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Introduction to the JD/MA Dual Degree

Published April 2010, last updated June 2010

Overview

The JD/MA (Juris Doctor / Master of Arts) dual degree combines a law degree with a graduate degree in the humanities. Like many other dual degrees, a JD/MA takes a shorter time and may cost less to complete than obtaining both degrees separately. However, there is a significant amount of variance in the ways schools structure their JD/MA programs and also in the reasons students choose to pursue a JD/MA, so a prospective law student considering this path must take care to individually research each program to which s/he is thinking about applying.

Outside of dual degree programs, the MA degree is most commonly awarded en passant to a PhD, and top schools generally do not offer the MA as a terminal degree in most fields (exceptions to this rule are fields that are more vocational than academic, such as teaching). In fact, some schools, including Harvard and Columbia, do not award the MA as a terminal degree even in conjunction with a JD – a student who wishes to earn an academic degree alongside the JD must enroll in a JD/PhD program. These schools, however, are in the minority: most graduate departments in schools offering a JD/MA program state that, although they do not generally offer the MA as a terminal degree, the JD/MA program is one of the few exceptions to this rule.

Curriculum and Tuition

Almost universally, the first year of a JD/MA program is spent focusing only on the standard 1L law school curriculum. Thereafter, students generally may take courses in the MA program alongside law school courses. In programs that take longer than 3 years, it is not uncommon for the last year or the last semester to be devoted mainly to the MA. In programs where an MA degree would usually require the completion of a Master's thesis, such a thesis is generally also required of a JD/MA candidate.

As with other dual-degrees, most JD/MA programs rest on the assumption that students will be double-counting a certain number of credits – that is, some classes will fulfill requirements for both of the degrees, so they will count towards graduation for both. For this reason, a JD/MA will often take less time than it would take to get both degrees separately: most MA programs are either one or two years long, but JD/MA programs range between 3 and 4.5 years. However, there is a lot of variation among different schools’ programs. For example, most JD/MA programs at Stanford can be completed in only 3 years, while at Yale, students barely save any time at all: a 1-year MA program translates in a 4-year JD/MA and a 2-year MA program translates into a 4.5-year JD/MA. Most schools fall somewhere in between. Duke offers its dual-degree students the option to start school during the summer, enabling them to finish the program in 3 years and a summer. Chicago's JD/AM in International Relations program can be completed in 11 quarters (3.5 years). At Berkeley, most programs combine a 2-year MA with the JD and take four years. Many schools do not factor double-counted classes into a student's GPA, or else factor them into the graduate school GPA or the law school GPA, but not both.

Tuition also differs among schools, although it tends to correspond loosely to the amount of time it takes to achieve the dual-degree. At Yale, for example, students pay three years of law school tuition and another full year of tuition to the graduate school for a 1-year MA program or a year and a half of tuition for a 2-year MA program. At Stanford, on the other hand, where a 1-year MA program can be completely subsumed into a 3-year JD program, students pay tuition through the law school and at the law school rate – so if they do complete both degrees in 3 years, they have essentially earned a free MA. It is important to note, however, that the length of the degree is not always an indicator of how much tuition the student will pay. While a 3-year JD/MA at Stanford requires just 3 years' worth tuition, paid at the law school rate, the University of Southern California warns prospective JD/MA students that, even during a 3-year program, they will most likely be paying tuition to both the law school and the graduate school and that the breakdown of this tuition is hard to predict in advance.

Many schools have a system wherein students are “in residence” each semester at either the law school or the graduate school and pay tuition accordingly to one school or the other. At the University of Minnesota, for example, students are generally in residence at the law school for five semesters and pay tuition at the law school rate during this period, even if they are also taking classes in the graduate school. Then, when they are in residence at the graduate school, they pay tuition at the graduate school rate. At most schools, this system also affects financial aid eligibility: generally, students are eligible for law school financial aid while they are in residence at the law school but not while they are in residence at the graduate school, and at schools that allow JD/MA students to offset their tuition by working as teaching assistants, students generally may do this only when they are in residence at the graduate school.

