The major problem with minors

I was an opinion columnist for University of Maryland’s student newspaper The Diamondback for three semesters before I graduated. The columns I wrote are still up on the web archive, but I’d rather not depend on The Diamondback to host them indefinitely. Thus, I have decided to repost them on this blog, not only to archive them in a place under my control, but also so the readers here can get a glimpse of my writing from college. Here is the sixth of my opinion columns, The major problem with minors, originally published September 8, 2006.

The academic world is experiencing increasing growth in multidisciplinary studies. Once disparate fields are coming together in previously unforeseen ways, producing such hybrid offspring as astrobiology, bioinformatics and computational linguistics. Current university students will go on to provide the bulk of the workforce in these nascent fields. So why does this university make it so hard for students to get recognized experience in multiple fields at once?

In the absence of devoted majors for multidisciplinary studies, a student’s best bet to combine two disciplines is to double up and take on two separate majors. It’s simply impractical to expect the university to add new majors for all of the emerging multidisciplinary studies, as there are so many of them (although I am looking forward to the eventual creation of the College of Computational Cryptoxenocartography).

The problem with double majors, though, is they are not realistically achievable for the average student within a four-year timeframe. I’ll admit, I’m not sure if I’d be able to tackle two full course loads and still maintain what little social life I have left. The solution is to allow students to get certification for dabbling in another field outside of their major without forcing them to work themselves to death. What I’m talking about, of course, are undergraduate minors, which are within the grasps of most students.

So why is it that so few colleges offer minors? You can’t get a minor (or “certificate of merit” as it’s sometimes called around these parts) in any of the subjects under the jurisdiction of the College of Chemical and Life Sciences, including chemistry or biology. Out of more than a dozen departments of the A. James Clark School of Engineering, International Engineering is the only minor program. Nor are there any minors offered from the School of Business. All of these subject areas can be synergistically combined with other distinct areas to form cutting-edge multidisciplinary fields, but they are mostly out of the grasp of the average student.

Luckily, there are a few colleges that do offer minor opportunities, such as the colleges of astronomy, philosophy and computer science. I would especially urge everyone to at least take a look at the computer science minor. In this day and age, how many college graduates can honestly say they don’t expect to be using a computer at all in their post-graduation job? How many can truthfully claim they know all they will ever need to know about computers and that it wouldn’t help to learn a bit more? Heck, I often feel as if there’s a lot more I could learn about computer science to help be more efficient, and that’s even my major!

Luckily (or unluckily, depending on how you look at it), the university isn’t doing any worse than its peers on this issue. Institutions of higher learning are notorious for lumbering along and doing the same old things while the world changes around them.

With the advent of this new age of information that combines multiple fields in search of new knowledge, universities are going to have to adapt and allow their students to take on many fields at once. Even the traditional concept of the major itself, the idea that a person goes to college to learn about just one thing in isolation, will eventually disappear entirely. But in the mean time, the university should adapt and make it easier for students to combine fields of study by increasing the availability of minors in all colleges.

I just noticed that two contiguous paragraphs both start with “Luckily,”. Had I seen that before it was published, I definitely would have fixed it, as that is not the good kind of repetition. At the same time, though, I’m kind of surprised I ever made that mistake. It’s possible the editors hacked apart what I wrote and then missed fixing that simple mistake afterwards. It wouldn’t be the first time.

11 Responses to “The major problem with minors”

  1. William Says:

    My impression of minors is that they’re mostly useless, and that’s also the idea I’ve gotten from my teachers and advisors.
    I’m looking at getting a CS minor if I can’t get a second major in it.

  2. Cyde Weys Says:

    Minors aren’t mostly useless. They can be very valuable in a job search. It certainly gives you another impressive thing to talk about during the interview. In terms of academics, then yes, minors don’t much help you get into graduate school and they aren’t sufficient in themselves to go to graduate school in the minor’s subject area. But in terms of what you learn from them, they’re very useful. That’s a huge shame if the advisers at your school are actively discouraging people from getting minors — they’re completely failing their students’ interests.

  3. William Says:

    I’ve actually heard from a variety of people that even your major doesn’t matter much. Just that you’ve got a degree is the important part, and the rest is just icing. I sort of took that for granted, after twenty years of hearing it. You don’t think that to be the case?

