Is Getting a Double Major a Dumb Idea?

A double major in college seems like a no brainer to many students today, who want to capture a competitive advantage in the work world.

Some academics, however, argue that a double major doesn’t necessarily provide that edge. Even worse, double majoring keeps many students from graduating on time.

The double major issue came up when I was talking to a professor at the University of California, San Diego, about why it’s taking so long for kids to get college degrees today.

At UCSD the four-year graduation rate is 56%. While that number is underwhelming, the national average for public universities is far worse — 28%. (You can find graduation rates for any school at College Results Online.)

The UCSD professor told me that the popularity of double majors is one significant reason why students at her institution — and I assume elsewhere — aren’t graduating on time. Underfunded state schools are struggling to usher students through with one major and adding an extra major gums up the system.

Double Major Advice

Here’s the professor’s suggestion for students who are contemplating double majoring: If graduating in four years is impossible or extremely difficult for double majors at a particular institution, students should consider focusing on one major and then spending the extra year or two getting a master’s degree.

The UCSD professor isn’t the academic who feels that double majors are overblown. During  a visit to my son’s high school, the admission dean at Columbia University became animated when he told the teenagers that nobody is going to care whether they ended up getting a double major. Employers won’t care about a double major, he insisted. In fact, he told the students, even their spouses won’t care care about a double major.

A couple of  years ago, The New York Times explored why students consider a double major. While the article clearly captured the belief of students that a double major is a way to separate them from the crowd of high achieving graduates, some academics call that conventional wisdom baloney.

A few years ago, Bowdoin College, which is a prestigious liberal arts college in Maine, got three professors together to discuss the pros and cons of a double major. Regardless of your intended college major,  I’d suggest that you read the recap if you are considering a double major.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and an eBook, Shrinking the Cost of College: 152 Ways to Cut the Price of a Bachelor’s Degree.

Read more:

The Double Major Bind

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  1. I am a double major in Physics and Chemical Engineering. I ended up getting two highest honors in both majors (School of Arts and Sciences and School of Engineering) in four years without any summer courses. Additionally, I was be able to do several research projects with two professors. Yes, I did have a social life and a girl friend. So my week breaks down into 5 days of hard working, 1 day of social time with friends, 1 day of dating. The average credit hour for a semester for me was 21. It was not hard at all if you plan your time and do not slack off.

  2. I do not think this article is negative, because its says just the truth. I have told by the college and university that I attended that I supposed to be graduated in a cerrain time and it became not to be truth. They just want to put you in more classes because everything is about the money. Just try to get out as soon as possible and spend your time in a master better than getting all those minors or second degrees. Even do we all going to die one day, and employeers do not take in consideration the extra work that much so just try to have a balance in your life and finished school, work and live your life.

  3. Well…. it really depends on what your double majors are. I double majored in political science and history – that was monetarily worthless, despite being fulfilling. On the other hand (now that I’m in grad school for finance and economics), I suggest to any bright, mathy high school student or college freshman that they should double major in finance and computer science (in fact, a third major of math would just complete the whole gamut). Yes, having both those majors (with good grades) will make you irresistible to the most elite employers. Of course, if becoming a millionaire isn’t your thing, discard this advice and follow your dreams or whatever.

    1. Quick second opinion advice is appreciated here. I grew up loving American history and political science so I thought you can relate. Worries of not being employable or making big bucks, I started my undergrad pursuing economics instead as a way to connect with history and political science (helps forecast repeated past errors and policies shape our economy) but after doing well in calculus like many of my engineering peers and finding the sciences interesting enough, I switched into chemical engineering in hopes of having a stable job and not dealing with another economic crash like in 08. Now after having 2 years of lower division economic courses completed and just finishing my lower division in engineering, I’m wondering if a double major in chemical engineering and economics is a good idea entering my 3rd year? Currently, I have a 3.14. I like to add that I’m interested in grad school but not sure if interested in an MBA, masters in engineering or economics. Or better to focus only on engineering to get the highest GPA possible for grad school? If getting an MBA or masters in engineering, is having a BA in economics pointless? I have a “work hard, get a high paying job, make big bucks so to invest lot more, don’t depend on a single source of income, live off profits, and live the rest of your life in a hobby profession” type of mentally. Thanks your opinion is appreciated.

