As if choosing a major wasn’t hard enough, some students are faced with the dilemma of whether to pursue a double major. Navigating this decision can be difficult, but there are a few key factors to keep in mind that can help you weigh the pros and cons.
“A student may receive a magnitude of conflicting opinions on what to decide, which leads to confusion and doubt,” says Roni White, licensed graduate professional counselor (LGPC) and associate director of AAP Career Services at the Johns Hopkins University. The confusion also stems from the reality of a competitive job market and lack of exact formulas for job search success. Some of you may think that the double major is your ticket to gainful employment. More degrees must mean a more competitive candidate, right? Not quite.
Colleges measure outcomes three to six months after graduation because, on average, it takes three to six months for a college graduate to secure employment. Although your major can certainly improve your job prospects, companies don’t hire for majors; they hire for motivation and diversity in knowledge and thought. “The expectation is that candidates understand the foundational knowledge, have an interest in the work and have all of the basic skills such as reliability, writing, reading, critical thinking and communication,” says Marianne Norman, director of undergraduate academic advising at the School of International Service at American University. Therefore, before choosing to pursue a double major hoping to become the standout candidate employers seek, you may want to consider the three points listed below.
1. Evaluate Value Added to Your Career Goals
“It would benefit you to speak with a career counselor to better understand how the double major assists in career goal attainment,” says White. You want to be intentional about the degree choices you make and understand the value each brings to your professional development. “Career counselors can help you evaluate credential marketability within the intended industry,” adds White. “They keep abreast of job market trends and are proficient in evidence-based practices and inventories to help you learn the intersection of concerns, obstacles, purpose, goals and skills, and develop action plans to pursue career goals.”
No specific major or major combination will bring you easy job search success. Certain majors, like those in the STEM fields, are regarded as having higher earning potential and you may face external or internal pressures to pursue them. If you are not fully committed to the subjects you study, however, you may find yourself with a negative attitude impacting your experience in college and beyond. “The important thing here is to take classes in areas that you love,” says Norman. “When applying to jobs, your passion will come through.”
I have to agree. As a career coach, I’ve learned that it’s not always the most qualified candidate with the perfect resume that gets the job; it’s the candidate who clearly understands what she has that employers need, clearly expresses her interest in the field and exhibits passion for the work. How do you know what subjects and skills are required for your desired career? Make an appointment with a career counselor and he will help you figure it out.
2. Beware Lack of Content Diversity
Before you confirm that a second major is the best option for you, you may also want to speak with your academic advisor. “The advisor can assist you with figuring out what the benefit versus cost can be of the particular double major you are thinking about,” says Norman. “Some combinations are better than others when thinking about job outlook, and the advisor can help you decide if that is the best path for you.” Specifically, you want to ensure that you are choosing a combination that will actually add value. Research indicates that most students pursuing double majors choose options that are similar in content, and thus “provide limited educational diversity.”
“Many students feel like a double major will set them apart when applying for jobs, and sometimes it can, but mostly this is just not the case,” Norman points out. “I often see students wanting to double major in two disciplines that provide similar knowledge, theory and skills. In such cases, you will not necessarily gain something extra.”
Instead of adding value to your college journey, you could end up with more classes on your schedule, a lengthier degree completion and maybe even additional costs. In turn, that could have an impact on your accomplishments outside of classes. “While getting your degree is important, there is so much to college outside of academics,” Norman adds. “A double major may hinder your ability to study abroad, complete internships, volunteer or take classes in areas you love and are passionate about like music, art, dance and language.” A well-rounded job candidate is more competitive and you want to understand what combination of classes and activities can best reflect the professional brand you want to show the outside world.
3. Consider the Alternatives
As you consult with a career counselor and your academic advisor, consider whether the value you seek can best be achieved through a double major. What are you trying to accomplish with the double major? If you seek knowledge in a particular area, there may be a certificate option or a minor that could help you acquire it. “Many skills can be learned through internships, volunteer work and even a job on campus,” advises Norman. You may also complete an independent project, participate in a case competition or join student club leadership. All of these can give you access to both sought-after skills and valuable contacts. The point is that you want to evaluate all your options and pick the most appropriate one before you throw yourself head-first into a double major.
So what’s the shortest answer to “Will a double major help my job outlook?” It depends. I wish this were a yes or no question, but similar to anything that impacts your career development, a meaningful response requires some exploration, and conversations with your career counselor and advisor are the first steps in the process. Trust me. It will save you time, money and hours of stress and frustration and may improve your job outlook without adding unnecessary coursework to your plate.