To double major or not to double major

The number of McGill students partaking in double majors or joint honours degrees has risen in recent years. As of 2017, approximately one in five McGill students were expected to graduate with a joint degree. Yet, despite a trend toward interdisciplinary education, many continue to question the value of pursuing a double major.

In a 2018 New York Times article, David Leonhardt argued that students should avoid double majoring, rationalizing that though dual concentrations encourage students to familiarize themselves with two academic fields, it also gives them less flexibility to diversify their programs through electives. Despite Leonhardt’s warning, universities have increasingly promoted interdisciplinary study. At McGill, the Faculty of Arts and Science was founded in 2005 to enable students to major in both a science and a humanity discipline. Similarly, across North America, universities are offering interdisciplinary programs: through New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study students can curate their own major according to their interests and Middlebury College’s winter term program allows them to take month-long classes outside of their major.

Many students feel that this holistic approach to education exposes them to a wider breadth of classes and allows them to explore more of their scholastic interests. Kate Englehutt, U1 Arts, majors in geography and double minors in political science and religion and globalization. In her experience, taking a diverse selection of classes has enriched her understanding of each concentration.

“I found that [pursuing a double minor] was the best way to specialize what I was studying to best suit my interests,” Englehutt said. “My courses overlap in really interesting ways, like some urban geography courses have a lot to do with politics and policy, for example. I think it impacts my life at McGill positively because I get to dip my toe into a few different departments and diversify my undergrad classes.”

In response to multidisciplinary programs, economists have worked to determine the value of a joint degree. In a 2016 study conducted by the Society for Benefit-Cost Analysis, scholars noted that many students who double majored did so, in part, because they expected to earn a higher salary after graduation. Though many students initially pursue interdisciplinary study to satisfy their diverse interests, there are also perceived professional advantages to earning a joint degree.

Some believe that students who take double majors work harder or are more driven, attributes that employers view as indicators for professional success. Fernando Nunez-Mietz, an assistant professor in the political science department and joint honours advisor, has observed that the double major students he supervises can sometimes have an advantage in the increasingly competitive job market because of their unique interests and skills.

“My presumption [about why students double major] is that it has to do with the signal it sends to future employers or future institutions that students are looking to apply to,” Nunez-Mietz said. “Basically [it shows] that you are above the average, that you are an overachiever or that you basically stand out from the crowd.”

At McGill, double majors require that students take on a heavier course load and attend additional required classes. While the extra hours of studying that come with a double major degree can cause a strain on students, many of them believe that the unique skill sets they develop from their joint programs will aid their academic and professional growth. According to Leanne Young, U1 Science, who is earning a joint honours degree in computer science and biology, pursuing two seemingly unrelated disciplines has helped her develop the necessary skills to succeed in academia.

“This specific joint degree opens so many more windows to both the technological world and the research world,” Young said. “Science students who do not possess any mathematical [or] computational knowledge […] are greatly missing out on [a range of] opportunities and research that can be done.”

Nonetheless, some students find that the sacrifices they make to complete a joint degree can take a toll on their personal and academic lives. Many double majors note that they struggle with heavier course loads and inflexible course schedules. These challenges can prove especially difficult when the student loses interest in their course material. McGill Career Planning Service (CaPS) director Darlene Hnatchuk explained that despite these obstacles, many disillusioned students persevere with their double major because they believe it will guarantee professional success—an outlook she finds unproductive.

“I think that if students choose to do a double major it should be because they’re equally passionate or very keen about the two topics they are choosing to double major in,” Hnatchuk said. “The best reasons are because you can’t figure out what you’re most intensely interested in, and some of the worst reasons are because you think it’s going to guarantee you certain types of positions or employment outcomes.”

Many double majors hope that interdisciplinary study makes them adaptable job candidates, however research indicates no correlation between double majors and higher salaries. Though interdisciplinary majors can help students develop a diverse skill set, Hnatchuk explained that students enrolled in other programs can gain comparable experience in other academic fields through extracurriculars or electives. Increasingly, she noted, employers seek prospective employees that add value their companies, which can be measured by a candidate’s demonstrated abilities, rather than simply the degree they carry.

“Employers aren’t saying that they’re looking for students that have done double majors, they’re looking for skill sets,” Hnatchuk said. “Whether you develop the skills that they’re looking for through your academic or co-curricular […] doesn’t really matter to them, what matters is that you have those skills, that you can demonstrate those skills.”

Over the course of their undergraduate degrees, students enrolled in multidisciplinary programs find that the work ethic and diverse skill-sets required to succeed in double major programs have also aided their personal development. Caitlyn McConnell, U1 Arts, studies classical vocal performance, economics, and computer science. She explained that balancing the workload required to complete a double major challenged her to develop stronger organizational skills. She also believes that this experience has helped her become a more versatile thinker.

“The benefits [of a double major] are being able to take a huge variety of classes,” McConnell said. “I have to take, music, math, three languages, computer science and economics courses [….] I think it prepares you to enter [the] ‘real world’ by forcing you to apply your skills over a wide range of subjects and teaching you to think in a completely different way because you have to juggle so many subjects at once.”

In their efforts to come across as ideal candidates for job opportunities, students can sometimes forget the underlying role of gaining a university degree: to highlight and expand on knowledge and skill sets that are beneficial for both personal and professional growth. While some view double majoring as time-consuming, McGill students pursuing joint degrees believe that double majoring can educate them on a range of issues, open doors with the university’s ecosystem, and teach them skills that serve them long after graduation.

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