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Joint-degree programs: An overview

Graduate schools are offering more joint-degree programs in order to meet increasing student demand for specialized educational options. A joint-degree program (see sidebar) is one in which a student enrolls simultaneously in two graduate programs (usually within the same university), and works towards two graduate degrees, with the support and blessing of both programs.


Different names, same concept

The terms "concurrent" or "dual" degree are sometimes used instead of "joint degree."


Some graduate programs come together through a formal agreement to design a way for a student to earn the two degrees (one in each program) in an abbreviated period. At other schools students may design their own joint-degree program. Joint degrees can be combinations of the following: law (JD), medicine (MD), doctorate (Ph.D. or other), professional masters (such as MPP, Ed.M), and/or academic masters; see our article "What's the difference between a masters and a doctoral degree?" for more information on these degree types. Joint-degree programs are most commonly offered in law and business schools.


Common joint degrees

Some common joint-degrees include: MBA/JD, JD/MPP, MD/MPH, and MBA/Ed.M.


Working on two degrees at once does not mean students have to double up on their course load each semester. Joint-degree programs typically allow students to focus on one or the other degree program at any given time. 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.

Two degrees, two admissions applications

As a prospective graduate student seeking a joint degree, you will most likely need to apply simultaneously to the two graduate programs that offer your degrees of interest. After you are admitted to both, you may apply for joint status. For specific instructions for enrolling in joint degrees at your target school(s), read their website.

If you are already enrolled in a graduate program, you may be able to apply to another one (whether at your current university or another), letting both schools know that you would like joint status. It is important to check with both graduate programs beforehand to make sure this is acceptable and to find out if there is a standard process for applying to the second program. For example, to apply to the Boston University JD/MPH or MD/MPH dual degree program, you can either apply simultaneously or after enrolling in the law or business program. Applying for a joint law or medical degree as an MPH student is much harder since the dual degree program is structured to give the most benefit to current law and medical students. Knowing this in advance would obviously affect your graduate school application plans if you were applying to the Boston University School of Public Health MPH program first.

Also, being a current graduate student of one program does not automatically qualify you for another program at the same university, although it may increase the likelihood of acceptance. Admission into a very competitive program on campus, such as law or medicine, can help prove your qualifications when applying to another program.

Working the other way, applying for an "easier" graduate program as a strategy to get admitted into a second, more competitive degree program later, however, is not advisable. Korey Garibaldi, recruitment coordinator at the University of Minnesota Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, says, "people do try that, but… it doesn't work. [P]rospects… should have the qualifications/credentials for both programs."

Admissions decisions for different graduate programs are made separately; admission to one does not depend on or guarantee admission to the other. 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.

In your personal statement be sure to discuss your intent to pursue joint-degree status either now or in the future (if you are not applying for both degree programs at the same time), and the reasons for such. Whether you decide to pursue the joint degree later is not as important, because they understand you will be working closely with an advisor who will be able to counsel you as you progress through your graduate career and as you find other and perhaps more appropriate opportunities.

Your personal statement is where you have the opportunity to explain how the joint degree will suit your career plans. The admissions staff reading your statement will want to know that you have considered your options thoroughly and have a clear idea of what is necessary to achieve your professional goals. Phil Blanc, a joint-degree student we interviewed, encourages joint-degree applicants to "think about the how the two degrees will complement each other and express your unique goals. The stronger you can make the case for how they will enhance each other, the stronger an applicant you will be."

The best part about the separate admissions processes is that if you are admitted to only one of the programs, you can still go to grad school! In another year when you've had a chance to strengthen your candidacy, consider applying again to that second program if it still fits with your professional goals.

Idealist spoke with students pursuing joint degrees and asked them to share their insights on this approach to graduate study. Maggie Peters was enrolled in the Masters in International Environmental Policy Studies at Monterey Institute of International Studies as a first year when she learned about the option for an MBA dual. She "had never considered an MBA" but after talking with a dual degree student in that program, she "decided to go for it" as well. MIIS requires a separate application process for joint 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).

