In an effort to stand out from the crowd and pursue diverse interests, 41 percent of students at the University have chosen to pursue more than one major this academic year. Double-majors at the University have increased by 56 percent from 2002 to 2015, shooting from 129 in the Class of 2002 to 296 in the Class of 2015.
Occurring more rapidly between the graduating classes of 2009 and 2015, this increase is likely due to the increasingly competitive job market for undergraduates, which has probably motivated more students looking to stand out from the crowd to add a major to their résumés.
Not all University students double- or triple-major just to stand out from the crowd, however. Claire Wright ’16, who is triple-majoring in psychology, French, and the College of Letters, had an interest in COL as well as mental health before coming to college; her mandatory semester abroad in Paris for COL allowed her to fulfill all three majors with no major headaches.
“I came to Wesleyan because of the College of Letters,” Wright said. “I had originally looked at Oxford’s Politics, Philosophy, and Economics [sic] course because my family is from England, so when I decided that I was coming to a liberal arts college in the U.S., I decided that I wanted that selection of courses.”
Wright elaborated on the way in which her triple-major took shape.
“As a lot of people know, COL requires you to be fluent in a foreign language and to study abroad, and so by the time I had studied abroad I was pretty much a French major,” she said. “I started studying psychology my freshman year and studies related to mental health and just really fell in love with it, and so I decided to pursue that interest both inside of the classroom and then with some of the work that I’m doing outside of the classroom as well.”
However, for most who choose to double- or triple-major, studying abroad comes with a number of tradeoffs. Krishna Winston, the current Marcus L. Taft Professor of German, former academic dean, and a prominent German-to-English translator, outlined many of such tradeoffs.
“A lot depends on what the two majors are,” she said. “If two majors are from very different areas, such as the sciences and one of the arts or one of the humanities, there’s not going to be any crossover in coursework. If the two majors are fairly demanding, and majors can have between nine and fourteen combinations of required courses, the double majoring can lead a student to neglect all the areas in between because the two majors in between will take up a large number of the course slots that the student has available.”
Students who get creative and work outside of the boundaries of the University can overcome the challenges of double-majoring, even if it’s not always easy. One such student, Jenny Cascino ’17, double-majors in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry along with Spanish. Because she wanted to study abroad for Spanish, she had to take two semesters’ worth of organic chemistry in eight weeks over the summer back home at State University of New York at Albany.
“If I wanted to study abroad my junior year, I was going to have to take orgo either abroad, which would have been really hard to get it to transfer, or during the summer,” she said. “So, this past summer I took orgo at UAlbany in an eight week program. It’s very hard to get [outside] programs approved through the Chemistry Department, especially orgo…. It was torturous, but ultimately rewarding because now I’m able to study abroad.”
When asked if double-majoring can detract from one of the major goals of a liberal education, which is to provide a well rounded and rich set of courses and disciplines, Winston elaborated on her previous point.
“That can happen,” she said. “That can easily happen. If the two majors are closely related, then there aren’t so many courses that are spread over the two majors, and a student can count one course or several courses for the two majors—that doesn’t work against the liberal arts spread. On the other hand, doing two majors from very different fields provides a kind of balance.”
Winston noted a trend she’s observed about students who major in the sciences rather than the humanities.
“I’ve noticed over the years that the students majoring in the sciences tend to be the ones who also do work to considerable depth in the arts and humanities and the social sciences,” she said. “It doesn’t work so well the other way around.”
One of the majors with the highest percentage of double majors is also University’s most popular major: Economics. Of the 224 declared Econ majors, 116 of them are double-majors, with many studying government as their second major. Richard Adelstein, Professor of Economics and Tutor in the College of Social Studies, offered an explanation as to why economics is the most popular major at the University and why so many of its students double-major.
“It isn’t because economics is intrinsically fascinating,” he said. “It’s not true that 15 percent of every class year at Wesleyan is fascinated with economics. They take economics because they think it’s a vocational major, and they think that if they have an econ major it will be easier for them to get a job.”
When asked about the perception of the economics major as a preprofessional major, Adelstein clarified.
“It isn’t a vocational major, actually, and there’s very little that people learn in the econ major that’s of use to anybody,” he said. “So, I think the reason that students feel that they have an advantage in the job market—being econ majors—is that what the recruiters for the banks and sort of things want is people that are a) interested generally in business and b) able to do some statistics. I think students who are mildly interested in business think that statistics means economics, or what they learn in economics is what these guys are going to ask them to do, but in fact it isn’t.”
Adelstein went on to explain that investment banking companies tend to hire those who can adapt to specific models, rather than those who have added economics as a major.
“Those companies, like Goldman Sachs and so on, they hire very smart Wesleyan people who are adaptive and can learn new things quickly, and they put them through an eight-week training course, and they show them what they want them to do at Goldman Sachs,” he said. “You can be an art history major and take a statistics course, and in the eyes of a Goldman Sachs recruiter, you’ll be identical to an econ major.”
Speaking of vocation, the question remains of how effective double-majoring really is in the job market and in lifetime earnings. Professor Steven W. Hemelt of the University of Maryland found in his study titled “The college double major and subsequent earnings” that double-majors on average make only 3.2 percent more than their single-major counterparts, and that double-majoring at a liberal arts college provides little to no increase in lifetime earnings.
Given empirical studies such as Hemelt’s, some students may reconsider whether or not to double major. Many, however, will keep pursuing their interests because, after all, no data set can quantify a student’s intellectual curiosity.