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Merits of a Second Major in the Humanities or Social Sciences

  1. Mar 10, 2013 #1
    I am an aspiring physics major attending a small liberal arts college this fall, and lately I've been considering whether to go for a second major. My long-term goal in my academic career is a PhD in physics, and to that effect I plan to take courses in physics and mathematics beyond the requirements of the major. (Besides the fact that most of them excite me, it is also good for graduate school admissions, right?)

    Unfortunately or otherwise, I am also quite enthralled by the prospect of going for a second major in philosophy or a social science. My reservations are:
    1. I'll have to overload consistently for a few semesters.
    2. I'm afraid that my GPA will be affected.
    3. I'll have to do two theses in my senior year simultaneously.
    4. I might not be able to take as many physics courses as I would have been able to otherwise.
    5. I'm afraid that my GPA will be affected.
    I definitely don't mind having to work harder for it to happen, but I am quite worried about the possible consequences for my admission to graduate programs. Do admissions place heavier weight on one's overall GPA or major GPA? What looks better - a higher GPA or a heavier and more varied course load? This has ramifications too on whether I'll be inclined to take more classes in the other liberal arts even if I don't go for the second major. The interest is there, but so is the fear.

    I was also previously tempted by the 3-2 engineering program with Columbia. Engineering in general doesn't excite me as physics does, though I'm quite interested in aerospace engineering, specifically aerodynamics and orbital mechanics, and have often toyed with the idea of working in the aerospace industry. Going for the program however would mean having to work for a year or two after graduation due to certain financial circumstances, delaying graduate study. It would also mean missing the thesis year in my college, which honestly sounds quite exciting. My college has quite a reputation for the rigor of the senior thesis too, and I think graduate schools will look upon the experience favourably?

    Well, I've been babbling on for quite a bit now, and I'm not even sure if I've been coherent. I'm sorry if I seem to be fanatically focused on not hurting my prospects for graduate study. In summary, should I do a second major? If you have anything to say regarding my decision with the 3-2 program, please do comment too. I will really appreciate any help with this. It's been bothering me quite badly for a while now. I know I can probably wait to decide, but I [STRIKE]want[/STRIKE] need to have at least some idea of what I'm intending to do.
    Last edited: Mar 10, 2013
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  3. Mar 10, 2013 #2


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    I did a second major in English. I tell people it was to get the benefit of a technical writing background, but alas, I just like poetry. Truth be told, I think a lot of mathematical and physics focused people have a (bad) tendency to look down at social sciences and humanitites. There's also seems to be an idea that philosophy is bad stuff too.

    With that said, I don't think taking on a second degree in a non-technical field would benefit you academically as much as focusing on learning more useful tools, especially if your goal is graduate school. All the courses on modern poets, took time away from taking classes like biostats, but I made the choice to major in English and Math because I enjoyed English and knew taking a course that required reading and or writing would be my only break away from Mathematics. I did have to take 18 hours nearly every semester and work full time, but I came out with essentially flawless GPA, so it is possible to do well in two unrelated fields and maintain a good GPA.

    In conclusion, only take that second major because it interest you and you don't mind missing the more technical courses. Otherwise, I think you will be doing yourself a disservice in the long run.
  4. Mar 10, 2013 #3
    Truth be told, I'm not looking to get any benefits out of a second major. I guess my thread title is probably misleading and has nothing to do with my question. I would pursue it purely out of interest and love of knowledge. I will definitely mind missing the more technical courses, but I guess this is a case of not knowing what to do with the cake. Ultimately though, I think I'll personally lean more towards trading a couple of technical courses for the second major. I guess I don't really need to take every class offered by the department. That's just me however, what are graduate schools' preferences?

    Also, I'm not so confident that I will be able to maintain the same GPA with relatively more unfamiliar subjects and a heavier course load. How bad would a drop of 0.2 in overall GPA be, for example? I don't know how they will look upon slightly less stellar grades when accompanied by a tougher course load. Will anything change if the physics-related coursework remain good but I don't do as well at the second major? I am afraid of being a victim of ambition.
  5. Mar 10, 2013 #4
    I understand your fear of negatively impacting an otherwise good GPA (projecting into the future, of course). Personally, I've found that making fear-based decisions usually hasn't done me any favors though. Many people are capable of handling more than they think they can.

    You don't necessarily have to declare that second major right away, either. Maybe start out taking a few philosophy, art history, or English classes (or whatever), see if you can handle it along with all your math/physics/more technical classes, and make a more informed decision then. One thing is for sure, you will most likely learn to write better than some of your physics peers if you do a minor or double major in something like philosophy or English.
  6. Mar 10, 2013 #5
    I'm doing my second in Spanish, which originally meant to be a resume booster, but now I just see it as a nuisance. I enjoy learning the mechanics of a new language and how to speak it correctly, but 90% of the upper level classes in foreign language are not focused on teaching the language, but teaching the culture and literature, which bores me extremely. But alas, I only have one more class for the degree so I'll just shut my mouth and do it.
  7. Mar 11, 2013 #6
    Thanks for the reminder that fear is usually not the best motivator for decisions. One tends to forget about what initially sparked the need for such decisions at times, and become too risk-adverse.

    I'm planning to take a foreign language too, in fact I'm currently studying the language in its native country. Have no plans to major in it though, not now at least. The body of literature often intrigues me, but sadly, I cannot imagine spending a whole year on a literature thesis. Well, good luck with your last class! How was your workload double-majoring, if you don't mind me asking?
  8. Mar 11, 2013 #7
    There is no benefit to you as a physicist to doing a second major in anything except, perhaps, math.

