disabilities,” Soto says. “Also, I would be less marketable and make less money. Doing both at the same time also is costing me less money overall. It is nice to not have to worry about going back to school and possibly not having the opportunity to once I start working full time in the education world.”

The best part of her combined experience?

“Being able to collaborate, learn from and grow with your peers,” Soto says. “You take the same classes with your cohort and mine is about 50 students. It is nice having a support system [made up of other students] facing the same challenges as you. I also enjoy being exposed to the diversity and social issues within the school system and outside of it that affects students I will teach.”

Marco Finocchiaro ’14 of Montclair says the combined program not only helped him save time and money, it jump-started his career. He graduated with both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Aquatic and Coastal Science. The 32-year-old now serves as chief of the Wetlands Protection Section for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region 2.

“If I had to do a separate program or two-year program after a four-year undergraduate, there is a chance I would have put it off or not gone back at all due to lack of motivation.”

Additionally, it facilitated his graduate work, he says: “I was able to identify potential projects for my graduate thesis while still in undergrad which led to a better research project with a well thought out goal.”

He urges other students to take advantage of the combined programs.

“It gives you an opportunity to continue building upon the educational foundation you built in your undergraduate studies while capitalizing on the relationships built with university faculty who you already know,” Finocchiaro says. “It helps take some of the inherent stress out of graduate school since you’re able to line up your postgraduate research vision while your undergraduate coursework and overall research interests are fresh in your mind.”

Smith says being a part of his combined program cohort and participating in the Accelerated MBA Mentorship Program have also contributed to his academic experience.

Without his cohort “this program would be a lot harder,” he says. “That’s how we keep up to date with what’s going on in the classes, and we learn to work with different people. That’s what we’re going to do once we get our jobs.”

He also credits one class in particular for his success thus far, that of Professor Tara Chiari, a career coach for the accelerated program, who teaches a class on business leadership development.

“That class is pretty much how I got my internship at Movado,” Smith says. “That class really builds you up in terms of making sure your resume is right, following your values, and understanding yourself in terms of what type of leader you want to become. That was one of the best classes I’ve taken in the program.”

Talk with your advisor to see if you are on track to be considered for a combined program (minimum GPA varies by program). Visit the Combined Programs website for more information.

Story by staff writer Sylvia A. Martinez, Photos by University photographer Mike Peters