Doubling Down

Shedding light on whether pursuing multiple degrees is worth the effort.

By Nathan Friar
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Sophomore student Jing Li are deciding which courses to take for next semester.

Majoring in more than one subject is on the rise at UW-Madison. More than ever, students are double and even triple majoring. In 2008, almost a third of undergraduates were pursuing multiple majors. While earning multiple degrees can create opportunities and open doors after graduation and beyond, it also costs precious time and resources. Depending on the overlap of the majors, many university leaders aren’t convinced that the benefits outweigh the cost.

As most students know, picking up a second or third degree can be a daunting task. More degrees mean more classes, more classes mean more work, and more work means less time for everything else. This is why the decision to pursue multiple majors should not be made lightly, and students are looking for answers to help them with this important question.

If a student really has done a very broad array of majors, that’s impressive.

Assistant Dean Elaine Klein, L&S

A knowledgeable voice on the subject is Elaine Klein, Assistant Dean of the School of Letters & Sciences. When asked whether she has an opinion on the benefits of multiple majors, Klein is hesitant to make a blanket statement one way or the other. Instead, she chooses to focus on the combination of majors that a student chooses. “What seems to be more important from my point of view is what the combination of programs will do to enhance a student’s learning in a particular area,” Klein says. Not completely opposed to any certain combination of majors, Klein certainly has those that she looks highly upon. “What I like to see is when the biology major realizes that to understand biology well, it would be helpful to know more about anthropology, and they then also achieve an anthropology degree with a cultural focus. That is a very complementary type of program,” she says. Degrees such as these combine multiple aspects of learning. Balancing majors that are complementary to one another but are also notably diverse will be a key topic for students who are considering going after another major.

With an eye on the future, many students who choose to major in multiple subjects believe it will make themselves a more lucrative job candidate and able to nail the career of their dreams, but employers tend to not put as much faith into multiple degrees as people think, especially if they overlap. Reiterating this opinion, Klein gives her perspective on the subject. “If you say to an employer ‘I double majored in two closely related subjects, degree X and degree Y’, a smart employer will say that those are two ways of saying almost the same thing, and I don’t think that’s very impressive.” As far as double or triple majoring being a futile endeavor, Klein says that’s not the case, as majors that are different but complement each other at the same time can be beneficial in a job search. “If a student really has done that very broad array of majors, that’s impressive. Then it’s up to the student to be able to articulate to the employer why their multiple degrees give them the skills they need to do this job.” This statement highlights that although having multiple degrees may be beneficial, students also need to be able to market themselves effectively. That extra degree may get them a foot in the door, but good communication with the employer will ultimately be what gets them that dream job.

A source very close to this subject is UW-Madison undergraduate Peter Mattiacci. Mattiacci is majoring in three subjects with a significant amount of overlap: actuarial science, risk management and insurance and finance, investment and banking. While still a freshman and early in his college career, he is extremely satisfied with his choice to triple major. With three majors’ worth of classes to deal with, some may think Mattiacci never leaves the library, but he says that is not the case at all: “I am a very well-rounded student. I am involved with multiple clubs and organizations, and I like to play sports with my friends.”

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Senior student Patrick Sullivan has four majors.

Coming into UW-Madison with over 60 college credits, Mattiacci will be able to achieve degrees in all of his selected majors and still graduate in four years. “Initially I didn’t plan on triple majoring. I just was going to do actuarial science, but with all the time and room in my schedule, I talked with my advisor and she recommended picking up more majors,” he says. As a rebuttal to those who say he should have just graduated early with a single major, Mattiacci doesn’t bat an eye. “Yes, there is some overlap between them, but there are certain components for each major that will be beneficial for my career in the insurance industry. I will have a good knowledge of all sides of the industry with all of my majors. I want businesses to know I am educated in all areas of the field,” he says.

With every student’s unique goals, academic experience and abilities, the decision to double or triple major is case specific. Aspects such as the amount of time a student wants to spend at UW-Madison, the number of college credits he or she has brought in from high school, and goals and interests all factor into whether or not pursuing multiple degrees is right for the student. Undoubtedly, with almost a third of the student body pursuing multiple majors, it’s important that educated decisions are made. When asked what advice she would give to students who are interested in pursuing another degree, Klein says, “The first major should be the one you’re passionate about. Then I would say, what other types of knowledge would complement that first major, so that you’re doing something interesting and distinctive and probably fulfilling some sort of a need.”