Girl, Do You Really Need That Masters?

There’s mad hype around getting multiple degrees to complement or supplement a JD or MBA. It’s tempting: Why not apply to all the programs your heart desires? Pile ‘em on! What is there to lose?! Well, actually, a lot.

As someone who’s in the middle of a joint degree program, I can attest to the challenges: money, time, logistics of moving and relocating between programs, scheduling conflict, loss of leadership opportunities. Adding a degree will do nothing for you if you don’t have: (1) a clear vision for its use, (2) degrees that can operationalize into a job/networks/region that the other degree cannot, and (3) a clear understanding of which of the two is the core degree (more on what that means in a second).

I don’t say all of this to discourage anyone from pursuing a joint degree program. Not at all. I can’t talk seeing as how I’m pursuing a Masters of Public Affairs (which is essentially the same as a degree in public policy) and a JD. I think they’re quite resourceful, if done properly. A Masters degree can be an especially great way to structure and focus a graduate school education and should in no way be seen as a way to buffer your resume or a way to add some “thinking” time.

There is a general misconception that a Masters degree is not as poppin as a law degree or a business degree. Despite what the law snobs may assume, my Masters degree is in no way a sidepiece-type degree. It is actually the core of my graduate school education. What do I mean by that? It’s what I see myself doing in the long term, and the law degree is simply an extension of my focus on policy and the implications of law.

With this framework in mind, it’s easier for me to structure my law school classes around both: my regional focus, and the substantive courses that merge both the policy and law.

Now, here’s the fun part. How did I make this decision? Before applying, I thought through and unpacked a few goals:

What degree(s) is necessary in helping me to pursue my career?

I knew I did not want to strictly practice law for the long term. I wanted to understand the socioeconomic, political and economic implications of legal interpretation. I wanted rigorous statistics and economics training and wanted to be in a smaller program that would help me to tap into Policy work in DC. I wanted to structure my graduate school education around these goals, and needed a program that could mesh these goals with the most rigorous training. Once I laid out this groundwork, I thought through the various degree options.

Will this degree open up a regional network?

I wanted to be in DC. While my law degree offered me that opening, it did less so in the type of circles I wanted to tap into. I did my research on possible offices of interest and talked to alumni to get a feel of the type of people and backgrounds these people had. Nothing too deep. I don’t recommend Googling errybody. But talk to people who may have jobs you are interested in, ask them for advice and get a sense of where people are coming from. I found my Masters degree equipped me with a solid network of policy makers in specific departments I was interested in working alongside.

Can you craft a successful career without either one of these degrees?

To get over the hype, I recommend seriously considering which degrees can be cut out. Could I have done my law degree alone and achieved my goals? No. I got no training in economics, math or statistics. The law school network is phenomenal but I felt as though it was harder to leverage in non-legal spaces. Could I have gotten my masters and accomplished my goal? No. I would not be able to practice law. Period.

Before you go on this journey please don’t listen to the hype, if the joint program is not something you are 100% positive about, please please lose the fat. It matters less that you have mad degrees to show than an ability to navigate with the poppin’ one you do have. A Masters degree can really help to reinforce your long-term career ambitions by making you more of an expert on a topic, a region or by equipping you with a niche skillset—be creative with it! The degree is not meant to “help you figure it out.” It’s a weapon, not your battle plan.

4 thoughts on “Girl, Do You Really Need That Masters?

  1. This is very insightful! I think it is definitely true that you have to think through pursuing degrees, whether one or multiple. Snaps to the weapon / battle plan metaphor. Spot on. However, I would push back a bit on the NECESSITY of any dual degree program in almost every circumstance.

