Seeing Double

A meditation on double majoring at Cornell

By Alejandra Alvarez


With my junior year well underway, thoughts concerning the impending reality of my life after Cornell and what I will do with it now occupy nearly ever corner of my mind. As a double major in English and Psychology, I have had to begin asking myself what I intend to do with these two degrees once the cap and gown have been shed and the fanfare of graduation has subsided. How will I apply the knowledge I have gleaned from these two degrees to my navigation of the professional world?

I’ve reached far back into the mind I possessed as a freshman to remind myself why I chose to study these two disciplines in the first place. The resulting process of soul-searching has been a tumultuous one. Surrounded by some of the most brilliant and motivated minds in this world, I have had days where I have criticized myself for being too passive in my quest to land a position in graduate school or a job. Instead I have spent a disproportionate amount of time pondering how best to synthesize my two degrees. I believe this is a plight many a double major has faced.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the percentage of undergraduates choosing to double major increased by 96% between the years 2000 and 2008. Though the overall representation of double majors in the American collegiate body remains small (about 5.5 percent as of 2013) at some institutions upwards of 40 percent of students pursue multiple majors. Why the sudden and widespread urge to expand one’s academic horizons?

Selecting a discipline to major in proves to be a complex decision for most undergraduates in the United States. Some enter as freshmen secure in their undecided status, content to spend their first few semesters taking a variety of courses in the hopes that one will nudge them in the professional direction that is right for them. Others check the box next to a specific major while filling out their Common Application and hit the ground running, taking the associated curriculum and seeing this academic path through to graduation. The decision to double major, however, entails a bit more than either of the two aforementioned categories. It requires a justification to oneself as well as to society  and one’s family, a dedication to both subjects, and a vision of a future in either of the disciplines. But more importantly, it involves envisioning a future that ideally combines these disciplines.

This is the beauty of the double major, a beauty that makes the occasional doubt from others as well as from yourself endurable. Nobody double majors for no reason—the decision to take on multiple majors is a thoughtful, well-constructed one that is more often than not in line with the true interests of a student. And for some students, two majors isn’t enough: Neil C. ‘17 is a triple major in Biology, French, and Government: “I was—and still am—extremely interested in microbiology, and felt that the Biology major was the best avenue for pursuing that. I chose the French major because my mother has a doctorate in French, and instilled a deep appreciation for the French language and culture within me. I have always been pretty interested in foreign policy, so I started the International Relations minor. Then I realized it might actually be easier to major in Government, so I am currently pursuing that as well.”

For Neil, his decision to triple major was a confluence of personal affinity, interest, and practicality as he went on to tell me about his dreams of becoming either a member of the Armed Forces or a doctor. “If I become a doctor, then the humanities classes I have taken would encourage me to treat my patients as something greater than a collection of parts that require repair. I truly believe they would make me more conscientious and empathetic as a physician. If I were sent to war in some capacity, then I would have a better sense of the moral and historical ramifications of any actions I may have to take,” he said.

“The humanities are constantly spilling into one another, which means that regardless of which humanities discipline you study, you will most likely emerge well-educated and confident in numerous intellectual skills.”

The College of Arts and Sciences houses the most double majors I know at Cornell. I do not think this is a coincidence—the humanities lend themselves to double and triple majoring more than any other discipline here at Cornell, as well as in academia in general. As Neil’s experience and so many others’ may confirm, the A&S curriculum, due to its flexibility and its broad selection of humanities and STEM courses, very much fosters interdisciplinary study, or the application of certain concepts acquired in one discipline to those acquired in another.

I myself have detected traces of some of the concepts in my Psychology courses in the content of my literary studies, and vice versa. Nothing that you learn in an English class is irrelevant or unconnected to something you discuss in an art history course; nothing you learn in a mathematics course can’t be traced along the arc of history or found in the archives of scientific discovery; no language you learn to speak will not influence your understanding of human cognition or perception.