  4. Cyde Weys Says:

    What?! That’s absolutely not true that your major doesn’t matter. It matters a whole helluva lot. Just look at the jobs open to an English major versus those open to a Computer Science major. It sounds like you’ve been getting bad advice for a long time.

    It matters even moreso if you want to go on to graduate school, because good luck getting into a program that is unrelated to your undergraduate major.

  5. Lee Kinkade Says:

    I dunno how much it does matter, Kelly makes more than me doing tech stuff with her Bachelor in General studies, against mine two degrees in Math and comp sci.

  6. Cyde Weys Says:

    That’s an argument from an anecdote though. One individual case cannot beat the overall statistics. The overall statistics say that people who are trying to get into computer programming position are much more successful if they have a degree in the field than if they do not. Of course, occasionally, people do end up doing something different with their degree, but that’s an edge case. The odds are that the major someone graduates with will make a big difference.

  7. drinian Says:

    I doubled in History and Computer Science, with a minor in Political Science, at Duke, in four years, with extra time left over to take classes in Middle English poetry and biology. Not to mention co-writing and -teaching my own pass/fail course. What exactly is Maryland’s problem?

    Granted, from what I understand, Maryland’s CS program is much more interested in creating career programmers than computer scientists, and probably teaches more of the “practical” skills. But that’s a whole other issue (see also Joel on Software, “The Perils of Java Schools”). There is also a large number of Duke students who take CS as a second major, usually combined with Economics as a first.

    If you’re just looking to find an entry-level programming job, and you really care about it, you’ll be able to find a job regardless of your major. But the first question in the interview will be, “If you know so much about it, and care about it, why didn’t you major in a technical field in college?” That being said, one of the better hackers and sysadmins I know, who used to work at Duke and now works for Red Hat, was a political science major in college.

  8. Cyde Weys Says:

    Ouch, where did this slam about Maryland come from? As someone who actually attended said computer science program (thus I’m not relying on hearsay), I can say that you’re wrong. Maryland does emphasize theory. I tended to gravitate towards the theory classes versus the hardcore programming classes anyway, so by the time I came out of it, I felt like I had a lot more preparation towards becoming a computer scientist than a career programmer. There’s actually lots of necessary parts of career programming that I didn’t learn at Maryland – including source control, databases (didn’t take the class), etc.

    Luckily, I did all of that in my free time on various projects, including the open source PyWikipediaBot and Veropedia. I do kind of pity the people who only did programming in classes and never really did any coding for fun — entering the business world must be quite a shock.

    And as for your degrees, well, you’re just an over-achiever.

  9. drinian Says:

    My point was more surprise at the claim that it’s hard to double major at Maryland, and that the course load is probably heavier for CS students at Maryland. Not so much of a slam on Maryland students, as from what I’ve heard about Maryland’s teaching methods in CS I probably wouldn’t have made it through.

    The class I taught was to fill in gaps like source control and command-line usage, incidentally. But, as I said, I wasn’t taking an above-average course load to make those two majors, I was just studying what I liked. I even had time to experience failing a class, then re-taking it, and failing again. Builds character.

  10. Cyde Weys Says:

    It is hard to double major for the average student. Also, the average student is focused on a lot more than just their schoolwork; there are all the other aspects of the college experience as well.

  11. drinian Says:

    As I said, I was able to double major without taking an above-average course load, and graduate in four years. This was in part because of AP credit, but it still would have been doable without.

    I think we’re agreeing violently on the idea that interdisciplinary studies are a useful thing, especially when combining the social and analytical sciences. I will say that I think doubling up in physical sciences takes an extraordinary talent. However, what exactly is this college experience you’re talking about that I missed?

    Would that include being president of the Linux Users Group, trying to save a startup company from floundering (failed), being an RA, building a curriculum and teaching a class, standing in line for a day for basketball tickets (of all things), writing for the newspaper, tech crewing a theater production, hijacking a school auditorium at 11 PM at night to watch movies, going to anime club every Friday night, fishing, and driving to Disney over spring break?

    Most people say that there’s a lot more to their college life than just schoolwork, but somehow end up doing nothing much but drinking and complaining about their workload, or at least that was my experience at Duke. I could have sat at home and gone to parties for much cheaper if that had been what I wanted to do, and that’s the only part of the “college experience” that I think I (mostly) missed. It’s certainly not among my regrets for my college years.