There are Only Three Reasons to Double Major in College

Students often ask me if they should double major in college. (If you are not familiar with the idea of a double major, it basically means a college student is completing the coursework to graduate with one degree in two academic subject areas. It's important to note that earning a double major is not the same as earning two bachelor's degrees. A dual degree is when you earn two diplomas.) Students often think that they will have an advantage getting a job if they have two majors. They are under the impression that graduating with two majors is better than graduating with only one because it will make them look more knowledgeable. But is this assumption accurate?

I typically suggest that students avoid double majoring in academic fields that are perceived to be closely related. For example, I don't recommend a double major in psychology and sociology. Now I fully realize that most psychology professors and most sociology professors would be outraged that anyone would suggest that these two academic disciplines are in any way similar to each other. Yes, they are different; but notice I am recommending that a student not double major in disciplines that are "perceived" to be closely related. Most employers think of sociology as a field that teaches you about people and human behavior; and guess what, that's the same way that they typically view psychology.

In this case, if a student pursues a double major in sociology and psychology because she thinks she will have an easier chance of getting a job with a nonprofit, she's probably going to be sadly mistaken. Sure your typical nonprofit likes to hire graduates with a degree in the social or behavioral sciences, but they are not going to be wowed by a person who possesses a double major in sociology and psychology because they essentially see these degrees as the same thing. In other words, a double major from similar fields provides little advantage. It's like a person spraying themselves with one type of floral perfume and then figuring that spraying themselves with a second type of floral perfume will double their attraction level.

Students should consider the real costs of a double major. For one, it's most likely going to take longer to complete a degree. Unless you know from the beginning of your studies what academic areas you want to double major in, the reality is you are probably going to need to take at least an extra semester/term of school, maybe even an extra year or more. Second, because the coursework for your two majors are going to consume all or almost all of your general elective credits, you are going to lose the ability to explore other college courses and academic subject areas. Third, extra courses mean you are going to spend more money than you need to. For these three reasons, I typically encourage students to choose one major that will help them advance toward their goals and then take a broad set of other electives that will benefit them in some way. This strategy provides the smoothest path toward graduation, allows for a broad range of exploratory classes, and costs the least amount of money.

That said, there are a few reasons where it might be worthwhile to double major. To make these ideas easier to remember, I have given them each a label and have listed them below. My three reasons for why it may be worthwhile to double major:

1) Career Enhancement: You may want to double major if the two academic areas you are pursuing will strengthen your professional competence. For example, double majoring in Spanish and International Business will make you a stronger job candidate if you want to do business in Central America.

2) Passion and Pay: Double majoring in a career preparation field and a personal passion area is a reasonable pursuit. For example, let's say you love playing the cello, but you also want a degree that will help you achieve a good salary. In this case it makes sense to get a degree with a major in music performance and a major in computer science.

3) Graduate School Options: You know you want to go on to graduate school, but you are not exactly sure what specific area you want to specialize in yet. Let's say you love history and you love political science, and you know you want to go on to get your Ph.D. in one of these areas. If you double major in both fields, you will have a much easier time getting accepted into graduate schools in both of these programs since you will be able to show that you have completed the core curriculum in each discipline.

In short, I generally encourage students not to double major. But as you can see, there are at least three reasons why a person may have a good reason to do so. Perhaps you believe there are some other good reasons to double major. If so, feel free to send me a note and share your thoughts on this issue.


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