Few undergraduate arts students earn double majors — does it matter?

A recent MacLean’s article reported that “only a smattering” of UBC students earn double majors. This number turned out to be only five to six per cent for undergraduate arts students, according to Stefania Burk, associate dean of academic in the faculty of arts.

In contrast, one in five undergraduates at McGill University opts for a “double degree,” which could partly be explained by the fact that arts students there are required to complete at least a major and a minor.

This is not the case at UBC, where 60 per cent of undergraduate arts students complete only a single-stream major. Thirty per cent add a minor, and the remainder is still in flux regarding their degree structure.

“There’s a few who, even in their third or fourth year, have not quite committed to a major yet,” said Burk. “Or they're changing or they’re in between. A lot of students make last a minute change, but it does seem that that is pretty standard, from the people that I've talked to.”

Some students disagree with the percentages — both online and in-person — insisting that large numbers of Arts students they know “double up.” One reason for this discrepancy could be that some confuse combined majors with double majors, which also seems to be the case in the MacLean’s article.

“When I gave the 60 per cent [for the single major], that includes the combined major,” Burk said.

“The idea of a combined major is it’s … 60 credits together rather than doing the double major, which is two majors that don’t intersect at all. The combined is designed together.”

Another reason for disagreement could be conflation between different departments. It seems that again, both online and in-person, students unanimously agree that many science students do double degrees. The MacLean’s article also mentions some innovative cross-faculty programs like arts and science or business and humanities.

Despite confusion over terminology, the phrase “double major” sounds far more intimidating than it is.

“A lot of people at UBC seem to think that a double major is harder than a regular degree,” said Michael Stringer, a film studies and philosophy double major. “I guess it just sounds like it is twice the amount of work when, in reality, it’s the exact same amount of credits as a regular BA.”

Does it matter?

But do students gain more from taking double degrees?

Not necessarily, according to Burk. For her, it’s all about how one plans their degree.

“You find a lot of people having their main area and then something that compliments it,” she said. “And a lot of students don’t actually know what they want to study when they come [to university].

“There is quite a bit of change. You’ll see someone’s transcript and the minor or major changes a few times.”

Students might also want to experience different types of learning through the honours program, Go Global or co-op placements.

Fourth-year student Dimitri Prica considered doing a double major in linguistics and cognitive systems before settling on the honours linguistics program. For Prica, a trajectory towards graduate school led him to find the thesis-driven honours program more attractive than a double major. This decision also doesn’t leave much time to study other disciplines.

“Maybe I’m just weak”, he said. “But I think doing anything on top of honours is virtually impossible in four years. As to why I am so keen to graduate in four — I’m seriously running out of funds.”

But depending on program requirements, completing a double major can be a good way to organize electives.

“I think I would feel far more overwhelmed if all the non-film-studies courses I took were a random assortment of electives,” Stringer said. “The double major makes everything more streamlined and manageable, since the vast majority of my courses are building on previous years.

“I also think it pairs very well … [and] as my degree progresses, I’m becoming increasingly pleased that I chose a double major. What surprises me the most is that I still have room for quite a few electives.”

At the same time, Burk believes that there has been a movement towards interdisciplinary education, where students can focus on one topic of interest by taking relevant courses that are in different departments.

But an interdisciplinary education does not require taking a double major because it could be satisfied by doing a combined major, adding a minor or just taking a lot of electives. There doesn’t seem to be support for creating more requirements either.

“I think ideally you don’t want to make any of the requirements limiting for students,” she said. “You don’t want it to be free … but you want to [let] students have room.”

And for all the student’s feedback to the faculty of arts, this topic is simply not touched upon, according to Burk.

“I can’t answer your question ‘why do we do it this way?’ These are things that happen over time, and I guess there are certain things that we hear student opinion [on],” she said. “Since I’ve been in this role, [this topic] is not something I’ve heard — I have never heard ‘why don’t we have two specializations?’ That is not something we hear from students.”