The difficulty of combining multiple interests into a single area of study has students and faculty at odds over the merit of the double major.
While many students count on a double major to be useful after graduation, some professors and administrators claim that doing twice the work is unnecessary and undermines a student's undergraduate experience.
For many, the decision to double major stems from the concern that a single field won't satisfy the breadth of their academic interests. "I thinks it's better to have a wider scope," said Eric Ensley, CC '07, a history and classical studies major. As a pre-law student, Ensley took on a classical studies major because he thought that the language skills would prove useful in law school. He said he hoped that his double major would help him get into a good program.
"I think it looks better on your transcript to say you have a double major. It makes your GPA look better when you have been trying for a double major," he said.
Partly in response to rising interest in double majors, the University has designed new programs in recent years that emphasize interdisciplinary study. Barnard's human rights major, created in 2001, requires that students complete the full major requirements of another department in conjunction with human rights courses.
"My perspective is that such programs permit a student to pursue dual interests in an even more coherent way than a double major would," Barnard's dean of studies Karen Blank said, also citing Columbia's urban studies and biochemistry majors.
Some professors and administrators voiced doubts that students opt into two majors for the right reasons. "In rare cases, it's necessary because they have two passionate interests they're fully committed to," Barnard history professor Owen Gutfreund said. "But in most cases, it's students who seek the extra two or three words on their transcripts."
Many said that the extra effort a student puts into a double major will not translate into a more prestigious graduate program or job. According to computer science professor Stephen Edwards, most graduate programs pay little attention to whether or not a student double majored. "When admitting Ph.D. students, I don't think we even look at their major," he said.
Blank said she believes that a double major detracts from one of the most important aspects of a liberal arts education-a student's ability to explore various disciplines. "I worry that the double major may dilute the depth and quality of one's experience here," she said. "I think that the ... breadth and richness of courses within the University is so unique that students should take as much advantage as possible and not limit themselves to the requirements of two disciplines."
Despite claims that double majors are irrelevant after graduation, Dana Greenfield, BC '06, and a biology and anthropology major, said she looks back on her choice to enroll in two majors as rewarding. She was awarded a Fulbright grant for a year of study in New Zealand, where her sociocultural study of inter-sex infants directly relates to both her majors. Greenfield believes that doubling up was a key factor in winning the competitive award.
"The nature of my project is multidisciplinary," she said. "The fact that I had a letter of recommendation from both biology and anthropology professors helped." Although Greenfield said she found writing two theses stressful at times, she believes that it was worth it in the long run. "To me, it's more satisfying than doing a one dimension analysis," she said. "You feel like you're getting two for one and just getting more out of your education ... I had something to show for my B.A.."
Edwards recalled a particularly talented computer science student whose efforts, he said, would have been better spent doing independent research than completing requirements for his additional math major. The student is now doing graduate work at Harvard.
"He did fine in the end," Edwards said. "The question is: could he have done even better?"