Jacobson pursuing master's while serving as administrative law judge

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Jacobson pursuing master’s while serving as U.S. administrative law judge

Joe Jacobson approaches his coursework with the School of Education’s Rehabilitation Counseling master’s degree program from a unique perspective.

While many of his classmates are striving to become accredited as certified rehabilitation counselors or attempting to earn a training license as a professional counselor, Jacobson already has an established career as a United States administrative law judge.

“Mainly, I enjoy taking classes, going to school and testing myself,” says Jacobson, who is on track to wrap up his master’s degree in August. “Life-long learning has always been important to me.”

Joseph Jacobson
Joe Jacobson is on track to graduate in August 2018 with a master's degree
in rehabilitation counseling from the School of Education's Department of
Rehabilitation Counseling and Special Education.
Jacobson, who is a native of Onalaska, Wisconsin, previously spent 22 years in the U.S. Air Force. This service included working for 16 years as an attorney and also included a stretch as a judge in the Air Force.

Jacobson has served as an administrative law judge with the Social Security Administration since 2008. In this role, he serves as both the judge and trier of fact for people who believe they are not receiving the Social Security disability benefits they should be.

Since 2011, he has worked in the agency’s Madison office. He mainly hears appeals from claimants with physical ailments, mental health disorders or cognitive issues that prevent them from working.

If the Social Security Administration determines an individual does not qualify for, or no longer meets the definition of disability under the Social Security Act, or finds that a person was overpaid, that individual can request reconsideration of the agency’s decision. If the individual is not happy with that decision, that person has the right to request a hearing before an administrative law judge.

The Social Security Administration considers about 700,000 cases each year. This necessitates a roster of roughly 1,400 administrative law judges, who are independent of the Social Security Administration.

“In these appeals, I will often hear from vocational experts who are graduates of UW–Madison’s rehabilitation psychology program,” says Jacobson. “I started thinking it might be interesting to take some master’s classes as a way to test myself and build on a bachelor’s degree in psychology that I never really used.”

Jacobson started taking classes as a special student in 2013 and enjoyed courses being taught by Brian Phillips, an assistant professor of rehabilitation psychology. Jacobson eventually applied for admission to the master’s program, started taking two classes each semester and is scheduled to graduate this summer.

This master of science degree program in rehabilitation counseling is designed to prepare people to serve adolescents and adults with disabilities in rehabilitation agencies and programs through counseling, assessment, job placement, case management and advocacy. The program’s mission centers on improving the quality of life and fostering inclusion for individuals with disabilities in community settings.

The program places a strong emphasis on field experiences, including three semesters of practical training in supervised placements in rehabilitation counseling settings.

“The placements have been very useful in allowing me to appreciate the lives of people I see in the courtroom at a deeper level,” says Jacobson, who especially enjoyed his placement with the Green County Community Support Program, which provides comprehensive mental health and case management services to adults with a severe and persistent mental illness.

His placement with Employment Resources, Inc., a private, nonprofit organization in Madison, similarly helped Jacobson gain a better understanding of what happens to some people after they leave the courtroom and receive benefits and employment counseling.

“Not only is this program challenging me, it’s giving me new experiences and making me better at my job,” says Jacobson.

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