  4. You’re better off doing the major/minor than handling two majors at once. Pick complimenting fields that work well together (i.e., MIS major, accounting minor and vice versa). This way you’re getting the best of both worlds and can understand fundamentals of the minor field in relation to the major.

  5. I honestly am interested in double majoring and researching for whether or not to double major because I’m still attending Community College. This article though did confuse me and made me even more indecisive with my decision. But to whomever who reads this, try to find what’s more suitable for you. Whether or not it fits with your work schedule or your in a great position (financially). Because personally, I want to become an Art professor while being able to create programs to help trouble youths and also be able to understand the elderly, which the program helping these people while supporting charities globally. To sum it up, I’m headed in a Art and Psychology as a double major. The advice I can give to my fellow peers my age whose turning 20 teen, strike while the iron is hot. Were not getting any younger, time can be jerk.

    1. I am currently in high school and I need advice for double majoring.
      . I want to do science along with philosophy. My field of study is Biology.
      Can anyone help?

  6. What if we want to double major simply because we love those two majors a lot, not because we want people to think we’re smart? I mean, I’m looking at both cognitive science and computer science 1) because I like them, and 2) because they go well together.

  7. Double major if you want it. I am currently a biochemistry applied math physics double major. The reason why I choose to double in applied math physics is because I ended up falling in love with math and physics. I realized this when I became most awake when the lectures in my science courses veered into small math and physics discussions.That was a sign that maybe I enjoyed physical science more than life science. Anyways double major because you honestly enjoy the courses and want to take them not because it will give you an edge. If you wanted an “edge” you would be best off volunteering and getting internships in your field of study. I also realized that some biophysics grad programs are housed in physics department that required physics prerequisites. Do it if you want. Ignore everyone and everything else.

  8. I find this article to be very discouraging to people considering a double major. Everyone’s situation is different and it does make sense for some people to pursue a double major as opposed to a minor or other electives that are useless. For example I am able to test out of Spanish and fulfill my language requirement. This opens up 15-20 credit hours that I can either use towards a minor or take electives. Fortunately when I began college I tackled all general ed early on I now have the time and hours available to pick two majors. Personally I would rather apply myself and receive a degree with a double major than simply breeze through electives or a minor. My current major is Public Administration and am deciding between social welfare or Latin American studies as my second.

  9. I had the idea to double major in Computer Science or IST and Digital Arts or Video Game Art and Production (depends on which college i’m accepted to). Would this not help me get a job? I really want a career in the video game industry as a video game designer. If this doesn’t work I was going to rely on my degree in Computer Science or IST to get a job in Information Technology.

  10. I find this article to be very negative and discouraging. People should be encouraging double majors not stating that they “clog up the system.” They are just high achievers who are interested in different subjects and want to diversify their job prospects.

  11. What’s important to note is that the college experience varies widely; for some (like myself) a double major made sense, while for others it may not. I double majored in economics and Spanish with honors, graduating in 4 years precisely because my majors had nothing in common, this fulfilling all my credit requirements. My college’s honors program waived my gen-Ed requirements, helping me finish within 4 years. It took some doing, and very careful credit counting and I ended up with very few electives.

    Would I have stayed longer to double major and paid increasingly higher tuition rates? Probably not. Do I think my double major has opened doors for me? Absolutely. I intentionally selected a Spanish major to pair with economics to help me become better qualified for jobs in international business. On a more personal note, I also did it because I loved the challenge, and it made my college experience very gratifying.

    If someone is considering double majoring, do some research that more specifically pertains to their situation; talk to academic advisors, arrange informational interviews with people working in fields of interest and ask them if a double major would be a benefit in that case. If not, well there’s your answer, if yes, well then considering a double major may not be a bad idea if it doesn’t delay graduation significantly. Critical thinking shouldn’t be confined to the classroom, figure out what’s best for you as an individual.

