SBC Principal Esther Magna on the Value of an MBA Dual Degree

Many business school aspirants are interested in exploring the value of having an MBA dual degree. That’s when students complete two degrees in two disciplines at the same time. A dual program takes longer compared to a single degree. But, it is shorter and less expensive than pursuing two degrees consecutively.

The MBA degree, when partnered with a second degree such as law, engineering, healthcare, etc., can lead to even greater career outcomes. Today, we’re highlighting the MBA dual degree experience of SBC Principal Consultant Esther Magna, who received a joint MBA and MPH from UCLA’s Anderson School.

In her role as Principal Consultant, Esther provides an initial assessment for more than 900 applicants each year. Many of these MBA aspirants are targeting joint degree programs at the world’s most elite business schools.

What were your initial impressions of dual degrees? What made you interested in one?

Truthfully, I loved the idea of having two degrees on my bio more than just one degree. (I’m also a big believer in the value of double majors in undergrad as a way for MBA applicants to differentiate themselves.) Plus,  I was very excited for a three-year commitment to education and all the fun experiences of being a student.

I decided to apply to both MBA and MPH programs about four years into my career. At the time, I was working in healthcare project management at Kaiser Permanente. I selected the joint degree program because it was an extension of what I loved most about my work. My role was to spearhead patient safety initiatives across the organization of hospitals and physicians.

MBA dual degree

My work had a double-bottom-line mission. I was advocating for the company’s business priorities, and also for impact, which was the improved quality of care for patients of the healthcare enterprise.

I knew the MBA degree would afford a rigorous tool kit around business principles. Meanwhile, the MPH degree had an entirely different paradigm focus on community health and societal priorities.

I remember meeting with a dean at UCLA’s public health school in the application process, and his message to me was that the ethos of the MPH education would be complementary to that of the MBA. I enjoyed understanding how the two ideologies, MBA and MPH, meshed within the joint degree experience.

Why did you decide to pursue this particular dual degree?

I was working professionally, just based on intuition, and often felt I was “winging it.” I knew I needed to professionalize my skills through higher education. I wanted to get the knowledge, tools, frameworks, and networks to advance my career short and long term.

The MBA and MPH were an ideal extension of my desire to do work that reflects the priorities of both business and societal good. I also valued the higher education degrees for the credibility that they afford within professional settings. It is like a stamp of approval or legitimacy, and that has ignited my career ever since.

What was the deciding factor in selecting your specific school?

I applied to the joint degree programs at both UCLA and USC, which entailed four separate applications and essay sets. I received admissions offers from both, and a full scholarship offer from USC. Ultimately, I went with UCLA Anderson because I valued its brand, student class, and location on the Westside of LA, where I knew I wanted to raise my family.

MBA dual degree

Did the dual degree coursework seem to differ from a “regular” program? How?

Most dual-degree programs offer the coursework separately. In other words, there aren’t “dual degree” courses. Instead, there are courses in the MBA program and then classes in the MPH program, including required and optional courses. I was one of three MPH/MBA joint degree students, so I didn’t see my joint degree peers in my classes. Similarly, the MBA/MD or MBA/JD students were so few.

The MPH courses were very different from the MBA courses in many ways. For example, the typical MPH student is much younger and has less work experience than those in the MBA program. Business school aspirants usually have 3-5 years of work experience before the program.

The MBA courses were usually larger, likely due to the higher demand for the program, and often case study-based. MPH program courses often went into clinical or societal aspects of healthcare, such as population health or community organizing.

The MPH program courses took place inside the UCLA hospital network facilities and often taught by clinical research-based faculty. Thus, my education was influenced heavily by the medical system that surrounded it.

How did your degree program prepare you for your current career?

I had my first child during the second year of my joint degree program. Then,  I had my second child one week after receiving my diploma at my graduation ceremony! I was the odd duck in grad school, as I was the only one who was pregnant for most of my higher education experience. As a result, I didn’t take part in on-campus recruiting during my third year, as I elected to be a stay-at-home mom in the years immediately after receiving my two degrees.

MBA dual degree

The value of the MBA/MPH became most clear only after I returned to my career seven years later, just after the 2008 economic downturn. Through a lucky encounter with Stacy Blackman via social circles, I began this work full-time in MBA admissions consulting. The role actively relies on my graduate degrees. I could not have this career without those degrees and feel grateful that I had taken the time to get both degrees when I was younger.

