“Wait, what?” I thought. “She has two doctorate degrees?!” Admittedly, I was impressed. At one point during the term, I asked the professor how she had possibly accomplished earning two doctorates. The brief discussion that ensued was the first time I ever heard about interdisciplinary graduate training programs that yield graduates with two degrees.
As I learned later during my undergraduate experience, a few interdisciplinary training programs in law and psychology exist, and those extra degrees are for more than mere prestige. The secondary degrees are for bolstering the caliber of integrative research, clinical, or policy work that the dual-degree wielder can contribute. I was sold, albeit at that point still partly by the wow-factor of someday potentially having five letters behind my name. Although encouraged to pursue my burgeoning interest in dual-degree training, I was also offered some cautionary points. Dual degrees are not necessary to succeed in the field of psychology. The training is lengthy by any measure, and the admission requirements are doubly onerous.
Undeterred, I applied and quite luckily obtained admission into my first-choice joint-degree program in law and clinical psychology. It has been more than five years since then; I am now in year six of my seven-year program. In the interim, I have earned a master’s degree and graduated from law school. I passed the bar exam and am in the midst of psychology internship application season. I have learned a decent amount about different models for graduate training in two related fields (e.g., “psychology and [blank]”) over the past few years, and some of this information should be helpful for students contemplating interdisciplinary training in some form. A structure for this information is as follows: different training routes, and opportunities and challenges of interdisciplinary study.
Interdisciplinary fields per se. Some fields are interdisciplinary per se, drawing upon two or more related fields by definition (e.g., cognitive neuroscience, behavioral economics). This was the point my undergraduate professor was making when she informed me that forensic psychologists, for instance, did not generally need dual-degree training. That field was definitionally integrative and had already matured to the point that one could study forensic psychology during or after training in experimental or clinical psychology without also needing full-on legal training.
Concentrations and specializations. A typical way to study a subfield of psychology is to concentrate or specialize during graduate school or at the postdoctoral level (i.e., training early in your career after you have your doctorate in hand). At the graduate level, many programs offer formal concentrations or specializations in psychology and a related field or some integrative subfield of psychology (e.g., clinical psychology coupled with a focus in neuropsychology or behavioral medicine). For the formal recognition, these programs require that students complete focused integrative coursework and research, and often also applied work, to the satisfaction of preset requirements. However, it is not the end of the story if one does not specialize during graduate school. Postdoctoral fellowships and board certification represent additional opportunities to specialize in interdisciplinary studies a little later on in one’s professional career.
Consecutive degrees. Prior to the existence of dual-degree and joint-degree programs, those interested in even more rigorous training in two related fields (than concentrations and the like provided) were tasked with separately earning degrees in both fields. One would attend and graduate from one program, and then attend and graduate from another, often without any overlap. Although this is still done for a multitude of reasons (e.g., career changes, secondary interests that develop later, prestige of certain individual-degree programs), it is the most inefficient method of interdisciplinary study.
Dual- and joint-degrees. A number of institutions today provide for students to obtain dual-degree or joint-degree training (either between two departments within a single university or two affiliated programs housed at different universities). Through overlapping coursework and experiential opportunities, some of the time that is typically needed to complete both programs separately can usually be shortened. The terms dual-degree and joint-degree are often used interchangeably, although a distinction has been drawn based on how integrative a program truly is, with the joint-degree badge being reserved for the most integrative of simultaneous-enrollment programs. Viewing multiple-degree programs along a continuum from minimally to maximally integrative is probably the best way to conceptualize the various options. Prospective students can glean how integrative a program is by researching how long the program has been in existence, how widely it is known (e.g., by members of professional organizations devoted to the intersection area of interest), and speaking with program directors, current students, and graduates.
In essence, a dual-degree student works with a university or universities, and two or more respective departments, to coordinate study in two programs relative to the student’s career goals—consecutively, sequentially, or by some pragmatic mishmash. Many universities have some mechanism for facilitating multiple-degree study, and a wide array of within-university programs can be combined based on a student’s interests and goals. A drawback is that students may be effectively building their own programs, and so more effort will probably be required of the student in terms of taking charge of navigating scheduling difficulties, coordinating financial aid, facilitating communication between the two programs, and other practical issues. For joint-degree students, administrators will typically have already ironed out many of these challenges, and a student might expect to receive more integrated mentorship and training. One drawback of joint-degree training (compared to dual-degree training) is that intensively integrative programs with an established track record are relatively few in number, limiting the pool of available options for interested students.
Opportunities and Challenges of Interdisciplinary Study
Prestige factor, intellectual satisfaction, and unique skills. I doubt being singularly motivated by the prestige factor can sustain satisfaction with the decision to subject oneself to lengthy interdisciplinary study. However, studying for two graduate degrees is distinguishing as a demonstration of academic endurance and intellectual drive.
Besides considerations of prestige, with increasingly rigorous training in two related fields comes a deeper understanding of both together, although potentially with some sacrifice to depth of knowledge and skill in each separately. Individuals with specialty or multidegree training are particularly suited for translating, incorporating, or synergizing knowledge from two or more fields in their interdisciplinary research, clinical, or policy work. The idea is that versatility and specialization have the potential to produce useful innovation. When someone questions me about the need for multiple-degree study, I often respond to the following effect, “I want to make deeper interdisciplinary contributions and innovations than is the norm. Compared to learning another field informally on my own, receiving formal instruction is more efficient.”
Pragmatic challenges. As noted above, interdisciplinary study and especially multiple-degree training can be expected to add some additional challenges to those inherent to graduate school admissions and training, and subsequent employment. At the outset, students typically need to apply and obtain admission to two departments separately as well as jointly. This can involve needing to satisfy two different sets of prerequisites by taking two admission exams, submitting two application fees, and being invited to two sets of interviews. Once admitted, training will typically take longer to complete than a single-degree program; you may be a bit of a nomad in terms of who your cohort is; you may experience disproportionate pulls from mentors or requirements on one side; and registration, scheduling, and funding hiccups may periodically crop up. After graduation, you may face licensure and continuing education requirements (and costs) for different professions, employers may be unsure of what you are actually capable of competently doing (the “jack of all trades, master of none” concern), and the jobs for which you are uniquely specialized may be few and far between—and already occupied.
Based on my experiences thus far, an effective antidote to many of the challenges of interdisciplinary training has been a mixture of vision, drive, grit, flexibility, and support. I trust that these same ingredients will carry me through my early career and beyond. Personally, five-plus years later, I could not have asked for a more intellectually engrossing and satisfying graduate school experience than interdisciplinary joint-degree training.