Admissions

Like curricula, admissions procedures differ widely among schools. Some schools, such as Vanderbilt and Washington University in St. Louis, require that students are admitted separately to each program before they are eligible to complete a dual degree. One consequence of this is that prospective applicants will likely have to take either the GRE or the GMAT in addition to the LSAT. Other schools, including the University of Michigan, require that students apply to both programs but waive the GRE/GMAT requirement for the graduate program, stating that the graduate department will accept LSAT scores in place of GRE/GMAT scores for students who wish to be admitted to the dual degree program. However, many schools, such as Duke, use a system wherein the student applies to the graduate program while already in his/her first year or law school. (Because the first year of a JD/MA program is generally spent exclusively in the law school taking an ordinary 1L courseload, this system does not impact the amount of time it takes to complete the degree.) Finally, a few schools offer students the option of applying to both schools at the same time or applying to the Master's program during the 1L year; the University of Virginia is one such school.

Fields of Study

Depending on the school, a JD/MA can be pursued in a wide range of subjects. Cornell states that it allows students to pursue the dual degree with any of its many graduate departments, while Duke takes a slightly more circumscribed but still liberal approach, giving a long list of subjects in which a JD/MA can be pursued that includes uncommon options such as art history, cultural anthropology, religion, and psychology. More commonly, several top schools indicate that JD/MA programs may be attempted in any field of graduate study but seem to focus more on some fields than others. Washington University in St. Louis, for example, implies in its law school website and on the sites of several graduate programs that options are available in a variety of fields, but the only degree that is specifically described anywhere is the JD/MA program in law and East Asian studies.

Overall, the most popular fields in which to pursue a JD/MA are economics, international relations, philosophy, and area studies (the study of foreign languages and cultures). Other fairly common fields include education, political science, journalism, mass communication, and history.

Most JD/ MA in Area Studies programs require some level of competency in a relevant language. A few schools, such as the University of Michigan, specify that the program requires 3rd-year language competency upon graduation, while others merely use the term “proficient.” Because the first year of a JD/MA program is almost universally devoted exclusively to law school, and students who do not already have a background in the language in question should be aware that it may be very challenging for them to meet this requirement. Meanwhile, students who are native speakers of a relevant language should investigate the policies that are in place regarding their situations. Some programs accept a native knowledge of the language as fulfillment of the language requirement; the Russian and East European Studies program at Michigan even waives the proficiency exam for native speakers. Other programs, however, such as the Middle Eastern studies program at the University of Texas, stipulate that native speakers of a language that would ordinarily fulfill the requirements must also become proficient in an additional Middle Eastern language.

Reasons to Pursue a JD/MA

There are two main reasons students consider a JD/MA. The most obvious, of course, is the relevance of the MA program to the student's desired career path. However, most schools are somewhat vague on this topic, concentrating on the language of “gaining insight,” “complementary approaches,” and “interdisciplinary training” rather than giving any concrete information regarding what exactly a JD/MA student will study in the MA program and how this might help him/her in a career.

Other schools, however, are fairly open about what a student can do with a JD/MA. Stanford informs prospective JD/MA in History students that most JD/MA students go on to a JD/PhD in History program, which prepares them for careers in academia, while NYU states that its JD/MA program in Law and Society is appropriate for students who wish to pursue careers in public policy. The JD/MA programs with the clearest career applications are those in area studies. At the moment, programs in Chinese Studies are, understandably, perhaps the most popular of this group. Students might pursue a JD/MA in Chinese Studies if they wish to work for large firms that have offices in China or that represent Chinese companies, non-governmental organizations that deal with China, international corporations with interests in China, or government agencies. Other regions for which a JD/MA in Area Studies is commonly offered, with analogous career applications, are the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Japan. Another group of JD/MA programs for which the relevance to possible careers is fairly clear is the category of international relations. Several schools state that a JD/MA in International Relations is designed to prepare students for careers in international affairs.

