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McGill student Shawn Errunza is a master multitasker, taking his medical and MBA degrees at the same time. The dual degree approach will save him a year of study. (Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)
McGill student Shawn Errunza is a master multitasker, taking his medical and MBA degrees at the same time. The dual degree approach will save him a year of study. (Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)


When one degree just isn’t enough Add to ...

In 2010, after graduating from McGill University in Montreal with an undergraduate degree in engineering, Shawn Errunza co-founded a biomedical device company whose software-based tools help rehabilitate victims of strokes and other injuries.

But when the company, Jintronix, Inc., hit a rough patch, Mr. Errunza kept his options open by applying to medical school at McGill. “I realized I was building a virtual reality system for stroke victims but didn’t even know what a stroke was,” he says.

Mr. Errunza then discovered that he could add an MBA to his doctor of medicine/master of surgery pursuits – and complete the joint program in five years. That’s one year less than is required to do the two degrees in sequence, but it imposes an extra heavy study burden.

“I’m used to working long hours from my startup,” he says. “I flourished in the first year of the dual-degree program: It was all business courses, and they covered what I had been doing at Jintronix for the previous four years.”

The hard part began with the medical courses in the second year. “My last biology course was when I was 17 years old,” says Mr. Errunza. “Most of the other medical students came in with undergraduate courses in physiology and anatomy. I’m working hard just to be average. Med school is non-stop studying.”

But he will have a wealth of options once he finishes the double-barrelled program and completes his residency. He says he might establish a multidisciplinary clinical practice. He might return to his first love, Jintronix, which has received U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval and raised fresh venture capital. Or, in his dream scenario, he would launch a venture capital fund to help other startups in the health-care sector.

Mr. Errunza, 28, is among the 5 per cent of McGill MBA students who are combining their business degree with a medical or law degree. “They’re multitaskers, very driven and looking for additional challenges,” says Demetrios Vakratsas, associate dean of master programs at McGill’s Desautels Faculty of Management.

He says the dual-degree students bring an added dimension to the MBA class. “The law students are trained in reading cases and make a different quality of argument. The medical students bring the research perspective.”

Many business schools in Canada now offer combined MBA-law programs. York University was the first, initiating its combined MBA-juris doctor (JD) program in 1972. But the schools are spreading their collaborative reach to more faculties. The University of Toronto was the first in Canada to pair the MBA with an undergraduate engineering degree. This month, the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., introduced a two-year joint MBA-master of engineering program.

At the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business, students can do an MBA in tandem with a JD or medical degree, or with a master degree in social work, biotechnology or public policy. Other faculties have approached Haskayne to propose a combined degree, says Michael Wright, associate dean of graduate programs.

“The other faculties recognize that it is beneficial for their grads to also have a business or managerial background. For example, in a combined MBA degree in social work or in nursing, which we are currently developing, some students want to add the managerial skill sets necessary to move higher up in their chosen professions.”

Alexandra Eakins graduated last November from the University of Calgary with a joint MBA-master of public policy (MPP) degree and now works as a sustainability analyst with grocery giant Sobeys Inc. “I know I wouldn’t have gotten this position if I didn’t have both degrees,” she says. “Having the MPP degree set me apart from other MBA grads.”

She was influenced to enroll by a student trip to Israel, where she studied the impact of the country’s irrigation policy on its crop yields. “I saw the importance of good public policy and how it affects what I do.” (She had already worked at Sobeys before returning to university.)

At Haskayne, Ms. Eakins focused on food policy and did her thesis on the Alberta beef industry. She tailored her course work around beef, too. Doing the two degrees in 2 1/2 years, instead of the three years that sequential degrees require, meant a heavier study load for her (although she was exempted from eight MBA courses that she had covered in her bachelor of commerce degree).

But even more demanding was having to adopt a different way of thinking, says Ms. Eakins. “My background was 100 per cent business, so I had to unlearn how I had traditionally looked at my studies. For the MPP degree, I was analyzing policy instead of analyzing a business. I was able to understand policy in a way that I never knew existed.”

Perhaps the most unusual pairing is at York in Toronto, where the Schulich School of Business and the school of the arts, media, performance and design offer a three-year combined program for an MBA and master of fine arts (MFA) or master of arts (MA).

Greg McClary is completing his MBA-MA this semester. He originally enrolled for an MA in music, but at the orientation learned of the dual degree. In the program, he has focused on digital media content, and devoted 3,000 hours to composing a symphony.

“I was geared up for an academic career in music,” says Mr. McClary, who plans to become a digital media consultant, “but after realizing just how competitive that job market is, the MBA offered an elegant opportunity for a career transition.”

He now plans to become a digital media consultant.

Mr. McClary discovered that the writing skills of MFA and MA students are highly valued in MBA group work. “Even the students who weren’t so gung-ho on business were in high demand in groups because of their knack for explaining things that aren’t easy to communicate. So there’s definitely synergy in the skill sets.”

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