Phillip Blanc had not planned on pursuing a secondary degree as a medical student at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. Fortunately, his school allows students to take time off as a "student scholar" before completing their degrees and continuing on to residency. He shares, "I am thankful to have had the opportunity to complete a Masters in Public Health at a different institution between my third and fourth year of medical school." As a concurrent medical student, Phil was able to complete an accelerated MPH course in nine months at Harvard University with the understanding that the masters degree would be conferred upon the receipt of his medical degree.

Potential benefits

As Phil says, when it comes to benefits of a joint-degree program, there are "too many to name!" Nevertheless, a few prominent advantages are discussed below.

Diversify and specialize your education

Earning a joint degree can confer many educational, personal, professional, financial, and time-saving benefits. Perhaps the most widely promoted benefit of a joint degree is receiving an interdisciplinary education that will both diversify and specialize your training and knowledge. In other words, 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.

Joint 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).

For Maggie, "The benefits of obtaining a joint degree include expanding my knowledge base… This scholastic experience has opened my eyes to various [environmental and natural resource conservation] solutions that businesses are able to integrate." Likewise getting an MPH gave Phil a "more global understanding of our health care system before being expected to operate within it as a physician" and "afforded [him] a foundation to… begin a discussion on where our health care system is going and should go." Additionally, he shares that he has returned to his medical studies with "a sense of maturity and confidence" that he did not expect, especially given that he didn't do any clinical work for the term of his public health masters program.

There are many combinations of joint degrees that can fit your intentions and interests. For example, you may be passionate about international human rights protection and choose to look for graduate programs that offer a law and global public policy joint degree. Or you may be interested in shaping better public policy through the lens of social services and pursue a Masters in Social Work with a Masters in Public Policy.

Broaden your network and opportunities

Additionally, a joint degree can broaden your network and opportunities. Taking courses in another school and working in different issue areas through internships or classes will bring you into contact with professors, classmates, and colleagues who have diverse life experiences and goals.

Phil says his masters program "opened up a global network and community of like-minded, amazing people from all over the world to me." He was "inspired to be around a group of public-service focused peers and to interact with such diverse, intellectually and personality-wise, students." Maggie has found many opportunities outside of the classroom to integrate both environmental solutions and business logic and broaden her educational experience. As the Environmental Initiatives Coordinator in the President's Office, she helped implement a ban of Styrofoam on campus—"I had to talk with the campus food service representative, who spoke little English, to phase out their use of the material, and researched and found an alternative that was not only environmentally friendly, but ended up being a local product and by far, the most cost-effective." She has also had the opportunity to meet and make a friends with a diverse group of students and peers in her two fields of study, which she sees as "starting [a] network here with my future colleagues."

Your joint-degree education and expanded network may open new doors for your summer and post-graduate plans. Combining a professional skill set and area specialization can help establish you as an expert in a niche, open new opportunities to you, and give you an edge professionally.

Optimize your investment of money and time

Pursuing two degrees jointly versus separately can optimize 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, you may only have to take the course once and get credit for completion of the requirement in both programs. Mutual crediting is one way you can save time and money in a joint-degree program. By completing your degrees in an accelerated amount of time, you will also be back in the workforce and earning an income sooner. Be sure to check with the financial aid office at your school(s) to make sure you know how a joint-degree program will affect your financial outlook in terms of graduate education payments and personal budget. You may still be able to apply for fellowships and assistantships—again check with your target schools for details.

Due to Phil's background, he qualified for an accelerated MPH 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. Amongst medical students, the likelihood of completing another degree after medical school and before residency is very low because it breaks the flow of the medical track.

On the other hand, Maggie cautions, "I have heard fellow students who are considering a dual degree express their interest in obtaining the extra degree solely for the purpose of having it 'look good on a resume,' rather than it helping them secure their ideal job." In her case, Maggie envisions creating a new position at a large corporation as the "CSO, or 'Chief Sustainability Officer,' and working with smaller teams to ensure that every aspect of the corporation is sustainable from the products offered to the lighting in the work space."