The second reason a student might seek this dual degree is perhaps unique, among all the options for dual degree programs, to the JD/MA degree. For some students, a JD/MA program is a way to continue an academic interest that would not have been viable as a career pursuit. In other words, a student might choose to study another subject alongside law simply because s/he enjoys studying that subject. Somewhat surprisingly, some schools are open and even encouraging regarding this motivation. While discussing its many dual degree programs, Duke states that while some students pursue an MA in a field relevant to their desired careers, “[f]or others, the MA is an opportunity to continue pursuing an academic passion from their undergraduate years, even though it may not be as closely related to their JD studies.” Similarly, NYU states that its JD/MA in French Studies “is of special interest to students who wish to continue an undergraduate interest in French society and culture while preparing for a professional career in law.” Finally, Boston College notes that one reason a student might pursue its JD/MA in Philosophy program “is simply a matter of personal interest and enrichment.”

Although there are good reasons for some students to pursue the JD/MA, it is important to remember that there are also some very good reasons not to pursue a dual degree. Firstly, if the dual degree has not been proven to give job candidates an advantage in the specific area in which the student wishes to practice, the fact that s/he holds a dual degree may actually hurt his/her career prospects. In academia, it is sometimes said in relation to dual degrees that “no one wants to hire someone with half a degree,” and the same holds true for some legal employers. In order to complete the dual degree, the job candidate with a JD/MA has had several graduate school classes credited towards his/her JD, which means that while his/her classmates were taking classes on law through the law school, s/he was learning about art history or journalism. So, in some employers' minds (and perhaps also in reality), the JD/MA graduate has had less legal education and is slightly less qualified to practice law. The University of Southern California is the only “top 50” law school that gives an explicit warning regarding this possibility.

Secondly, students should not enter into a JD/MA program with the idea that, if the dual degree does not pan out, they can drop one degree and simply pursue the other. As indicated by the double-counting of credits and reduced duration of study, obtaining a JD/MA is not the same as obtaining a JD and an MA. So, while some schools may allow students to change their minds and purse only one degree, many schools stipulate that students may not do this: both degrees are awarded upon the completion of the requirements for both degrees, or neither degree is awarded.

Choosing a JD/MA Program

The JD/MA dual degree is one of the less popular dual degree options available to law students, perhaps owing to the lack of obvious career applications for most MA programs. This lack of popularity is reflected in the lack of vigor with which schools promote these programs. The JD/MA program candidate is met with several broken links on Boalt's, UVA's, and UNC's websites. Cornell's website, meanwhile, claims that a JD/MA can be completed in any field of graduate study, yet neither the law school website nor the graduate school website offers any information on the subject. While a student could easily apply to a JD program based solely on the school's publications and website – and indeed, many do – prospective JD/MA students should take the initiative to contact both the law school and the graduate program in question well before they plan to apply, as members of the faculty and school administration will be the best sources of information on JD/MA programs.

Because schools do not tend to market their JD/MA degrees heavily, a student will not be choosing a school because it has a strong JD/MA program; rather, the student should look for a university with a strong law school and a strong graduate department in his/her chosen field. Some fields have graduate program rankings by U.S. News and World Report, and exploring the school's website and contacting the department are good ways to start getting a sense of a graduate department's strengths. Additionally, professors from a student's undergraduate institution are a great source of information on which programs have the best reputation within the field, and most are happy to answer questions even after their students have graduated.

One reason it is so important for students to know their career goals going into a JD/MA is that, in choosing among schools, students may have to weigh quality and prestige of the graduate department against quality and prestige of the law school. To make the wisest decision, students must know which part of the degree they will be primarily marketing during their job hunts – and for almost all students, this will be the JD.

Conclusion

A wide assortment of JD/MA programs are available along the spectrum of law schools, and most schools attempt to facilitate completion of these programs by making it faster and cheaper to get the dual degree than it would be to get both degrees separately. For prospective law students who are sure of their career goals and well-informed about how dual degrees are viewed by the relevant employers, a JD/MA can be a rewarding choice, either because it bolsters the student's qualifications for a particular field or because it allows the student to pursue a non-law interest. However, anyone considering a JD/MA degree must discuss the issue with informed and objective advisors to make sure that pursuing a dual degree will not hinder him/her academically or haunt him/her professionally.







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