Race to the Top: Is a dual-degree for me?

Q. I have been working for a few years and I am thinking about going back to school. Should I get a dual degree?

A. Most likely, the answer is “no,” but let’s take a step back. You say you have been working for a “few years,” which sounds a little too early to make this decision. When I recall conversations with Human Resource or Talent Leaders over the years, they always pay very close attention to how long someone was in the workforce before they decide to go back to school.

I think I mentioned in a previous column that getting a degree is basically part of how you direct and manage your overall career. And a big part of managing your career is making the right decision at the right time. Timing is everything. In general, people who have worked for at least five years, tend to show and perform much better than their counterparts who worked for two years because, frankly, in two years, you have not experienced that much at work. Graduate programs are filled with very smart people that have all done a lot. Forgive the sports analogy, but it’s like transitioning from college football to the NFL: it’s a whole new level of play.

After at least five years of work experience, it’s more likely that you are a strong candidate for graduate school. You’ve been through several business cycles, you have had more responsibility in the current job, you may have been promoted, you may have started managing a team, you may have worked on special projects, or all of the above. It’s that range of experiences that increases the likelihood of high performance and, importantly, helps you to create the rich business contacts we have previously discussed.

Now, as for a dual degree in general, it’s vey important to ask yourself why you need more than one graduate degree. The three most popular graduate degrees, the Masters, the MBA and the JD, are all very different; they all prepare people for very differently paths. By the time you make a choice about a degree, you should have a clear sense for the direction of your career.

Too often, people decide to go back to school to try and “figure out” what they want to do next. Based on the people I have worked with and for over the last 25 years, getting one graduate degree is already a risky proposition if you are not sure what you want to do next, considering a dual-degree is a compounded risk. Graduate programs are not designed for people to figure things out, they are designed to advance a specialty for people that already know what they want to do next.

Here’s another way to think about it, with certain exceptions, a dual degree may signal that you don’t know what you want to do next, at precisely a time when you want to signal that you do.

Consider the dual MBA and JD: when I hear people talk about this dual degree match-up, they love the idea of being able to say that they have acquired these two very challenging degrees and they seem to expect that a potential employer will feel the same – as if it’s the ultimate testament to how smart they are. My first question: which employer? The hiring manager at the manufacturing company that is looking for a finance professional or a marketing professional; or, the managing partner at a law firm looking for an associate who can contribute to a growing practice group?

In the last five years, I have met two people that have made great decisions to get a dual degree. The first is a business owner who graduated from Harvard Business School and, with plans to immediately become an entrepreneur, chose to stay in Boston to get a law degree from Harvard too, knowing his business model would rely extensively on solid contract negotiations. He has used both degrees every day. The second person was a Rice graduate who was deeply interested in public policy and expected to one day run for a high-level elected office. He chose to pursue a dual Masters in Public Policy and a J.D. at University of Texas, knowing that he would seek a legal job in the public policy sector upon graduation; both great, well-thought choices.

Lilyanne has worked in corporate America for 25 years and has supported eight CEOs. She wants to answer your career questions, so you can get ahead at work. Email them to Lilyanne@racetothetopcareers.com, rttcareers.com or your other connect at the Forward Times.