The Dual Challenges of Pursuing a Dual Degree in Social Work and Public Health

Brian Kim

By Brian Kim

It was a long shot, applying to two top-ranked graduate schools—the Columbia School of Social Work and the Mailman School of Public Health—at an Ivy League university. Looking back, I was foolishly optimistic, a tad naïve, and definitely crazy to think that I would make a successful dual-degree candidate.

When I received my acceptance letter into both schools, after the initial surprise and happiness I was drowning in anxiety. Would I be able to survive the academic rigors of the program? What had I gotten myself into?

But in the end I accepted the challenge—or should I say dual challenge? I am now in my third and final year, customarily referred to as the “split year,” of my chosen dual-master’s-degree program. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel—however, that light is still a small speck, as I have to complete, in Spring 2013 (my last semester), my field placement, thesis, and capstone paper while taking eight classes (luckily, five of them are mini-courses).

The Requirements

I was initially attracted to CUSSW’s Dual Degree Program because it allowed me to earn two degrees concurrently—a Master’s of Science in Social Enterprise Administration (MSSW) and a Master of Public Health (MPH)—in just three years. I also saw it as a chance to get two degrees for the price of one.

Columbia University exempts dual degree students from certain coursework, usually electives. In my case I was also able to take public health courses during my residency at the School of Public Health that could be applied towards my social work degree. I have to complete just 51 credits for my concentration in Social Enterprise Administration compared to the required 60 credits.

As for the MPH degree, I have to complete 45 credits: 15 public health core credits, 16 Sociomedical Sciences credits, and 14 Health Promotion credits.

Besides the course credits, I am required by the School of Social Work to be in field for 21 hours a week over two consecutive semesters for two years and to produce a capstone paper, and by the Mailman School, to complete a 280-hour practicum, culminating in a master’s thesis.

The Challenges

For the past two-and-a-half years, I have often asked myself: was a life full of studying for exams, writing papers, doing group projects, making presentations, and working part-time worthwhile?

Although there were definitely moments when I felt overwhelmed, looking back I feel as though I managed it without making too many concessions in my extracurricular activities and personal life.

One of the most time-consuming aspects of pursuing the two degrees was the amount of travel I had to do between the two schools. The Mailman School of Public Health is located on the Columbia University Medical Center campus—48 blocks north of the School of Social Work.

But thanks to Columbia’s shuttle bus system, the commute has been tolerable. I’ve tried to use the 30 or so minutes of travel time productively, by checking my iPhone for email. (Fortunately, the stop for the intercampus shuttle is right by the School of Social Work!)

I’ve also had double the academic challenges. At first, I imagined there would be some overlap between my coursework at the two schools—that was when I thought I would become a clinical social worker. In the end, however, I chose Social Enterprise Administration (SEA) as my social work method, which aims to build competency in areas such as financial management, human resource management, organizational theory, and program development and evaluation. SEA is modeled along the lines of an MBA or MPA—the main distinction being that as social workers, we are obliged to follow the code of ethics established by the National Association of Social Workers.

At the School of Public Health, I am studying sociomedical sciences, which apply the views and perspectives of anthropology, sociology, and psychology to public health issues. Occasionally, I find some overlap—for instance, in discussions of how health disparities are influenced by racism or classism, or how history and culture influence health behavior and public health policy.  

The Advantages

I had originally wanted to enter the dual degree program as a public health student, meaning I would be registered with the School of Public Health; but in the end I decided to start my program as a social work student. This has proved to be one of the best decisions I made during my time at Columbia.

Being a full-time resident at the School of Social Work, I am able to access the facilities on the Morningside campus, which are far better than what is available to students on the Medical Campus: Student Health Services, Dodge Fitness Center, and other student organizations.

Another advantage of being based at the Social Work School is social life: I’ve found it much easier to socialize and interact with my fellow social work students than with other public health students. This probably has to do with the size of the schools and their programs. At Mailman, I am a Health Promotion student in the Department of Sociomedical Sciences: my department has seven tracks and Health Promotion is one of the larger track cohorts.

In comparison, the School of Social Work has only four methods of concentration and nine fields of practice. During orientation week, I was assigned to a cohort of ten other students who subsequently became my circle of friends. (You would think I might make friends with other dual-degree students, but after five semesters, I’ve met less than a handful of people in my same situation.)

The Pay-off

Does having two degrees pay off in the real world? While I do not necessarily expect to find a job that utilizes both degrees to the same extent, I have the advantage that there is a wide range of jobs I am prepared to do, from social worker to public health advocate.

Ideally, of course, I would like to combine the two interests. For instance, I could envision playing a role in creating, operating or managing a social enterprise that focuses on providing health and human services to marginalized or disenfranchised populations.

However, even if I do nothing related to either field, knowing that I overcame the challenges of Columbia’s dual-degree program gives me an appreciation for approaching complex tasks from multiple perspectives—something I think could benefit me in any line of work I pursue.