As a consultant guiding higher education applicants, I regularly draw upon my knowledge from the joint degree experience. The MPH has become more relevant for MBA applicant inquiries because so many are applying from healthcare industries or social impact domains. Many clients are aspiring toward post-graduate career paths in social impact. I can relate to a wide array of higher education applicants because of my joint degree.

Did you feel your dual degree gave you a leg up over just pursuing an MPH or MBA by itself? How?

The MBA is essential to my current career, no question. The MPH is an incremental value-add because of the rising demand for healthcare careers and the need for healthcare leaders trained in both business and healthcare disciplines. I could do my work without an MPH degree. But it’s undoubtedly valuable, and the MPH also has parallels to other joint degree programs such as public policy.

While I don’t work in public health, I call on the learnings from the MPH degree when relating to grad school applicants who are nontraditional in career paths or aspirations.

ETS, the company that administers the GRE, recently chose me to act as an industry influencer. In that role, I participated in a social media campaign that included a YouTube video produced by an ad agency in New York. I asked the producers why they selected me. It was because of my joint degree. I loved the experience, and it was a reminder that the MPH degree is continuing to benefit me.

MBA dual degree

Are there any areas where you feel you didn’t get as in-depth an education as you would’ve liked?

Years after the MBA, the most valuable tools aren’t the equations, calculations, or models from the lectures. The real value is the critical thinking that I learned from the joint degree — the level of higher and broader thinking that stands the test of time.

I remember several powerful moments in my education.

  • For example, I remember the complexity of a “how to create a healthcare research study,” from an MPH course. Since then, I am more critical around analyzing reports in business and healthcare, as I learned extensively about bias, sample size, research methods, etc. I don’t take things at face value because of that course.
  • I remember feeling mesmerized by a healthcare utilization class in the MPH program because the costs of screenings (e.g., MRIs) for cancer patients were hotly debated against the compassionate need to offer those screenings to patients who asked for them. Tradeoffs around choices and appreciation for disparate points of view have since then been a hallmark of my approach professionally.
  • I remember a family business class at my MBA program taught by a psychologist, who skillfully taught us about how senior executives, despite robust pay packages, often fall prey to burnout and experience deep unhappiness. He shared the secrets to career paths that are sustainable and fulfilling.
  • I remember the negotiation class at my MBA program, where I learned how to identify and invoke leverage in successful negotiations and how to optimize negotiation scenarios. I use these skills often.

What was the job search like after graduating with your dual degree? How did prospective employers react to it?

My peers from both programs found awesome jobs through on-campus recruiting. If I worked in a traditional corporate setting, I’m sure the joint degree would be a value-add for recruiters in any healthcare or social impact domain. For all industries, two grad degrees shows intellectual horsepower, range, and relatability.

Like anything, a higher education degree is not the secret sauce on its own. It’s work ethic, character, ambition, diligence, networking finesse, and other traits that are the dealmakers and are essential to optimize recruiting potential, even with the higher education degree.

What advice would you give to students considering pursuing a dual MBA degree?

Keep in mind a joint degree isn’t ever a requirement for a given job. One higher degree often is required, depending on the role. Two grad degrees can open more recruiting doors due to the breadth and range of training. It’s an investment in yourself toward long-term opportunities.

Evaluate and embrace what the second degree will offer that the first grad degree alone will not afford. Many higher education programs, such as the MBA, have become well-balanced across courses and allow for electives at adjacent programs, such as MPP (master of public policy) or MPH schools. A deep-dive education into the second degree should be welcome and exciting for you, given the extra year required.

The joint degree would take a third year, inclusive of costs, and place you into a different cohort (a later year of MBA graduates) for recruiting, networking, etc. You will want to leverage the connections you will make within your MBA program. A joint degree may take you away from the MBA student group to some extent. So, stay engaged in the student groups of both programs to maximize relationship-building and networking. You can catch up on sleep later in life!

This professional spotlight originally appeared on

Kaiser Permanente image by Ted Eytan (CC BY-SA 2.0)

With deadlines around the corner, you may be interested in the world-famous SBC Flight Test. Once a full set of application materials for your initial school have been drafted, but not finalized, the application will be sent to a former admissions committee member for a one-time review, adcomm style. You’ll have the benefit of a true admissions committee review while still having the ability to tinker and change.  You will receive written feedback within two business days after submitting.

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