    There is NO job (Other than an oral surgeon which requires a MD/DMD) that requires a dual degree in my opinion. There are jobs that require one of the two we often seek to compound (JD, MD, DMD, Phd, etc.). Sure it would be nice to broaden a skillset or connote a competency, but I’d be interested to know what job really requires doubling up. Hell, I would go as far to ask what PASSION requires it? As a point of information, I have a JD and considered a JDMBA. Ultimately, I chose not to get the degree. By God’s grace and some elbow grease, I got a job in finance. Who do I sit across from and get similarly abused with night after night? A JDMBA. I’m not special by any measure. In 2015, employers recognize the advantages of different backgrounds in isolation and often will hire from a non-traditional pool. (Consultants, lobbyists, and techies big up for leading the movement.)

    I say this to say that no degree can replace hustle. I think that’s the missing variable people need to consider when thinking about the viability of a dual degree program. I think it’s unfortunate because most people who get dual degrees are the most focused, strong-willed, and determined people I know. Will it potentially make recruiting easier? Absolutely. Will it make people think you’re smarter? Likely. But will it truly get you / prepare you for the job? I’m not so sure. I would submit that many of these brilliant candidates would get just as far without the double up. Moreover, 90% of nearly every job out there is learned by nothing else other than actually doing the job. Doesn’t matter where you went to school or what degree you have once you’re in the door (in most but not all cases)…so the necessity of a double helping of school is a bit incredulous.

    In conclusion, similar to a BMW, a side-piece, or a gold chain, you never really NEED a dual degree…you WANT one. And IMHO that’s ok…just be real with yourself before you sign the check.

    Thoughts?

    *Apologies for length and typos.*

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    1. Hello!

      Thank you for posting and reading. So, I avoid extremes and while in many cases, you probably don’t need a dual degree, I would never be bold enough to say that you never need it. Dealing with the notion of necessity—it must be contextualized. With respect to Aya, I do believe it was necessary for her to do that (JD/MPA) based on where she was career wise and what she was seeking, not necessarily necessary to achieve the career she wants/wanted to. That’s why its important to understand what you’re seeking in your grad school experience before pursuing it. I believe your point is spot on that degrees would never replace work ethic, but instead of examining a career in silos, I think we should give some more thought to navigating multiple careers in addition to multiple skillsets within the same career because even in one career, you could be utilizing multiple skillets acquired from different degrees. First, lets remember why we pursue graduate school, or what should be heavily influencing our decision to pursue degrees. The purpose is for students to acquire knowledge and cultivate a skill set. We orient our minds towards thinking of pursuing grad schools as a mechanism to acquire entry in a particular career/industry. However, thinking in terms of knowledge and skills, and putting career on the back burner, lets take a JD/MPP for example. I do believe the JD is required to navigate the government space, especially on a heavy-hitter level, so these people would need to go to law school (These people usually have experience in big law too. People who have extraordinary careers have usually spent time in the “professional hazing” appropriate for their degree. For JD, that would be “big law”). In addition, lets say I aspired to hold a high level position or sit on a committee that oversees/influences education, health or human services, or environment. Having a MPP gives you the skill set and the knowledge to understand the nuances of that public resource and its issues as it pertains to access, distribution, fiscal pressure, and equity and how it affects various socioeconomic groups. Now is the dual degree the only way to pursue that career and acquire that knowledge or skills? No, because experience and the right career moves are excellent teachers. However, its one way that can definitely work and you would be utilizing both degrees. I do think degree utilization is also an important dimension, if not the most important, to determine if you should pursue it.

      Peace and Chicken Grease!
      -Dre

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    2. Thank you for reading and for sharing your thoughtful advice! I completely agree, no job necessarily REQUIRES a joint degree. And it goes without question that a second degree cannot substitute your hustle. However, no one gets an MBA or an MPP to gain skill sets, everyone knows you learn these things on the job. I think for the most of us, we pursue these degrees to: (1) meet people and connect with alumni who will help us to transition in the future, and (2) to experiment and refine a specific niche or expertise.

      If you draw out your logic a little further, one can argue that you never really an MBA, MPP, or a host of other social science degrees. But that loses sight of their potential both in terms of connections and flexibility to develop an area of focus.

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