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    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online


Dual Degree Dos and Don’ts

One GradHacker reflects on pursuing two degrees at once.

December 10, 2015

Patrick Bigsby is a student, employee, and wrestling fan at the University of Iowa. Sometimes, he tweets.



Graduate students might be motivated to tackle two graduate degree programs simultaneously for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they wish to distinguish themselves on the job market or gain a professional certification. Perhaps they are intellectual conquerors unable to resist another challenge. Perhaps, as in the case of my colleague Regina Sierra Carter, it is a matter of the heart. Whatever the reasons, pursuing dual degrees can mean a significant outlay - literally twice as much - of time, money, energy, and other resources graduate students already have in short supply. With my own dual status winding down in the upcoming semester, I wanted to reflect on the process and offer some tips for students considering taking both routes at the fork in their academic road.


DO blaze your own trail. Despite having twice as many classmates, being a dual degree student can be a lonely existence. Even the most common combinations are still relatively rare (for example, the JD/MHA cohort  at my school has grown exponentially to a whopping four students). Program administrators and faculty won’t have all the answers about which classes you’ll need to take when and, with at least two mentors, you’ll probably end up with conflicting answers half the time. Since curricula are designed for students with only half of the schedule you’ll have, you probably won’t always be able to take everything in order, anyway. And instead of grabbing a sandwich with your classmates after Intro to Research Methods, you’ll have to run across campus to get to your professional practice seminar.


DON’T expect any support. In my first semester as a dual degree graduate student, the dean for one of my programs told me to quit the other. About a week later, my advisor in the other program told me to drop out of the first. I ignored them both - and am glad I did - but it was still jarring to hear my goals summarily dismissed by the people I had moved 1800 miles to learn from, especially since they had been the ones advertising the dual degree option. In short, you’ll need to stick to your goals and serve your motives, not anyone else’s.


DO let yourself have a favorite program. It’s okay to like one of your degree tracks more than the other, whether on a day-to-day or semester-to-semester basis. There will be days where you’ll need to pay more attention to one program and neglect the other, depending on the deadlines and benchmarks of each. There will be days when you really click with a teacher in one program and are actively avoiding the faculty in the other. This is normal and, most importantly, necessary to preserve your sanity and manage your time effectively.


DON’T practice false modesty or false martyrdom. As a dual degree student, you’ll be doing something extremely difficult that very few people do. Whether or not you enrolled in both programs with the intent of standing out, you will stand out and you’d be doing yourself a disservice not to emphasize your unique commitment to your advisor, your thesis committee, your dean, any anyone who will ever read your resume or professional biography. However, you’ll be doing something extremely difficult that you volunteered to do and you’ll find it hard to garner sympathy when you tell your single-program peers how hard your life is. Quietly accrue twice as many successes and your work will do the talking for you.


DO ask a lot of questions in advance. Talk to the highest-ranking representatives in each department you can get hold of prior to enrolling. Ask how many students have completed the joint degrees you’re seeking and what those graduates are up to now. Ask how long it will take you to complete the degrees and how much time, if any, you’ll save by working on them simultaneously. Ask for financial support from both programs. Ask for reasons why you shouldn’t be a dual degree student. It is impossible to get too much information.


DON’T take ‘no’ for an answer. Being a dual degree student requires creative problem solving. This typically means frequent and early communication with registrars, financial aid officers, and departmental administrators. You’ll be bringing them problems of first impression, so be prepared to identify alternative courses to that required class you can’t fit into your schedule, to offer other tasks you could do to fill our your assistantship duty, to compromise your lunch hour in order to get your ‘excessive hours’ waiver signed. Many people, including your peers and the faculty, will believe you can’t succeed. Don’t listen to them.


Are you currently enrolled in dual degree programs? What are your successes? Your struggles? Let us know your tricks of the dual trade in the comments!


[Image by Flickr User Roadsidepictures and used under Creative Commons license]


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