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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Do double majors have enough time to focus?

Published: November 1, 2013
Section: Opinions

I do not think that what I am about to say will come as a surprise: Brandeis students like variety. This often comes in the form of schedule overload, with students taking on a multitude of academic and extracurricular pursuits. Given this taste for ambition, I also do not think that it comes as a surprise to anyone that there is a popular trend for Brandeisians to take on two, or even three, majors. Among the class of 2013, 47 percent held double majors, up from 39 percent among the class of 2012. Brandeis allows its students to take on up to three majors and up to three minors, with many students obviously taking advantage of this flexibility.

A recent graduate, who double majored in linguistics and Islamic studies, shared with me how she felt her double major enhanced her academic experience.

“[Both of my majors] had the common element of the language, and I liked the ability to get into two different areas that both interested me, and to figure out where they did complement each other.”

One of the main benefits of double majoring is that students can create an academic profile and course selection that is more personalized and more tailored to a student’s specific interests. Double majors can also help broaden the application of a single major, as is the case with the student quoted above. She was able to apply her study of linguistics to her study of Arabic, and vice versa.

However, not all schools share the same academic philosophy as Brandeis. For example, at Princeton, a student’s academic program is limited to the “rule of eight and twelve,” which states that students must declare exactly one major, and in that major, students must take at least eight courses in that department, but no more than twelve. This ensures that students develop mastery in their chosen subject, but also makes sure that they have ample time to explore other areas of interest. At Princeton, all students of the liberal arts and sciences are required to complete a thesis during their senior year, marking the culmination of this focused route of study. A thesis project is a year-long research and writing project during which a student works to answer a question of interest.

Kate Smith, a current senior at Princeton majoring in history, shared with me her thoughts on the single major and thesis curriculum at Princeton: “I like that you can only have one major because the thesis is the culmination of your work at Princeton,” she told me candidly.

“Having a single major allows students to devote a significant portion of their academic energy into completing a well-focused thesis in a single department. Writing the thesis becomes the academic focus of a student’s senior year.”

While students at Brandeis have the opportunity to participate in a departmental honors program in order to complete a senior thesis, many students do not take advantage of this opportunity during their senior year. Even in the most popular departments, thesis writers are often limited to a small group of particularly devoted and enthusiastic students.

My question is this: Are Brandeis students taking on such a broad academic curricula that finding a concrete focus for a thesis during their senior year becomes too challenging? Or does being able to develop knowledge in a variety of subjects take priority over developing a single unified project? This, of course, leaves out the possibility that students could write a senior thesis that combines two or even three majors, and therefore utilize faculty and resources from multiple departments; this, however, is often considered to be a much more daunting task than writing a thesis in one department.

While I do not think that Brandeis should more heavily restrict the number of majors and minors that a student can take on, I do believe that students should look at their options with more discerning eyes. The old mantras of “quality over quantity,” or “more isn’t always better” apply here. Having multiple, complementing academic interests is undoubtedly positive, but with that being said, I do not think that students should double, or even triple major just for the sake of having multiple degrees. There is something to be said for focusing and completely delving into one subject area. That is not to say that students cannot take courses in other subjects, but that one’s academic focus should center on a single subject.

With that said, I also feel that what makes Brandeis unique is its ability to foster creativity, passion and individuality in a variety of ways. To hold students back from pursuing their wildest multitude of majors would probably contradict the very philosophy that makes Brandeis different from other universities.