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Those types of degrees are still popular for prospective mediators. But a growing number of schools now offer master's degrees or even doctorates in dispute resolution.
In 1998 13 universities in the United States offered graduate degrees in dispute resolution or conflict management, and since then the number has grown. The program of Virginia's George mason University is the oldest by far - it was established in 1982. Antioch University in Ohio and Nova Southeastern University in Florida were next, starting in 1993. Ten programs have come into existence since then. Three more are slated to open in the next two years. Two schools, George Mason and Nova Southeastern, offer doctoral programs.
(Many more schools offer conflict-management specializations within other degree programs.)
Dispute resolution degree programs have grown in popularity, in part, because there are a novelty and because they offer students an opportunity to enter the burgeoning dispute resolution field. (The programs also appeal to students who don't want to enter the dispute resolution field.) Many students say they like the interdisciplinary nature of the programs, the practical experience they can gain through internships and practicums, and the flexible learning options that many programs offer.
What is their appeal?
Many students are drawn to dispute resolution degree programs because they see such programs as innovative and cutting edge.
"I liked how new the field was, how open to new ideas," says Jennifer Frank, a graduate student in Nova's dispute resolution program. Frank (who majored in sociology and minored in women's studies) thinks dispute resolution programs appeal to "those who are interested in pioneering in a relatively new field...and those who are creative, open to new ideas, risk takers."
Of course, students also see such degree programs as a way to get a foot in the door of the fast-growing dispute resolution field. Many graduates go on to become mediators, consensus builders, negotiators, facilitators, and dispute resolution trainers.
"[Students in my program] go on to do everything from 'track two' [international diplomacy] to community mediation," says George Mason graduate student Rex van der Reit.
Some students pursue dispute resolution degrees, however, as a way to further their careers in other fields.
"I thought it would add a nice balance to my profession in human resources," says Angela Roberson, a student in the negotiation and conflict management program at California State University, Dominguez Hills. "HR professionals are constantly called upon to help people resolve issues they are unable to handle themselves." She adds, "I'm also very active within my community and had a vague notion this would help me be more effective.
One factor that appeals to dispute resolution students - no matter what field they intend to enter upon graduation - is the interdisciplinary nature of the programs. Classes in conflict management theory, mediation, and negotiation generally form the core of such a program, but students may also study international relations, public policy, sociology, law, psychology, organizational behavior, urban studies, communications or environmental science, among other topics.
"I was interested in studying how communications, psychology, and law function to resolve conflict," says Katherine Haydu, a graduate student at Ohio's Antioch University. "[P]ursuing a curriculum in dispute resolution allowed me to...draw upon all these areas rather than concentrating in just one...I think [this kind of interdisciplinary approach] is a big strength."
Another strength, according to proponents, is the emphasis many programs put on practical experience, in addition to theoretical knowledge. For example, George Mason, Antioch, and the University of Massachusetts, Boston, all require students to complete an internship or practicum.
"One of the best things about UMass's program is its mediation internship," says University of Massachusetts, Boston student David Pincus. "The university places students in small claims courts and family courts all over eastern Massachusetts for a semester or two. This gives the students hands-on, real-time mediation experience in real-life situations. The mediations are supervised and the students get a chance to debrief with their coordinators, who are very well-trained and experienced mediators. Coupled with extensive training in class, the internship program provides an unbeatable learning experience for dispute resolvers that far exceeds the inherent limitation of role-plays."
Another draw for prospective students: flexible learning programs that are specially tailored to mid-career students. Many dispute resolution degree programs offer evening classes and/or "distance-learning" programs.
Antioch's distance-learning program, for example, relies heavily on independent study and encourages students to take classes (for credit toward their conflict resolution degree) at other universities. It also enables students to live as far from the university as they'd like - across the globe, even.
According to Moira Dugan, chair of the conflict resolution program at Columbia College in South Carolina, flexible programs allow students "to arrange a program around their lives, rather than the other way around. This means that they are using what they are learning when they are learning it, " Dugan says. "It allows them to really incorporate what they are learning."
These various characteristics of conflict resolution programs accommodate and attract older students. The average entry age for students in George Mason's graduate program is 33, according to clinical faculty member Frank Blechman. however, the average age has been dropping, Blechman notes. In 1982 it was 38.
Mission: difficult, not impossible
Unfortunately, finding a job can be difficult for those who want to use their dispute resolution degree to get into the dispute resolution field.
"there are not many opportunities for people to go right from the academic field to practice work. It's not really the medical school model," says Rob Ricigliano, executive director of the Conflict Management Group, a non-profit organization in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "[M]any folks that come out of [dispute resolution] programs ...are really hard for us to use. they need to have some good external experience. I see it as a danger if they think they can walk out and be an environmental mediator."
Because the degree is fairly new, students may need to work harder to educate potential employers about what it offers.
"[T]he downside [of a dispute resolution degree] is that you often need the time and space to explain it," Dugan says. "If you have an MBA..., people think they know what it means. [Dispute resolution] [s]tudents need to be a little more entrepreneurial about how they go about a job search. They need to be sure to explain to a potential employer the benefits of the degree."
Such a degree may, however, help a student land an internship or entry-level position in the field. Rosemary Romero, a partner in the Western Network in Santa Fe, New Mexico, says that when she is seeking to hire an intern or associate-level mediator, a degree in conflict resolution "would definitely give [a candidate] an edge."
Dispute resolution students may be able to improve their marketability by specializing in one aspect of the field, and by gaining as much practical experience as possible.
A conflict resolution degree would benefit a student wanting to get into the mediation field "if and only if, [the program] has a strong emphasis on hands-on experience and allows students to specialize, gaining practical experience in their specialty," says Julia Wondolleck, assistant professor at the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and Environment (SNRE), who teaches conflict resolution courses. (SNRE does not have a dispute resolution degree program.)
"My observation over the years is that practical experience in dispute resolution processes or situations does sway potential employers," she says. "Having said this, however, I will also note that SNRE has...many alums in the dispute resolution field who do not have a conflict management degree. They were hired because they have a degree from a reputable program, one that includes conflict management courses, and they received strong recommendations from faculty here."
Is the base adequate?
For these reasons and more, it's clear many people will continue to enter the field with other degrees. The University of Michigan's SNRE and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, among others, likely will continue to be fertile grounds for budding dispute resolvers. The prestige of those schools is one reason.
But it's also true that dispute resolution degree programs have their critics.
Some argue, for example, that dispute resolution programs alone cannot prepare a person to be a mediator.
"[B]eing a mediator is more 'art' than 'science,' more a technique or a skill than an intellectual exercise...," says Philip Harter of the Mediation Consortium in Washington, DC. "I have seen people come out of these programs and say, 'I'm a mediator,' and then proceed to break every rule in the book."
Harter does not advocate dismantling dispute resolution programs, by any means, but he does think prospective mediation can better learn the trade through apprenticeships and other "learn by doing" situations.
The interdisciplinary nature of the programs is also seen as a drawback by some. Blechman says George Mason's program is sometimes criticized for being "too diffuse" and "too ambiguous."
But one person's ambiguous is another's innovative. Dispute resolution programs clearly offer opportunities that many students are seeking - to be a part of something new, to gain theoretical knowledge and practical experience, and to feel they are learning how to make a difference in the world. So, despite criticism, it's clear that dispute resolution degree programs are here to stay.
And it's a good bet they'll continue to grow in popularity.
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