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Maximize Graduate School With a Dual Degree

The cost of a dual, joint, or interdisciplinary degree may not be as expensive as you think.

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It's possible to get two full graduate degrees or a joint degree in two graduate areas without doubling the cost of graduate school. There are a variety of time periods, paths, and reasons to study in more than one discipline, which can vary widely based on the schools attended and types of programs offered. Many multiple-degree options fall into one of three broad categories.

1. Dual degrees: Dual degree programs show both degrees on a student's diploma. The program is formally organized by the university and may involve a great deal of overlap to minimize time spent and cost, says Julia Kent, director of global communications and best practices for the Council of Graduate Schools.

Many Ph.D. students get a dual degree, she says. For instance, Johns Hopkins University offers a program that leads to a student being both a medical doctor and a Ph.D.

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University of Missouri student Paul Schwinn transitioned from a traditional law school program to a dual degree in law and business, a JD/MBA, midway through his studies. "After a year and a half through law school I saw the job market, and realized it wasn't a good time to enter with just a law degree," he says.

He decided MBA credentials would help set him apart from other law school graduates. The program takes four years instead of the five it would normally take to get both degrees, because the university waives 11 credits in the business program and six credits count toward both degrees. Adding the MBA made law school cheaper because his assistantship from the business program pays for his business classes and part of his law school tuition, he says.

2. Joint degrees: Some joint degrees combine two or more areas of study in two separate departments on the same campus or at two different universities, Kent says, and are interdisciplinary in nature. Joint and dual degrees are also common structures for international programs, some of which are conferred jointly by different universities in different countries, or conferred separately as dual degrees by international partner institutions.

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Both international joint and dual degrees may have a range of benefits to students, giving them a global perspective and experience, providing a credential that may be recognized in more than one country, and, in some cases, giving them exposure to faculty expertise or resources they would not encounter if studying at only one institution, Kent says.

Typically such programs do not include tuition costs above those of a traditional degree offered by those institutions, and at the Ph.D. level, the student may be eligible for the same funding support they would receive if studying in a more traditional degree program, she says.

For example, an environmental studies program may combine classes taught by science professors in climatology with sociology classes, Kent says. This interdisciplinary approach, combining multiple areas of study, adds how humans interact with the environment to traditional scientific studies.

"Because of the vast amounts of knowledge gained in programs that pool expertise from multiple programs," Kent says, "these programs are often on the cutting edge of research."

3. Two separate degrees: While many schools offer formal programs for joint and dual degrees, opportunities also exist for students to make use of elective credits toward another degree, resulting in a student getting two degrees in a shorter period of time.

Coursework should be coordinated with advisers every semester to guarantee graduation is achieved in the time expected, says Paul Goebel, senior director of the Student Money Management Center at the University of North Texas. "Taking a class that does not apply to either major can be a waste of money," he says.

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Maximize your investment in double degrees by ensuring all coursework pursued is coursework needed, he says. Students who want to earn graduate degrees in both journalism and marketing may have an adviser approve a business journalism course, but not one in news writing.