  12. I recently graduated from Binghamton University with a double major in Math and Economics.

    It was not too taxing to graduate in four year for two reasons. (1) The summer before my junior year I took two summer courses. This made my junior and senior year very enjoyable – the perfect amount of challenging. (2) I made sure to take care of the “general education” classes early on while I was still deciding my major. Then, when I decided to actively pursue math and economics my third semester, I only had a few GenEd classes left to finish.

    I even took a few classes that proved pretty worthless in the big scheme of things (didn’t fulfill a GenEd requirement, and didn’t count toward my major) and still finished in four years.

    After graduation, I’m starting a website called College Tuna to help Binghamton University students to adjust to the transition from high school to college and graduate with the best possible experience.

    1. Alex,

      That’s a very impressive story you shared. I think most people — including myself — would never be able to handle a double major of economics and math. Good luck with your new website — College Tuna. What a great idea.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

    1. Hi Theresa,

      Good question!

      Maybe colleges should be encouraging students to rediscover minors! My daughter was going to double major, but her senior year would have been an academic nightmare. She was relieved when I told her that no one cares about double majors. She’s going to graduate as a Spanish major rather than Spanish and business majors.

      1. It’s not about what other people think of and an “edge.” Wanting to get a double major isn’t to stroke our own egos to feel like you’re that guy/girl. Some of us enjoy a variety of things and may want to work in more than one field. In this day and age being qualified in more than one thing is useful since knowing what fields will be employing people once you graduate is a toss up. Not to mention if what you get a degree in will be obsolete by the time you get a degree. My cousin majored in a field and took out loans only to be jobless in a field that will become obsolete. A lot of medical fields are becoming obsolete now that they are teaching people in other medical positions how to do those jobs. Especially management positions. Also some of us actually want to do more in life rather than merely being employed in the field we graduated. Some of us want to make a difference. We are the thinkers and creators in a world where the youth no longer care for education and settle for anything just to merely be employed to pay bills whether that means being a slave to the corporate world or living check to check. What ever happened to wanting to make a difference? What ever happened to following your dreams? What ever happened to wanting to be great at what you do and executing those goals? People these days just want to go in to fields they have no passion for (ex: nursing) just for the money, or they want to cut corners by settling for a certificate or degree that will take the least amount of time possible just to have something and get out of school as quick as possible. Well I pay out of pocket for school and I am thinking about double majoring and minoring. I am not afraid of how difficult it will be or how long it will take because nothing in life worth having comes easy and I want to make a difference. I want to pursue what I love and get the most out of life and my passions while I am here. Anything is possible and people have double majored in four years. Even if it wasn’t in four years they set out to do what they wanted to and they accomplished it and that’s all that matters. Not other people and what they assume your reason is for not graduating. Graduation rates are low even in community college. You can’t say the culprit is double majoring. Especially in this day and age where the economy is failing us. People simply are dropping out because it is too expensive or time consuming, or they have to put it off to work and provide for their families(people are starting to have families younger these days) or a place for them to stay. Another reason is students feel like it is too “hard” and lose interest. Or high schools have failed us so many students aren’t prepared for college or have gotten lazy. High school was a waste of time for me. I’m teaching myself what I know in college. High schools only teach you how to take and pass state required multiple choice tests, so that they can continue getting funding. That’s all they care about is the money. All they focus on is student attendance and student test scores. Not what actually needs to be taught. A lot of students leave high school without knowing the basics and have to take remedial courses especially in math once they reach college. These are also major factors as to why graduation rates are low. Trust me. This is coming from a student and not clueless professor. Professors have already received their degrees. All they know about students is what they see in the classroom. Not the struggles going on outside of the classroom. Expenses, funding, being unprepared etc. all play a part. I just hope colleges that have tutoring keep that in place and those that lack decent tutoring opportunities put them in place.