Increase your options

Another benefit of applying to a joint-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. 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 joint-degree aspirations. Applying for a joint-degree program solely as a fallback plan is not, however, wise. If you are really interested in a degree program such as education and it is offered in a joint-degree program with public policy, it is better to focus on applying to several education programs rather than just applying to the joint-degree program and getting admitted into only the policy program.

In Phil'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

Pursuing a joint degree requires a strong commitment to completing two programs, each with their own requirements. The total time involved will be longer than completing a single degree program (though likely less time than completing two separate degree programs). Additionally, every field of study has its difficult courses. In a joint-degree program you'll be required to master the challenging courses of both degree programs.

Phil admits that it was easy to think that the "public health program would be easier than medical school." He discovered that while he had "more free time overall" when it came down to finals and deadlines, his studies had the "same intensity, just a different nature." Instead of taking exams, he was writing papers.

Another challenge he faced was taking advantage of all the resources available to him during his time at Harvard, within his own program and on campus. Phil says he "really had to prioritize and ask himself, 'What am I going to get out of my time here besides my degree? Socially, professionally, and personally?'" He spent a lot of time building relationships—"perhaps at the cost of academics"—but he believes that he was able to develop a network of peers that may lead to opportunities in the future. Phil also took a public speaking class that he found invaluable. "These are challenges that can be easily turned into opportunities."

As Maggie concurs, "It is challenging to find an adequate amount of 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." Staying in school for an extra year and taking out more loans is difficult to think about, but she also "sees [her joint degree] as an investment [that] will see returns for many years to come."

Although more grad schools are offering greater options for study—including formal and ad hoc joint-degree programs and part-time study—you may have less flexibility in pursuing school part-time when completing a joint degree.

Also, your schools may have restrictions on residency for many or most of the semesters. (Residency rules determine whether you must live within commuting distance to campus, or may live elsewhere to complete research and writing. Some grad schools will allow you to complete your degree at an affiliate campus, such as a grad school in another country.) Residency requirements can take on added significance since residency can affect tuition costs at many state universities and colleges.

Searching for or creating your own joint-degree program

Start with a degree that you most want, and approach the websites or admissions staff of your target schools to find out what the options are. Phil encourages people to "go after what they want and don't settle for anything less. Your joint degree will be an expression of how unique you are—that one degree isn't enough to round out your education."

It's best if you have already determined what role you'd like to play and what issue areas are most appealing to you. Phil advises that developing "a niche as soon as possible is important because then you can explore opportunities to get you where you want to go. You'll be super fine-tuned when you write your personal statement for a joint-degree program."

As Maggie says, above all, considering a joint-degree program "should be fully thought out, weighing both the benefits and disadvantages." She strongly recommends having "a clear idea of… career goals and a complete knowledge of the requirements to obtaining that career. Only by knowing where [you] want to go with [your] life can a person know the tools required for the journey."

When investigating joint-degree programs, here are some things to look for or ask about:

  • Mutual crediting: Will your credits from one degree apply to the other degree's credit requirements, and vice versa?
  • 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 during the programs?
  • 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?

Also ask yourself if the joint-degree combination you are interested in will teach you the skills you want and help you specialize in an issue area you care about.

  • Chapter Three of the Idealist Guide to Nonprofit Careers
    Part of this free book, the Four Lens Framework exercise can help you clarify what draws you to certain areas of work.

Conclusion and further resources

Since many public service career paths are ill-defined, having two complementary degrees can be invaluable in establishing yourself as an expert in your niche field, both diversifying and specializing your skills and knowledge, and expanding your network and the opportunities available to you. A joint-degree program has many benefits as well as challenges, so be sure to take into account the extra level of planning and coordination required as you consider if this is the right choice for you.

  • "Doing the Dual: Is a Joint or Dual Degree Program Right for You?"
    This article from JDAdmission.com discusses the merits of a dual degree approach to law school.