Dual Degree Programs | An Overview

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Graduate schools are offering more dual degree programs in order to meet increasing student demand for specialized educational options. Also referred to as joint or combined degree, a dual-degree allows a graduate student to work towards two university degrees at the same time. The two degrees may be in complementary subjects and provides students with the opportunity to complete two degrees in less time than it would have taken them to earn separately. A dual degree is not a double major, like earning a master of science in both biology and chemistry, but involves earning two completely different degrees earned at the same time.

Dual degrees are particularly valuable if one degree focuses on professional capacity (law, accounting, marketing, foreign language knowledge) and the other focuses on issues you are passionate about or a setting you plan to work in (environmental science, international affairs, public health, theater, faith-based organizations, museum studies, library science). Often PhDs, Master’s in Business Administration (MBA) and Juris Doctor (JD, law degree) are combined with other master’s programs. Some common dual degree programs include: Master’s of Public Health (MPH) and Master’s in Social Work (MSW), Juris Doctor (JD) and Master’s of Public Policy (MPP), and Master’s of Business Administration (MBA) and Master’s of Public Administration (MPA).

Working on two degrees at once does not mean students have to double up on their course load each semester. Dual degree programs typically allow students to focus on one or the other degree program at any given time. There might also be some overlap in required courses, in that case those credits would count towards both degrees. During academic terms when a student takes courses in both programs, the student is not expected to take more than the normal full-time course load.

The Dual Degree Admissions Process

As a prospective graduate student seeking a dual degree, you will most likely need to apply to apply to your programs of interest separately. Admissions decisions for different graduate programs are made independently and admission to one does not depend on or guarantee admission to the other. After you are admitted to both, you may apply for dual status.

Be careful to follow each application process to the letter if you are applying simultaneously; do not “recycle” one piece of an application, such as your personal statement, for the same requirement in the other application. Each application should be specific to the program for which you are applying. Additionally, be sure to discuss your intent to pursue dual-degree status either now or in the future (if you are not applying for both degree programs at the same time) in your personal statement. It’s important to name these interests early so an advisor can counsel you as you progress through your graduate career and manage your dual degrees. It’s also your opportunity to explain how the dual degree will suit your career plans. The admissions staff reading your statement will want to know that you have considered your options thoroughly, understand how the two degrees will complement and enhance each other and have a clear idea of what is necessary to achieve your professional goals.

There may also be opportunities to apply other degrees once enrolled in your graduate program. If you’re denied a dual degree when you initially applied to graduate school, consider applying to the second program again in another year when you’ve had a chance to strengthen your candidacy if it still fits with your professional goals. Admission to competitive programs on campus, such as law or medicine, can help prove your qualifications when applying to another program. That said, as a candidate the bottom line is that you need the qualifications and credentials for both programs in order to pursue a dual degree.

The process for applying for a dual degree can vary by university and program so be sure to review the details for your specific schools and fields of interest.

What a dual degree looks like

Maggie Peters was enrolled in the Masters in International Environmental Policy Studies at Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS) where as a first year when she learned about the option for an seeking a dual MBA degree. She “had never considered an MBA” but after talking with a dual degree student in that program, she decided to go for it. MIIS requires a separate application process for dual degrees, but also allows current students to work towards the dual degree while applying separately for the program. As a result, Maggie was able to take business courses during her second year while she completed the MBA application (including studying for and taking the GMAT and submitting a letter of intent). One of Maggie’s favorite elements of her dual degree program is that she has had the opportunity to meet and make friends with a diverse group of students and peers in her two fields of study, which she sees as “starting a network with my future colleagues.”

Phillip Blanc had not planned on pursuing a dual degree as a medical student at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey but found an opportunity that peaked his interest at Harvard. Phillip pursued an accelerated Master’s in Public Health (MPH) at Harvard while taking time off between completing his degree and continuing on to residency as part of his school’s student scholar program. Taking advantage of his medical school’s allowance for a break in studies as a student scholar also gave him the opportunity to successfully complete a secondary degree, a rare opportunity given that completing another degree after medical school and before residency is very low because it breaks the flow of the medical track. As a concurrent medical student, Philip was able to complete his MPH in nine months at Harvard University and the schools worked together to arrange for that master’s degree to be conferred upon the receipt of his medical degree. Getting an MPH alongside his MD gave Phil a “more global understanding of our health care system before being expected to operate within it as a physician.”

