I decided to apply for a joint degree program on top of a mountain in Big Bear, California. My now fiancée, then-boyfriend and I were spending a long weekend in Southern California visiting family and hiking. At the time, I was an educator in the Bay Area, about to finish my Teach for America commitment and move into a new job as an adviser and parent liaison. Yet something felt like it was missing – I loved the work I did with kids but knew that I missed international work. It felt like unless I made a decision soon, this would just be my life – a career in education, a life in Northern California, and a teaching credential I wasn’t sure I would ever use again.
As we hiked up the mountain, I weighed the costs and benefits of the JD and MPP programs I was considering. Neither by itself felt “right” or “enough.” Did I want to be a lawyer? I wasn’t sure. Did I want to be able to substantively engage with and advocate for people trapped in the web of human rights violations and changing migration policies? Yup. I felt almost opposite about the policy degree – I wanted to dive into the courses and build skill sets in the international area that I didn’t get from my very un-quantitative undergraduate degree. However, did I want to work in politics or for the U.S. government? Strong nope. On that mountain, I decided I would go “all or nothing” into a joint or concurrent program.
Suffice to say that applying to two separate types of graduate programs at the same time is a harrowing task. I took the GRE three times, the LSAT twice, and was negotiating fellowship money on opposite ends of the continent for months. It’s a pain, no question. The same goes for being a “jointee” – you take extra classes no one else has to take, sometimes you don’t get to walk with your friends at graduation, and (if you’re me) you spend weeks every year trying to figure out the new printing system at each school.
However, I have never regretted committing to the JD/MPP program at HLS and HKS. I chose Harvard over other programs because it was the biggest school, with the most resources focused across both programs on international diplomacy, human rights, migration, and security studies. As someone who didn’t plan to follow a “typical” path from either school, I needed a university whose resources allowed room for flexibility and curiosity about a variety of topics, not just well-trod paths to specific career goals.
Over my four years at Harvard I have researched in five countries, interned in three, and published a chapter in an academic book that will come out this summer. I have had the opportunity to represent asylum seekers at the US/ Mexico border and in Boston for Greater Boston Legal Services Immigration unit, worked as a research assistant for the head of the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic, and done a consulting project for the Dispute Resolution Clinic on diversifying mediators for the Southern District of New York’s mediation program. I will graduate from HKS with a concentration in International and Global Affairs having taken courses and clinics on human rights, security policy, and international theory. I will graduate from HLS having spent three semesters doing practical clinical work on issues I am passionate about (I’m so excited to start the International Human Rights Clinic this week!) and having taken coursework on topics including American Indian Law, International Humanitarian Law, and International Arbitration.
That’s not to say the path has always been easy – restarting at a new school when your old friends are just down the block is hard and requires balancing many different considerations and friendships. Engaging in the very domestically focused 1L curriculum at HLS after having finished a year of statistics and economics at HKS was a rough transition for me. Though I know other joint degree candidates who feel the opposite and can’t wait to tackle case law instead of charts and numbers. On my worst days (let’s be real – 1L fall) I felt like I was stuck between two worlds, and wasn’t fully invested in either.
Yet, I was lucky to find close friendships at both schools with people who “felt like me,” in addition to our strong and fierce joint degree cohort. Unlike most 1Ls, I celebrated the end of fall finals by leaving immediately for the HKS India trek, where myself, my fiancée, and eighty of my closest friends worked through post-finals fugue by gallivanting around the Taj Mahal. At a friend’s birthday this fall, both HKS and HLS friends traveled to London for a big celebration, and I got to see some of my closest friends from both programs dance the night away. Most importantly, I believe the learning and perspective I gained from participating in both programs made my time at Harvard significantly more fruitful. Without HKS, I do not think I would have gotten the deep dive into international relations that I was looking for, and without HLS, I wouldn’t be a lawyer who plans to (at least for now) tackle complex international problems in international courts of arbitration.
So, is the joint degree program longer, and kind of a hassle? Yes. However, it’s a bigger hassle to finish graduate school and realize you didn’t get enough out of it to achieve your goals, or to answer the questions you came in with. To my mind, the extra year is more than worth it.
Liz Coffin-Karlin is a JD/MPP joint degree candidate at Harvard Law School and Harvard Kennedy School.