How to Decide Whether You Should do a Dual Degree in Graduate School

Guest Post from Elisa, Consultant for The Art of Applying

Dual Degree Programs:
To Dual or Not to Dual?

Spending a full two years out of the workforce to receive an advanced degree is a huge decision to make for any young professional.  Adding another degree and more time out of the workforce can make it even more difficult.

Attending a dual degree program has advantages. You gain two areas of deep expertise and understand how they work together, from engineering and management, to public policy and management, and beyond.  It also opens up another network of professionals that are subject matter experts in their fields that you can work with in the future.  

So why consider a dual degree?

I can’t comment on everyone’s case, but I can share my story and why I chose to pursue a dual degree.  

After graduating from Bryn Mawr College, I worked in Washington, DC for a small corporate human resources-focused lobbying firm. As I learned more about law, lobbying, the U.S. government, and human resources, I saw the influence the private sector has on education, healthcare, and other policy areas.  I wanted to be on the side of the table that was writing checks, not herding cats.

I looked at a few programs at different schools, some with MBAs, some with masters in HR or Operations, and some dual degree programs. I wanted a short, focused list of schools, so I looked at what I’m good at, what I wanted from a school, and what I wanted in my career.  

What I’m Good At

What I Want From My School

What I want for my Career

  • Communicating with diverse groups of people, written and oral
  • Problem solving with applying research methodology
  • Teaching others how to do things
  • Learning quickly
  • Personalized experience
  • Ability to grow a strong network
  • Provide diverse range of experiences
  • Small class size
  • Solve big, ambiguous problems that impact society as a whole
  • Use my interest in organizational psychology/human resources to build or support a business
  • Be as well versed in other parts of the business as HR, and gain a leadership position somewhere

Based on this criteria, I was able to whittle down my list of schools to six.  I applied to MBA, Masters of HR programs, and dual degree programs. It wasn’t until I went through the application process that I realized that I wanted to go to a dual degree program over the Masters-only or MBA-only programs.  

I wanted to be a T-shaped professional, not an I-shaped professional.  In other words, I wanted to have broad knowledge across a business and deep expertise in Organizational Psychology.  I was lucky to be accepted into Cornell’s MBA/MILR dual degree program (MBA & Masters in Industrial and Labor Relations). Thus began my journey through graduate school.

Focus your learning, but be open to new experiences

Graduate school is more focused than undergraduate and it’s also a place where you can continue to test different areas of interests. I learned my first year at the Industrial School for Labor Relations that I was really interested in organizational structure, communications, and culture.  This helped me direct how I would spend the next year and a half in the MBA program.  I focused my MBA studies on marketing and consumer behavior.  I was able to marry two different specializations in psychology through two different business disciplines, which served me well during my internships and career.

Because I was T-shaped, I have been able to move to different parts of large enterprises and play different roles in startups.  My two internships during graduate school were with IBM, one as an internal human resources consultant, and one in enterprise sales.  I had two very different experiences, which would have been impossible as an MBA or Masters in HR.  

From these, I was accepted into a management rotational program at IBM, where I held roles in HR, Marketing, and Finance.  It is rare for someone like me to have such different roles at IBM, and I credit my ability to move across departments to my dual degree.  I was able to speak the language of a variety of functions, because I had the strong foundation from the dual degree.

The past few years, I’ve been working at tech startups in a variety of roles.  I’ve helped build a culture and processes around recruiting and talent management for two different companies. In my roles, I have hired over 70 people.  I’ve also helped build two brands through content, social media, and direct sales.  Without my broad base of knowledge from my dual program, I don’t think I could have been as effective in my performance.  Throughout my post-grad career, I’ve been able to use my network of subject matter experts in human resources, marketing, and other areas as sounding boards for career and project advice.

How to know if a dual degree is worth pursuing:

Looking back, I believe that most of my experiences in my career thus far would have been impossible without having both the MBA and Masters.  

If you are considering a dual degree, I’d encourage you to consider a few things:

  • What advantages will the dual degree give you over just an MBA or Masters?
  • How do you value those advantages in the long term?
  • How does the dual degree align with your career goals?
  • What career do I want to have, and how will the dual degree help me get there?
  • How open am I to pursuing a different path if my current plans don’t work out?  How flexible is my future career path?
  • How focused am I on my career goals?
  • Will the dual degree still be useful if I discover another career path?

If you still find yourself drawn towards a dual degree after you answer these questions, I know that you will be happy spending the extra time in graduate school to specialize in a specific area of study in addition to your MBA.  

Best of luck with making your decision!


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