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Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 2014
To Double Major or
Not to Double Major:
That Is the Question

Paul Hettich, PhD, DePaul University (IL)

Fortunately, Shakespeare’s troubled young Hamlet did not have to ponder about whether to obtain a double major while confronting his many family problems. However, as tuition rises, debt intensifies, career specialties multiply, and student motives for developing a career are often hazy at best, many undergraduates ponder the double major.

I did not locate any surveys of psychology students or faculty views on this topic. Some teachers argue for the benefits of added breadth in different knowledge domains and improved employment possibilities; others express concern if either major is outside the liberal arts domain. It may be wise to solicit the views of your teachers, including faculty from diverse disciplines. Instead, I will summarize key findings from a major study of students along with the perspectives of a career counselor and two recruiting/staffing professionals.

The current research literature on double majors is very limited. Below is a partial list of findings from an extensive survey of 1,760 college and university undergraduates conducted by Pitt and Tepper (2012). A web-based survey was administered to students in nine schools that included large comprehensive public and private universities, medium-sized private universities, and small liberal arts colleges; data from group interviews or small structured discussions was also gathered. I strongly encourage you to browse the full report later because it contains several fascinating results including information about the most popular majors, student perceptions about the degree of creativity encouraged within a major and perceptions of various learning outcomes, and selected student comments.

  1. Although double majoring is increasing only slightly across most institutions, a steep increase has occurred at many of the most selective schools where double majors account for 30% to 40% of all graduates.
  2. Double majors are chosen primarily for practical reasons. "Students are generally interested in picking two majors that complement one another, where there is overlap in requirements, and where the two combined majors better prepare them to be competitive in their careers (including jobs and graduate school)” (Pitt & Tepper, 2012, p.11). Business-related majors and economics are the most popular choices.
  3. A double major often reflects a student’s identity project. That is, one major is chosen because of a special interest in the subject matter derived from, for example, a high school activity or foreign language course, travel experiences, or a parent’s career. Thus, double majors are usually motivated by a combination of utilitarian and expressive motives.
  4. "Many students report their double major combination helps them think differently, solve intellectual puzzles, and approach assignments more creatively” (p. 12), especially in two different knowledge domains (e.g., sciences and humanities). Most students can connect the majors but connections are more difficult in disparate majors (e.g., theatre and chemistry).
  5. In certain narrowly defined choices, the cognitive outcomes may differ. For instance, students who chose two majors in the same knowledge domain (e.g., psychology and sociology in the social sciences domain) were labeled deepeners. They reported experiences that encouraged them to integrate information from both majors. Students who chose majors from different domains (e.g., social sciences and humanities) were labeled spanners. Spanners were also able to integrate material (though less than deepeners) and reported thinking differently and approaching their assignments creatively because of their choices.
  6. The authors noted a do more, do more tendency among double majors who tended to be more involved (compared to single majors) in sports, clubs, volunteering, attending lectures, studying abroad, and research with faculty. "With respect to student engagement, the double major is positively correlated with liberal arts benefits” (p.12). Yet, the do more do more life of a double major can work against deep thinking, increase stress, and may be inaccessible to students with commitments to jobs or families.

Other sections of the report compare student perceived differences in creativity between single and double majors within and between disciplines, sex and racial differences in their choices, and other dimensions. Although Pitt and Tepper generally paint an attractive picture of the double major, they also address some ifs, ands, and buts. For instance, most schools do not have policies or procedures that encourage students to articulate their reasons for choosing a double major or, subsequently, for explaining how they integrated what they learned. Similarly, some faculty "can unintentionally make it difficult for double major students because they give students the impression that they disapprove of their second major. Students feel a competitive pressure between departments” (p. 66).

