One day while I was working on my final essay for a class, I saw an advertisement: ‘Gain training in public health and public policy to prepare them to address critical health policy issues around the world. Apply Today!” and knew I had to click it.

A few clicks later, I stumbled across the Brown University MPH/MPA program – and I was pretty much sold. I wanted to learn about public health and the tools to protect and promote health, but I also wanted to learn about how to “get it done” through policy. This dual degree – Master of Public Health and Master of Public Affairs – intrigued me. Did I belong in a dual degree program, in the US, at an Ivy League School? Well – there was only one way to find out.

Fast forward a few weeks, I emailed two of my former supervisors from my summer jobs with the Federal Government and spoke with my then-current supervisor. I asked them to be my references for this program and a few others through the centralized application portal, SOPHAS. I used 3 professional references, 0 academic references, and wrote my personal statement of interest from the heart and received offers of admissions from a variety of schools, including Brown.

I let my excitement, perhaps, allow me to overlook a few things re: the dual degree program. So, here’s what I think you should consider if you are interested in choosing a dual degree program:

Dual Degrees are not all the same!

Brown was the only one who had this dual degree of those that I applied: Master of Public Health and Master of Public Affairs. 2x the degrees in about the same amount of time as one-degree, good deal, right? I’m no expert – but not every dual degree is made equal.

There are numerous other types of dual degrees, some included here:

MPH/Master of Public Administration (MPA) or MPH/Master of Public Affairs (MPA) or MPH/Master of Public Policy (MPP)
MPH/Master of Business Administration (MBA)
MPH/Master of Social Work (MSW)

An MBA will, undoubtedly, teach you different skills than a MSW. I would honestly ask yourself; what skills do you need? Do you think the best way to achieve your goals is through a business lens? advocacy? policy? Being honest here is pivotal to decide where to apply and to what program. For me, the MPA aligned with my interests – I wanted to learn how to protect and promote health through codifying public health initiatives into laws and government documents.

Check the Curriculum – is it an integrated experience?

I should have checked to see the curriculum of the dual degree program. I assumed it would contain a health policy core class, but my MPH/MPA program does not. So, if you want to take health policy class – it would have to be an elective.

For me, the program is officially two degrees that allow students to apply centrally and count electives for both programs (i.e. my MPH degree is separate from my MPA degree). Two pieces of papers at the end, two administrators I email, two different and non-overlapping cohorts of students. I should have checked to see if there were academic overlaps between the two programs. In 2 years, I have taken 4 statistics classes. As someone who knew I didn’t want to do BioStats or Epi – this was a lot of math for me.

So, I will complete 16.5 credits when, had I taken each program independently, I would have had to take 13.5 (MPH) and 10 (MPA) credits separately. I saved, in theory, 7 whole credits by doing this dual-degree that allowed me to count my core-courses as one as an elective for the other. CEPH-accredited schools in the USA require a thesis and practicum. Luckily, Brown allowed my MPH practicum to serve as my MPA practicum as well. The MPA program didn’t require a thesis – so my MPH would be a standalone document to fulfill the MPH requirements. This may not be the case elsewhere. Ask!

Career Goals – Are there 2x the opportunities? 2x the salary?

In short, I do not think there are 2x the opportunities now that I am applying with two masters degrees. If an employer wants a master’s degree – they want just that, a masters degree. So, for the most part, I am slotted into the same candidacy pools as a traditional MPH or MPA holder. I probably have more economics training than a “traditional” public health student, perhaps more public health training than a “traditional” public affairs student. I’ll try to market that to employers!

Career fairs were rarely helpful for me. I found the MPH really keen on research-based positions, not so much my forte. I wanted to do policy. I found the MPA really keen on consulting/government roles – none of which were always up my alley with a health lens. I wanted to do health policy.

Dual degrees in Canada?

Canadian schools lag behind US schools in terms of dual degrees at the masters level. A quick google search shows me that UBC seems to have a few options for MPH/(other) degrees. Brock has an MPH/MPA. McGill has an MsPH/MSc with the Université Bordeaux. Not much else, at least that came up on my search.

In the US, conversely, many great schools offer dual degrees: Columbia, Penn, NYU, Berkeley, U-Washington St Louis, UCLA, Wisconsin-Madison. Of course, master’s studies in the US comes with a hefty price tag. Is saving 1 year of schooling worth the differential in costs to you? Consider starting salaries in public health before you decide.

The Two-Year Timeline

Many masters programs are two years in length — some are shorter, some are longer. The two-year timeline is tough for dual degrees; not for the reasons you think.

Academically – I would not worry about dual-degrees. I came from a public undergraduate school, but I feel that kept up with my Ivy+ classmates. To be honest, I find masters level courses much more straightforward than many of my Life Sci courses at Queen’s. Your dual degree will offer you a unique perspective – you will be one of a few graduate students who has experienced two different programs which puts difficulty/academic rigour expectations into perspective.

Time management – In my case, I had to write a thesis, do a practicum, do 16.5 credits within a 2-year window. The MPA program at Brown is a 1-year program, so many of my classmates graduated before I had even started my practicum. That was weird. The MPH program at Brown is two academic years, so when many of my classmates began at the school, I had already been there for 3 months. It was weird existing between two cohorts of totally different groups of people and trying to make friends with everyone. The MPA program had different milestone projects that contradicted MPH coursework and exams, I ended up taking 5 full courses one term (Brown recommends 3-4) to meet my requirements. My choice to do so, but it was busy and tough to make sure you hit every deadline.

Thesis – Because you are there for, maybe 2 years, your thesis is challenging. My words of advice are simple: It’s never too early to start your thesis; especially if you’re pursuing a dual-degree.

In Short – Dual degrees could be worth it for you! I think they’re a great opportunity to learn about two complementary fields in less time than it may take to do so separately. That being said, I do not think they are not the be-all-end-all solution to your careers in the field of public health and you should think about them critically before committing!

About the author:

James is a soon-to-be graduate of Brown University’s new MPH/MPA program. He is one of two people in his cohort, the second cohort overall to go through the program. Originally from Ottawa, ON James attended Queen’s University in Kingston, ON where he obtained his BScH (Life Sciences Specialization) and discovered health policy as his passion. James lived in Providence, RI for the first half of his graduate studies until March 2020 when he returned home. He currently works at Health Canada. James is passionate about Global Environmental Health & International Diplomacy.