Benefits of dual degrees

Diversify and specialize your education

Pursuing a dual degree allows you to receive an interdisciplinary education that will both diversify and specialize your training and knowledge. You could go on to build a career in either field on its own because you’ll be qualified in both; or you could find a niche career where you combine your mastery of both disciplines in a way that few other professionals can.

Broaden your network and opportunities

Taking courses in two programs and working in different issue areas through internships or classes will bring you into contact with professors, classmates, and colleagues from a range of experiences. While you won’t double your workload, you can potentially double your connections with a dual degree. This expanded network may open new doors for your summer and post-graduate plans and opportunities.

Optimize your investment of money and time

Pursuing two degrees in a dual degree program as opposed to separately can streamline your investment of time and money while at grad school. You may be able to receive “mutual crediting” for required courses that overlap in both programs. For example, if macroeconomics is required for both your MBA and MPA programs, you will only have to take the course once and get credit for completion of the requirement in both programs. By completing two degrees in an accelerated amount of time, you will also be able to take those skills back into the workforce earlier.

Increase your options

Another benefit of applying to a dual degree program is that applying simultaneously to two programs increases your options. If you get into both, it does not mean that you have to enroll in both and you may ultimately decide that you only want to pursue one degree. Alternately, you may only be accepted by one program, giving you a sort of fallback plan to your original dual degree aspirations. Applying for a dual-degree program solely as a fallback plan is not wise however.

In Phillip’s case, he believes that the MPH “has increased my attractiveness as an applicant in residency interviews. Potential employers are looking for great clinicians and outstanding leaders. A secondary degree communicates that you’re someone serious and committed to being a contributor in your field.” Maggie agrees, sharing that her education will make her “more marketable, especially as more green policies are mandated on corporations.”

Potential challenges

More graduation requirements

Pursuing a joint degree requires a strong commitment to completing two programs and their required coursework. Every field of study has its difficult courses and you will be required to master the challenging courses of both degree programs. Depending the degrees you are combining, you may also find you need to adjust your study and testing habits. Philip for example, had to get used to writing more essays for his MPH program as opposed to the exams he had been taking as a part of his medical degree.

Managing the demands of two programs

In order to complete your dual degree program, it’s important to meet regularly with your graduate advisor to make sure you’re able to stay on top of all of your coursework and meet all of your requirements on time. It can take some balancing to make sure you’re not taking all of your most challenging courses at one time and planning ahead for any scheduling conflicts for classes, internships or other commitments.

Taking advantage of all the resources available to you

Phillip shares he “had to prioritize and ask himself, what am I going to get out of my time here besides my degree?” when he arrived at Harvard. He made a point of building relationships on campus to expand his network but found it difficult to balance with his heavy accelerated course load. Maggie agrees and expanded that it was hard to “find time to dedicate to both my passion for the environment, and the intense intellectual obligation to fully learn and absorb the academic requirements of both degrees in just three years.”.

Questions and terms to look out for

As one last resource, we wanted to share a list of questions and terms to look out for to help you evaluate dual degree options. Answers to these questions can typically be found on school program websites or through contacting specific program or admissions offices.

  • Mutual crediting: Will your credits from one degree apply to the other degree credit requirements?
  • Time to complete the joint degree: How much additional time will it take you to earn both degrees? Can you complete the degrees on a part-time basis?
  • Residency requirements: Where will you be expected to live on or around campus during the programs? (In some cases you may be able to attend some online coursework.)
  • Cost and financial aid: What will your tuition be for each program’s course credits? Will you still be eligible for fellowships and other forms of funding?
  • Admissions: What is the deadline for applying for a joint degree in another graduate program after commencing one degree program?

It’s important to carefully consider what it is you’re hoping to get out of your graduate school experience as you research and apply to dual degree programs. We hope this introduction, the stories from Phillip and Maggie and some of the pros and cons of dual degrees help you navigate your next steps and explore whether a dual degree program may be right for you.