Why dual degrees in public health and business can be ‘the way to create the most change’

BY Anastassia GliadkovskayaFebruary 02, 2023, 5:32 PM
Jackson State University’s Fall 2022 commencement, as seen in December 2022. (Photo by Aron Smith—JSU University Communications/Jackson State University/Getty Images)

Many universities offer dual degrees. Pursuing such an option means you’re studying fields in separate programs and earning two degrees at once. The benefits of doubling up on school may appeal to some prospective students, and they increasingly have more options to do so.

One of the more common dual degree options is a JD/MBA, in which students earn advanced degrees in law and business concurrently. But there are many other degree combinations—like a MPH-MBA, combining a master’s degree in public health, which is offered at the University of California–Berkeley. 

Still, not everyone goes into school knowing they’re interested in both. So they do one, followed by another. That was the case for Alicea Lieberman, a researcher and assistant professor of marketing at the University of California–Los Angeles. When she completed her MPH at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, she didn’t apply for a Ph.D. program in marketing until nearly a decade later. Until then, Lieberman evaluated anti-tobacco media campaigns and their efficacy at a nonprofit research institute. 

“Going to school and then working for a couple years provides me with a unique lens and approach to research that has been my relative advantage and it does provide a different voice at the table,” Lieberman says. Working allowed her to understand “what makes people tick in the real world, not just in the lab.” 

For Lieberman, who is passionate about interdisciplinary research, an untraditional master’s degree “is the way to create the most change,” she adds. 

Finding the right fit for a dual degree 

To some people, Lieberman’s background with a master’s in public health and work experience as a researcher may have seemed unconventional when she was applying to marketing programs. That’s why, she says, it was important that a prospective program saw her unique background as a benefit, and how she ultimately ended up at the University of California-San Diego’s Rady School of Management.

“I would only want to have landed at a place that saw it as a strength because that fostered my passion to pursue the type of research that I wanted to pursue,” Lieberman says. 

Though Lieberman believes her background may have puzzled some a decade ago, she thinks applying for a secondary degree in health today might make more sense to admissions committees: “The pandemic has made it so that everybody understands now just how important it is.” 

To figure out if a school is the right fit for other students who are pursuing degrees in very different fields, Lieberman recommends looking at the research that the faculty do and asking them about the culture of a place. 

Liz Rockett, like Lieberman, had worked for several years before completing her MBA and MPH degrees concurrently. Now the founder of Mission Lock Collective—an effort to bring together impact entrepreneurs and investors in health care—Rockett applied to UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business with an interest in pursuing a traditional MBA education, even though she was coming from a background in health care. But the program’s director encouraged her to try the dual-degree based on her interests, and it ended up being the perfect fit when she enrolled in 2008. 

The benefit of two master’s degrees

Becoming a student again helped Rockett understand the range of opportunities available post-graduation. And a pause from full-time work also afforded so many options to learn and practice. “The power of being a student is that you’re a threat to nobody,” Rockett says.

Rockett hadn’t realized how much knowledge of health care it takes to successfully invest in the market. Being in both programs offered differing, but complementary, perspectives that gave Rockett “a much clearer understanding of what is needed when we think about innovation.” 

That knowledge has been key to how Rockett looks at potential health care-related investments and the associated potential for growth and challenges. After graduation, she served as director of health impact investing at Imprint Capital Advisors, a firm that was eventually acquired by Goldman Sachs. Rockett then joined Kaiser Permanente Ventures as a principal, ascending to managing director and then head of the fund. In addition to Mission Lock Collective, she currently teaches the impact investing practicum at the Haas School of Business. 

Like Rockett, Eric Rosenbaum leans on his dual degrees—a master’s in public health and an MBA—to liaison between two worlds. Now president and CEO of Project Renewal, a nonprofit focused on ending homelessness, Rosenbaum is a graduate of the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill Gillings School of Public Health and the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, having done his degrees in succession.

After graduation, Rosenbaum worked for management consulting firm Arthur D. Little as what he terms a “translator”—helping executives understand biotech and clinical diagnostics. Afterwards, he was recruited to lead strategic planning for Colgate-Palmolive, managing annual project budgeting negotiations and once again “translating” the product development process for executives.

In his current role, he still deals with the interplay of health care and business. Most corporations think about homelessness as a philanthropic effort for their foundation, but they aren’t actively involved, Rosenbaum says. In reality, their workforces might face the same threat. That’s why he engages with corporate executives, some of whom sit on Project Renewal’s board, to win their support for policy reform. 

“A lot of what I’m doing today is trying to engage the corporate community which has mostly sat on the sidelines because they just don’t have a way in,” he says. Rosenbaum credits his MPH with teaching him to think analytically, while his MBA helped him understand organizational structure and leadership and climb the ranks in the business world. 

When it comes to deciding which degree to pursue first, Rosenbaum notes it may depend on where you are in your career planning. He didn’t have a career plan, so he went for his MPH to figure it out. In the end, he felt he needed a MBA on top of that to really understand his goals. But for someone who has a clear sense of what they want, a dual degree would make sense, he believes. 

“Anyone who wants to work in either the business of a technologically sophisticated sector or in administration of a nonprofit or government agency would benefit from this kind of dual degree,” he says.

Check out all of Fortune’rankings of degree programs, and learn more about specific career paths.