A Career Planning Perspective
How do career planning professionals regard double majors? I could not locate any survey data so I contacted Camille Helkowski, MEd, NCC, LCPC, associate director of Loyola University Chicago’s Career Development Center and a counselor in private practice. She reminds us that (a) an academic major is not the key determinant in some career choices, (b) almost any major can be valuable as long as you are in an environment where you can apply what you learned (skills trump curriculum), and (c) choosing a major based primarily on economic considerations is unwise.

Since the recession, students (and parents) have adopted the often mistaken notion that a double major will make them more employable. They seem to think of it in terms of "if one major is good, then two must be better” and that is simply not the case. Students should be able to articulate their rationale for a double major. For instance, the psych major who also majors in human resources, marketing, statistics, or computer science is broadening his or her skillset by adding a major that is more vocationally oriented (assuming that is the vocation they are interested in). However, I would also suggest that experience will usually trump a double major. Employers would rather hire someone who has participated in a research project using SPSS than someone who has only had the class, and someone who has done an internship or part-time job in Human Resources is more interesting to an employer than someone who has taken the coursework but not acquired any practical experience. I mention this because students often say that they didn’t have time for the experiential component because they double-majored, and that kind of decision making is not going to help them find a job. I don’t have any research to back this up. Just my own experience and that of other advisors I work with.

A Recruiting Perspective
In comparison, Jon Keil, BA, director of operations for The Salem Group, a major Chicagoland staff recruiting firm, is excited about the growth of double majors and especially about psychology students pursuing them.

Students in psychology bring a great deal of transferable skills and can easily adapt to many varied fields of work. They bring with them what employers look for such as critical thinking, team orientation, independent learning/study, creativity, and the list goes on. In addition, a candidate with a double major is often viewed as someone who easily multitasks, someone who will be able to meet deadlines, and someone who is not afraid to take educated risks. One caution: Be sure to capitalize on internships and extra-curricular activities. Do not sacrifice internships. An example of a pairing that psychology students might want to consider is a dual major in business administration to seek roles in human resources or operations management. Other very successful and sought after pairings are with marketing, advertising, accounting, public health, political science, engineering, and biomedical degrees.

Mary Allen, Ed.D, senior client services manager at The Salem Group and an adjunct professor of psychology, adds to Keil’s list of double majors: Applied behavioral science, HR/risk management, human services, and industrial and organizational psychology with a concentration in business administration, economics, and human services. She too emphasizes the importance of an internship tied to the psychology major.

My Take
Does this information clarify your concerns, prompt further research, or leave you, like Hamlet, still pondering?

Critically examine these perspectives, especially points of difference and similarity, in view of your interests, passions, and goals. (Can you articulate them?)

Carefully weigh the benefits of a double major against the costs you incur, such as additional tuition (debt!), semesters required to complete requirements, and possible exclusion of other liberal arts courses.

Immersion in a do more do more college life will likely generate genuine personal and professional benefits, but what are your limits?

Consider linking your psychology major to one or two thoughtfully chosen minors with a firm commitment to at least one internship.

Discuss these issues with faculty, family, career counselors, and alumni friends.

Review the full Pitt and Tepper report; it is well worth your time. Recognize that, no matter what choices you make, there may be multiple paths to your goals. Begin the process by critically examining your interests, passions, and goals.

PS: If you have ideas and experiences with your double major or minors to share, please contact me at phettich@depaul.edu; perhaps others can benefit from them.

Reference
Pitt, R. N., & Temper S. (2012) Double majors: Influences, identities, and impacts. Retrieved from http://www.vanderbilt.edu/curbcenter/manage/files/Teagle-Report-Final-3-11-13-2.pdf


Paul Hettich, PhD, Professor Emeritus at DePaul University (IL), was an Army personnel psychologist, program evaluator in an education R&D lab, and a corporate applied scientist—positions that created a "real world” foundation for his career in college teaching and administration. He was inspired to write about college-to-workplace readiness issues by graduates and employers who revealed a major disconnect between university and workplace expectations, cultures, and practices.

Copyright 2014 (Volume 18, Issue 2) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


 

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