    There is considerable benefit to you as a human being, however.
  9. Mar 11, 2013 #8
    "There is considerable benefit to you as a human being, however."

    Very much agree with this. I did a BSc (yep) and an MA in philosophy because I love it and have basically been doing it since I was about 5. It enriched my life no end and changed my thinking - and behaviour - on virtually everything. I'm now doing another undergraduate in mathematics and statistics and it is also very rewarding. I am constantly surprised at how the two compliment each other. A little more rigour in the arguments of the arts, a little more respect for humanity in building/interpreting the models in maths/stats, and everyone's better off.

    "Truth be told, I think a lot of mathematical and physics focused people have a (bad) tendency to look down at social sciences and humanitites. There's also seems to be an idea that philosophy is bad stuff too."

    Very much agree with this too. Purely in my experience it is everywhere at all levels and it is shocking, offensive and very sad. I get the arts people pooh-poohing science on the one side, and the maths/stats people mocking humanities on the other. This used to happen as a younger man when I enjoyed both boxing and musical theatre. In all instances, the more vociferous critics turned out to have the least experience of what they were attacking.

    There is no need whatsoever for you to be in only one of the 'two cultures'. My advice is to do as much as you can of what ignites your passion while you are at university. You will not find such a wealth of opportunity open to you once you leave.

    Good luck :)
  10. Mar 11, 2013 #9
    I wholeheartedly agree. Desire to pursue a broad education was a huge reason why I decided to attend a liberal arts college. My only issue was fear that such ambitions will negatively affect my future in physics.

    And here I was thinking that my future BA in physics would sound a little weird. :tongue:

    I couldn't agreed more.

    Thanks for the wisdom! I intend to! (:
  11. Mar 11, 2013 #10
    One of my computer science professors once said that humanities are very important to scientists, especially programmers. He said that all programmers should study poetry, and that it would be fantastic if it was a requirement for the degree. A think he's a little weird, but people say he is a genius, so certainly there's some merit to what he says.

    I think it's very important to have a wide range of interests outside your area of expertise.

    I am doing a minor in French and have been studying it since high school. Most classes I took were literature courses and I really enjoyed them even though it was very intimidating being the only non-native speaker in the class. Becoming near-fluent was one of the most rewarding things I ever accomplished and I will always use it outside work.

    Also it's always a plus if your coworker, professor or interviewer speaks a language you're studying. I have chatted in French, German and Japanese with some professors and it's a great way to build a friendship.

    Personally I would not study things like philosophy, but to each their own. Foreign languages are just my thing (and classical guitar, too :tongue:).
  12. Mar 12, 2013 #11
    That reminds me, there is a video floating about online of Google's Director of Engineering giving a speech about his experience of getting a PhD in the humanities - philosophy, actually. He claimed that such an experience was not only essential for people at the cutting edge of problems in his field(s) but an intellectual rite of passage.

    Make of that what you will.

    It all rather reminded me of Feynman's bit about taking the world from another point of view, a.k.a. the 'sociological imagination', when all the standard ways of solving problems have been exhausted. If philosophy, satire, drama, literature et al are not in any way exemplars at taking a familiar thing from a novel point of view, I don't know what is.

    Go broad. When all you have is a hammer...
  13. Mar 12, 2013 #12
    You sound like you're going to be attending Reed. Great school. Congratulations on your offer. (well, even if it's not Reed, haha!)

    There's a list somewhere on their websites - the statistics section, probably - which has info on the number of majors in all the departments, and also about double majors. There's a few math-physics or physics-chemistry guys every other year. I also saw a physics-philosophy one, and one who did physics-biology.

    Note that these were "joint majors" and then there is a single thesis that is supervised by people in both departments.

    Alternatively, you could just major in physics (btw, I heard that someone did his thesis with Griffiths recently) and load up on courses from other other department.

    Also, a double major could prove hard to accomplish in 4 years, largely because Reed freshman typically take "only" 3 courses because of Hum!
  14. Mar 12, 2013 #13


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    It comes down to one simple factor: if a second major affects your GPA and your course grades, then it is completely not worth it, regardless of what perceived "social benefits" it gets you.

  15. Mar 12, 2013 #14
    I double majored in studio art and physics, and in the grander scheme of things I don't regret it, but I find myself wanting to take a lot more math now that I've graduated and am thinking about grad school.

    I am still as interested in art as I am in physics, but I pursue physics career-wise, and do art on the side. I initially dropped the art major believing that it was something I could always study on my own. I picked it up again because the drawing professor was among the best that I had, and I will never regret the time I spent in her class room.

    My advice to you is to not think of the path only in terms of the subjects/majors. If you KNOW you want to do physics, or some other particular path, by all means pursue it. If you view the second major as secondary, you may find that it is the professors that make a subject you thought was less interesting to you more rewarding. If Reed has a department that is notorious for having really awesome teachers, take some classes and see how you like them.

    That said, double majoring in physics and other things can be tricky, and can require a lot of planning from the start, particularly if you want to go abroad. So branch out early, test the waters, and plan ahead.

    I also have to disagree with ZapperZ. Life is a winding path, and that sounds like a sentiment coming from someone who is narrowly focused on physics. There is more to life than physics. Studying outside of physics is obviously not about 'perceived "social benefits"'. It is about one's personal development and interests (which certainly do lead to social benefits, I will be the first to say).
    Last edited: Mar 12, 2013
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