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An In-Depth Look at Joint and Dual MBAs

New rumors about the declining value of the MBA seem to pop up every month. Lately, it seems so many people are dragging themselves through b-school that even top-tier degrees are punching below their weight on the job market. It's scary stuff, if taken to heart.

But whether the stories are true or not, the old adage about distinguishing yourself from the rest of the pack has never been more apropos. For several years now, colleges and universities have been developing programs to help graduates do just that, and now joint MBA degree enrollment is growing more robust by the year.

It can be helpful to step back from the frenzy once in a while and take a serious, sober look at the expected versus actual value of trends like this, though. If students go the extra mile and earn a joint MBA, will it really give them enough of an edge to justify the added cost in both time and capital?

Joint/dual MBA programs: The basics

Here's a primer on the joint MBA idea, for anyone who's unfamiliar. Rather than focusing a graduate education on b-school basics like accounting, management, economics, business strategy, marketing, finance and the rest, the MBA curriculum is supplemented with a substantial amount of specialized work in another field. health care, education and law are among the most popular degree hybrids, but it seems that each year brings another new option to the table.

Clearly, dual MBA degrees have an upside. They take less time and cost less money than earning each degree separately, and come with the added benefit of helping tighten students' career focus and strengthen their professional credentials. It's understandable that this obvious upside continues to lure students in, but there are a few drawbacks that might not be so easy to spot.

For one, even though joint MBA degrees constitute a smaller investment of money and time than earning each degree individually, they are often more expensive and time-intensive than earning either degree by itself. Also, unless dual MBA students feel certain that they'll enter a career field that matches their degree, the extra credential may come off to employers as a sign of indecisiveness -- or send up red flags of overqualification, which can be even worse.

Joint MBA options

Understanding the options on offer can be a powerful asset in the decision-making process. Here are a few types of dual MBA programs currently on the market and a short description of each:

  • MBA/J.D. - Potentially the most popular joint MBA; beneficial mainly for those who want to add value to a management career with some comprehensive training in law. Most programs take four years, but fast-tracked three-year programs can be found.
  • MBA/M.Ed - Can help when approaching careers in public education policy, education reform or education management. Some universities also offer an MBA/MA Distance Ed., for enterprising managers looking to break into the fast-growing online education industry.
  • MBA/M.S. engineering - A typically two-year dual MBA that prepares students for the particular challenges faced by managers, executives and policymakers in highly technical fields. Available in multiple specializations, including chemical, electrical, mechanical and biological engineering.
  • MBA/M.D. - Advantageous for medical students who plan to go into hospital management or medical school administration. Students not already committed to medical school education but interested in management or policy careers in the health field can pursue an MBA/M.P.H. (Master of Public Health).
  • MBA/M.S. Computer Science - Designed to provide startup executives and managers in the high-tech industry with a technical understanding of the apps, platforms and languages their developers use and create. Typically takes three years to complete.

Paths to these and other dual MBA degrees can be found at institutions all across the spectrum of prestige, from Yale and Stanford on down. Some joint MBA programs may contain the added convenience of hybridized study plans that contain online MBA classes, for students trying to balance a full-time career with continued education.

The verdict on joint and dual MBAs

Figuring out whether any individual actually needs a dual MBA is, like most things, a case-by-case matter -- if the goal is a career educating teachers at the collegiate level, for example, an MBA probably isn't necessary on top of a master's in education. Similarly, a career in financial sector management probably doesn't require a master's level education in public policy on top of the traditional MBA.

The best course of action for students considering a joint MBA program might be to speak with advisors, alumni and current students about their professional ambitions and determine from there whether a dual degree would strengthen or dilute the potency of your business education. After all, it would scarcely be a mark of wisdom in a business leader to overinvest in a potentially underperforming return.

Also, don't overlook the value of an industry-specific career internship as a way to add distinction to a resume. Spending one's time wisely in a traditional MBA program can be the best investment of all.

"Business and Law Go Hand-in-Hand," Stacy Blackman, U.S. News and World Report, February 11, 2011, http://www.usnews.com/education/blogs/MBA-admissions-strictly-business/2011/02/11/business-and-law-go-hand-in-hand
"Another University Gets Into the Health-Care MBA Boom," Patrick Clark, Bloomberg Businessweek, January 9, 2014, http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2014-01-09/terry-college-of-business-gets-into-the-health-care-mba-game
"Stanford to Offer Joint Computer Science MS/MBA Degree Program," Barbara Buell, Stanford Graduate School of Business, September 17, 2013, http://www.gsb.stanford.edu/mba-headlines/headlines/stanford-offer-joint-computer-science-ms-mba-degree-program
"Engineering MBA Dual Degree Program," Massachusetts Institute of technology, 2014, http://lgo.mit.edu/
"Online Master of Business Administration: Dual Degrees," University of Maryland University College, 2014, http://www.umuc.edu/academic-programs/masters-degrees/master-of-business-administration-details.cfm
"Dual Degrees," University of Virginia Darden School of Business, 2014, http://www.darden.virginia.edu/web/MBA/Academics/Dual-Degrees/#MBA/MPP
"Dual Degree MBA Programs," Rutgers Business School, 2014, http://www.business.rutgers.edu/dual-degree-mba
"Is a Joint or Dual M.B.A Right for You?," Stacy Blackman, U.S. News and World Report, March 4, 2011, http://www.usnews.com/education/blogs/MBA-admissions-strictly-business/2011/03/04/is-a-joint-or-dual-mba-right-for-you