In a similar vein, Jesse G. ‘17 illuminated for me one of the most fulfilling aspects of his double major in English and Spanish: “the courses I take for my Spanish major usually encompass literature that I want to read but is not offered in translation in the English department.” As a lover of literature and as an individual of Hispanic descent, this is very important to him. “On a personal level, to go from a kid with a debilitating speech impediment to majoring in two separate languages just feels like an accomplishment in and of itself. On a cultural level, to study the language that my Abuela spoke, and was probably discriminated against for speaking when she moved to the US, feels like a massive affirmation of our Latinidad. And on a very selfish level, I just love reading and writing, so to be able to turn that into my life and livelihood is the dream, really.”

The humanities are constantly spilling into one another, which means that regardless of which humanities discipline you study, you will most likely emerge well-educated and confident  in numerous intellectual skills. As Roya S. ‘16, who is pursuing a dual degree in Urban and Regional Studies and English, says, “The skills I have developed in my two majors—among them writing; critical reading; cultural analysis; urban design; community, administrative, and city planning; and verse writing—will equip me to view the problems I encounter in my vocation creatively. This is the value of an interdisciplinary education. It teaches you how to think in an interdisciplinary way. Arguably, in no field is this more important than urban design. Due to my studies at Cornell, I will not be restricted by disciplinary thinking in designing solutions for serious and recurring urban and regional problems.”

From a professional standpoint, you would think that since most employers appreciate and hold these skills in high regard, they would see a double major’s degrees and think their skills doubly impressive. I honestly thought that would be the case once I squared away my double major decision—way to diversify your résumé, self! However, based on some sobering Internet searches (most of which have consisted of, “is my double major worth it? Is my double major in the humanities worth it??”), I have learned that many employers are not necessarily impressed by multiple majors.

A 2011 USA Today article cites three reasons why employers may be underwhelmed by a double degree: first, employers will often consider “any major” for a position, affording them the opportunity to “cast a broader net and locate the most talented candidates for their positions.” Second, some of our single-major peers may collect skills otherwise acquired from a double major via their extracurricular activities, minors, or concentrations—in other words, rather than devoting all of their time to studying a second major, these students have diversified their time and, by extension, their portfolios. Third, employers tend to value experience over candidates’ majors. The article maintains that students pursuing a double major have less time to devote to internships as they have heavier course loads and may need to take classes over the summer in order to graduate on time.

“I had considered a double major briefly my freshman year, but had written it off as being too much work,” Jesse G. informed me in reference to his early years at Cornell. For many, a double major does connote more time spent on completing the additional set of graduation requirements. Jesse went on to say, however, in taking the courses he enjoyed, many of which were courses in the Romance Studies department, he realized he had not only enough credits to minor in Spanish, but enough to major in the language. “It didn’t make sense not to double,” he said.

For those double majors content with their academic trajectory, studying in this capacity has not detracted from the time they spend on extracurricular activities or from pursuing internships during breaks—if anything, the skills they accrue from a double major enhance both of these experiences. Thus, the USA Today article and others like it are misguided in their conclusions about the effects of heavy coursework and potential underachievement in the double major experience. It does not have to be that way. With a reliable team of advisors, genuine interest in your fields of study, and commitment to the course load, pursuing degrees in multiple fields is more than just feasible…it is enriching and enjoyable.

There was a point in time when I thought I would have to give up one of my interests for the other in order to make the most of my professional life. But one day while I was discussing post-graduation career options with my English advisor, Professor Ishion Hutchinson, he told me something I will never forget. It has become my new mantra: I don’t ever have to sacrifice one aspect of myself or my interests in order to make the others work.

The humanities have emerged, out of all the diverse and complex disciplines that comprise them, as a cohesive area of study that attracts thousands of students to its classrooms year in and year out. And if that isn’t going to change anytime soon, why should I? So for all you undergrads out there thinking of adding another major to the mix, do it because you enjoy the material. Do it, not because it is going to diversify your job application, but because it is going to diversify your personal experience, because it will enrich your discussions and give you more to think about, because it will help you see the interconnectedness between disciplines and people. I am a firm believer that in this world there can exist a single outlet of expression for all of a person’s interests. And if it does not already exist for you, nothing should stop you from creating it yourself.

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