OCTOBER 3, 2005

Double Majoring Dilemma
By Mercy Chang, The Tartan, October 3, 2005

At Carnegie Mellon, double-majoring has gained a new meaning. It's become the new norm where even a minor was once considered overloading. Traditionally, students who double-majored were perceived as overachievers - the ambitious leaders of the future who would become the next big CEO.

However, an inherent aspect of the Carnegie Mellon culture is overachievement. In fact, not over-exerting yourself in academics, or extracurricular activities, or a combination of both, makes you different - an outlier. Nowadays, it's not unusual for a CMU student to be a voice major with a civil engineering degree as well. While only having one major may be the norm at other universities across the nation, here it's perceived as unusual, different, and even lazy. So CMU has answered the demand with several "custom" interdisciplinary programs that try to fill in the gaps.

Many students, upon arriving to campus, are initially shocked by the high work ethic necessary to just keep up with everyone else. The endless hours spent in a cluster, in lab, or at the library, can frighten any unsuspecting new student. When asked by peers at other colleges how they spent their Wednesday nights, a popular CMU response is: "Oh, I have to turn in a five-page proof of the Stackelburg Equilibrium to my professor tomorrow, finish up a program for 15-212, write a 17-page paper analyzing the effects of imperialism in Asian countries, and maybe fit in some reading for Organizational Behavior."

Compared with the typical response at other universities - "I'm going to a movie, taking an extra long nap, and then finishing my fill-in-the-blank worksheet" - it's no wonder CMU students have earned the reputation of "students who never stop studying."

Whether this phenomenon is out of choice or necessity is debatable. Judging from a popular motto every Carnegie Mellon student should be familiar with by now - "my heart is in the work" - no one should be surprised that students here take their studies seriously. Everyone is trying to outdo everyone else. Undoubtedly, the end result is clear: you have a school with increasingly harder standards that are seemingly impossible to attain.

The Science and Humanities Scholars (SHS), Bachelor of Humanities and Arts (BHA), and Bachelor of Science and Arts (BSA) programs are all programs that have been tailor-made for CMU to satisfy this cultural need for cross-disciplinary study. Because so many talented students enter CMU, one of the difficulties they encounter is choosing whether they should be in the humanities, arts, or sciences. While they may perform well in all these subjects, and have an interest in learning diverse topics, choosing one field over another is a difficult task to tackle. Thus, these interdisciplinary programs offer students a chance to explore several of their interests, instead of being limited to one.

One of the benefits of the BHA and BSA programs is that it makes it easier for students to pursue their interests without worrying about double- or even triple-majoring. Essentially, these programs are composed of two components: a fine arts concentration and a science or humanities concentration. Although some BHA and BSA students choose to double-major, the interdisciplinary curriculum has already been integrated into the program, so this becomes less of a concern for them.

Patricia Maurides, the director of the BHA and BSA programs, said that "BHA and BSA are rigorous programs because people need to qualify for med school and graduate school." Thus, BSA and BHA students planning to pursue medical school, law school, and graduate school, are equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary to delve deeper into either direction.

Maurides added that "Students get a broader education because they get to individualize their curriculum by blending their interests and exploring the connections between their concentrations."

The SHS program, on the other hand, seeks to draw students with interests in the humanities and sciences. As students of the Mellon College of Science and the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, these students are given a unique opportunity to draw on their achievements in the humanities, natural sciences, mathematics, and/or social sciences, and then select a major in MCS, H&SS, or both.

While double-majoring is prevalent among students in the program, it is not by any means a requirement.

"You can be polygamous and have more than one major," chuckled William Alba, the director of the Science and Humanities Scholars Program. On the other hand, though, he commented, "The alternative to double-majoring is that a student can delve deeply into their own major and take courses outside their discipline to discover how other people see the world."

The "need" felt to double-major has become something that can't be ignored but also can't be achieved without making serious sacrifices in terms of extracurricular activities, naps, eating, and other human activities. It's a situation where students try to overachieve to gain a competitive edge, but end up being just an average student because everyone at CMU is doing the same thing. Although double-majoring might not be exceptional on this campus, CMU ranks relatively high in terms of job placement after graduation. This must mean that somewhere outside the CMU stress bubble, someone already sees CMU students as successful.