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Are Two Degrees Better Than One?

Kim Doody has based her future on a combination of her three favorite television shows—E.R., Law and Order, and The West Wing. While she wants to practice medicine as a forensic psychiatrist, she also has her sights set on eventually becoming a health-policy expert, drafting legislation and steering the nation's health-care agenda. In a nutshell, she's aiming to be a future surgeon general or secretary of Health and Human Services. "I want to be in a place where I can affect changes in health policy," she says.

But Doody, 28, knew she needed to do more than just immerse herself in NBC's primetime lineup. So she enrolled in a joint-degree program at Southern Illinois University that allows her to simultaneously earn a JD and an MD. She's a month away from completing the six-year program and plans to pursue her medical residency in forensic psychiatry at the University of Colorado. While dancing this graduate degree two-step certainly isn't for the faint-hearted, Doody says that obtaining the extra law degree will make all the difference in reaching her career goal. "I feel like I could go in and write law right now. I can understand legislation," she says.

Although students enrolled in joint-degree programs make up only about five percent of the entire JD student population, many like Doody have decided that two degrees are better than one. And schools across the country have made them easier than ever to obtain by combining programs that attract students with all types of interests. Law students, for example, can get additional degrees in business, social work, public policy, international studies, computer science -- even religion.

For those with a focus like Doody's, dual degrees offer the opportunity to specialize by combining two disciplines that will help them reach their career goals. "I think that for students with particular interests, a [dual-degree] program has some special value," said Eugene Basanta, a law professor at Southern Illinois University, who co-directs the school's JD-MD program.

Less Time, More Skills

The opportunity to specialize isn't the only benefit. Joint-degree programs also give students the chance to reduce the amount of time it ordinarily takes to get these graduate degrees. For instance, a JD-MBA takes only four years (five semesters of law school and three of B-school)—one fewer semester for each discipline. A JD-MD takes only six years instead of the usual seven.

Moreover, a dual degree provides skills and knowledge that can give you a competitive edge in a tough job market. A long time ago, in a recession far, far away -- the early 1990s, actually -- Karl Schieneman was enrolled in the MBA program at Carnegie Mellon's Graduate School of Industrial Administration. But he feared that in such a poor economy an MBA alone might not be enough to set him apart from the pack and help him land the job of his dreams. So he decided to get a law degree, which Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh offers in a joint program, to bolster his resume.

After graduation, he went to work for Price Waterhouse as an accountant. Later, he switched gears to work as a temp attorney for a large Pittsburgh law firm, a job that inspired his current business. In 1995, he started Legal Network Ltd., a Pittsburgh-based placement service for temporary and contract attorneys. The company has been a huge success: Since 1996, it has grown nearly 1,500 percent in profits and employees. Schieneman, 36, gives much of the credit to his two degrees. "The MBA has been very helpful," he said. "I have been able to use my business background to analyze law firm operations ... and how we can help make them better legal organizations."

Worthwhile or Wasted Effort?

The jury's still out on whether two degrees make any sense, particularly for those who are set on practicing law. For starters, recruiters from big law firms often look down on applicants with joint degrees. Anne Brandt, associate director of the Law School Admission Council, explains that these firms not only shell out big bucks for their young associate hires, but also spend a lot of time training them. As a result, she says, some firms are wary of any hint -- such as a second degree -- that might indicate a lack of commitment to practicing law.

Geoffrey Lee, president of Counsel Source, an attorney recruiting company in Dallas, adds that most law students -- intent on solely practicing law after graduation -- should focus on improving their class rank rather than chasing down a second degree. From the perspective of a big firm, he argues, having knockout law grades always beats having two degrees, especially if the grades in both disciplines are mediocre. He goes as far as to say that, in this traditional milieu, "the JD-MBA ... is almost a waste of time." If your goal is to one day manage such a firm, however, a JD-MBA could be just the ticket. But from the purely legal side, an MBA doesn't add much value.

In addition, Brandt points out that you don't always need a second degree to specialize in a particular area of the law. She says that most top law schools offer a wide array of courses for students who want to concentrate on subjects off the beaten path. "It is not necessary to have a degree in computer science to represent a dot-com."

Expensive -- and Tough

Another downside to dual degrees is the sheer expense. For example, the total cost of a four-year JD-MBA at the University of Pennsylvania is roughly $160,000 for room, board, and tuition. "You're amassing an amazing amount of debt," says Rose Martinelli, the director of MBA admissions and financial aid at Penn's Wharton School. "You have to be silly to get a degree that you're not going to use." Still, obtaining this dual degree at Penn is about $40,000 cheaper than pursuing the two degrees separately.

And a joint program isn't only hard on your wallet. It's also very stressful and time-consuming. "There are going to be some dark days and long nights," says Southern Illinois University's Basanta. "You need to have the emotional, intellectual, and physical commitment."

Helpful Hints

For those who decide to take the dual-degree plunge, current and former students (who have lived to tell about it) offer some helpful advice. First, be smart about taking advantage of classmate networking. Schieneman explains that, for a young attorney, a JD-MBA can open many doors because many former B-school friends instantly become future clients. "You get the value of an MBA right there," he said.

In addition, understand that some graduate programs don't appreciate it when dual-degree students fill up valuable seats in their classes, then choose not to practice in that particular field. According to Basanta, law schools often don't care if their students opt for a profession other than the law. But others, such as medical schools, aren't so forgiving. "Giving up some seats in the class to educate people who won't [enter medicine]—I think medical schools don't like that," says Basanta.

So do your research before you apply. Look for programs that embrace the joint-degree student and allow you to fully integrate with both academic departments. Don't just jump into a second graduate program because you think another degree framed in your office will advance your career.

And Doody, the aspiring doctor and health-policy guru, offers a final piece of advice about obtaining a dual degree: It's all about perseverance, much like finishing a marathon. "The hardest thing is to stick with it ... It's hard to be a student that long," she said. "It's doable. Just keep your head down, and do it."

Provided by JD Jungle Magazine

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