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Vanderbilt research: Support for double majors could pay major dividends

by | Mar. 18, 2013, 4:09 PM | Want more research news? Subscribe to our weekly newsletter »

Vanderbilt Double Majors


Society needs innovative thinkers to tackle the complex problems of the 21st century, and colleges and universities may have unknowingly begun producing these thinkers among the ranks of their double major students, a new report from Vanderbilt University suggests.

“Integrative thinking is increasingly recognized as essential to solving complex 21st century problems like long-term poverty, global climate change and public health challenges,” sociologists Richard Pitt and Steven Tepper argue in their report Double Majors: Influences, Identities and Impacts, published recently by The Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University.

In the report, Pitt and Tepper call for faculty and administrators to catch up to their double majoring students and begin offering them more support.

“The vast majority of colleges and universities have no formal way of helping students integrate their majors,” the authors write. “Moreover, faculty and advisors are often subtly or openly hostile to the students’ second major.”

The researchers studied 1,760 undergraduate students at nine colleges and universities.

Think differently and creatively

They categorized double-majors into two types, hyper-specialization majors and hypo-specialization majors. Hyper-specialization majors pick two similar majors that blend easily, like economics and marketing. Hypo-specialization majors pick dissimilar majors, often balancing a hard science with something from the arts or humanities.

It’s the second type that most interests Pitt and Tepper.

“Many students report that their double major combination helps them think differently, solve intellectual puzzles and approach assignments more creatively,” write Pitt and Tepper. “These gains are greatest when students major in two disparate domains of knowledge, especially combining science with art and humanities.”

Double majors not overextended

In answer to the common criticism that double majors are overextended, Pitt and Tepper say their research shows that double majors are classic “do more, do more” students.”

“Compared to single majors, double majors are more active in extracurricular activities, more likely to be officers of clubs, more likely to participate in volunteer activities such as Alternative Spring Break, more likely to attend lectures outside of class and more likely to work with faculty on research and do independent/honors research,” write Pitt and Tepper.

The missing link in all of this is support from faculty and administrators, according to the report.

Steven Tepper (Vanderbilt)

“The rise of double majors is perhaps the most significant trend in the curricular lives of students in the last decade,” Pitt and Tepper assert. Yet students have done this on their own, while advisors and administrators “stood off to the side.”

“Institutions should proactively consider ways to help students integrate and synthesize across majors,” reads the report. “Faculty should explicitly encourage students to provide the perspective of their other major. … A largely invisible … resource for interdisciplinarity is our own students – who are like bees buzzing around campus, landing on different majors and domains of knowledge and who could, with some prodding, cross-pollinate our classrooms.”

Media Inquiries:
Jim Patterson, (615) 322-NEWS

  • There is more double majors because high school students are getting more opportunities for college credit before they actually enter college. Things like clep test, AP classes,and dual enrollment are making this happen. So it because possible financially (paying for less classes) and academically to double major. But these “bright” double majors students are offend getting less actual college education then maybe mediocre single major. Because less of their actual class is received from a higher institution.

  • Chance Allen

    Hi Jim,
    I enjoyed your article. My name is Chance Allen. I am an example of a double masters level education. I received a Masters in Social Work from UT as well as a Masters in Nursing from Vandy. It has been a great fit. I learned about systems approach, policy, and clinical therapy through my Social Work programs and this knowledge dovetailed perfectly into the biological aspects of nursing and prescribing. I work as a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner currently and have never regretted my social work roots. In fact, I have a minor in psychology, a Bachelors in Social Work, an equivalent Bachelors in Nursing, and the two masters tacked on! Vanderbilt’s Nursing School allowed me to bridge from my previous education to the next masters with ease, shortening some of the time to achieve them all by taking 2 years of my bachelor’s education and applying it to the Bachelor’s equivalent in Nursing. Again, thanks so much for your article and your advocation of double majors!!
    Kind regards,
    Chance Allen

  • Dave

    Hey Jim,

    I am a Vanderbilt Graduate with double majors – class of
    ‘75 Political Science and Psychology. That will seriously prepare you for an
    M.B.A. as you can then understand people functioning as a group and people functioning as individuals. Everything you wrote was true of me. Active in extracurricular activities, officer of clubs, volunteer activities such as Alternative Spring Break, attended lectures outside of class and worked with faculty on research and independent/honors research.

    Among other things, I was Chancellor Heards’ personal driver for
    Board of Trust events, designed and oversaw the installation of the cable
    television system in the Towers, designed the layout and selected the furniture for the student lounge in Sarratt Commons the year it opened, and did volunteer work at the Vanderbilt Hospital ER on Sunday nights from 6 to midnight. I was on Honor Council and was also President of the Board of Presidents. I used to hang out with deans Sandlin and Potter at Rotiers (pronounced Rho – tee – aaaas to add a touch of class) just to see if I could help out with anything. (I have some stories I could tell.) And I would do it all again!

    I have an M.B.A, did post graduate work at Harvard, and retired at
    age 56 after selling a company I founded.

    For fun I play on the Atlanta Vanderbilt Club Go Kickball team the
    Commodore Ballerz – we are 3 –1!

    I also volunteer with the Vanderbilt team at the Ronald McDonald
    House making dinner.

    I’m still there, and here.

    Dave Armstrong
    Vanderbilt ‘75