What You Study: A "Major" Decision or a "Minor" Concern?

Author: Sara Wheeler

Mc 9"

We’re all familiar with the classic “Notre Dame introduction” — Name. Class. Dorm. Hometown. Major. Ideally, it provides a brief glimpse into your identity as a student. The brevity of said introduction, however, seems to be increasingly threatened by the absolute mouthful that the last element — the “major” — has become.

“Hi, I have a double major in aerospace engineering and philosophy, and a minor in engineering corporate practice.”

Or, “I study history and political science, and I am minoring in constitutional studies and philosophy, politics, and economics.”

And finally, there is the occasional, but not impossible, triple major (for the especially masochistic student). Senior Kiera Votzmeyer, for instance, has a double major in political science and gender studies and a supplemental major in Spanish.

It is a rare day that I meet a student whose “major” really is a singular entity. According to data gathered by the Institutional Research, Innovation, & Strategy Office, as of Fall 2023, a total of 1,354 Notre Dame students have second or third majors in the College of Arts and Letters. Of the 1,354 students, 628 students have primary majors in Arts and Letters, 448 have primary majors in the Mendoza College of Business and 239 students have primary majors in the College of Science. Fewer than 20 students have primary majors in each of the remaining colleges: College of Engineering, 16; Keough School of Global Affairs, 14; and the School of Architecture, 9.

In comparison, even fewer students — only 367 — have a second or third major in the College of Science. One hundred and seventy-two students whose primary major is in the College of Arts and Letters have a secondary major in the College of Science, as well as 136 students whose primary major is in Mendoza. There are fewer than 35 students whose primary majors are in each of he remaining colleges. Mark Gunty, analytics program director at the university, clarified “Second majoring other than in Arts & Letters and Science is practically non-existent.”

Ultimately, this data reveals that about 19% of the undergraduate student population has a second or third major in the College of Arts and Letters or the College of Science. This percentage is likely higher because the total number of undergraduates includes first-year students whom cannot declare a second major. Students whose primary major is in the College of Arts and Letters are most likely to double major. Recent changes in the Mendoza curriculum expanded opportunities for students to double major.

Although Mendoza students were previously able to to pursue a secondary major in another college, they are now also permitted to “specialize in two business disciplines without adding time to their degree program” with access to “new minors, double majors [and] more hands-on learning opportunities” stated Carol Elliot, director of communications for Mendoza, in a recent article published on the Mendoza website. Some restrictions apply: Only students in the Class of 2026 or later are authorized to take advantage of this curriculum change, and students pursuing a degree in business analytics are precluded from this opportunity.

For some, the question of “what’s your major?” unlocks feelings of intense uncertainty. It’s hard enough deciding between Modern Market or Chick-fil-A for lunch; choosing a major is virtually impossible when students can select from approximately 75 degree programs. It makes sense to see a fair amount of dancing around when it comes to settling on a major.

Sophomore Iris Choi is quite familiar with this dance. She was accepted to Notre Dame as a mechanical engineering major and switched to aerospace engineering the summer before her first semester. Choi then spent her first year studying in the College of Science: Fall semester, she was a neuroscience major on the pre-med track; in the spring semester, she shifted to ACMS. By the time she was on the 15-hour plane ride back to her home in South Korea for the summer, she had (temporarily) settled on being a mathematics major. Now — months into the fall semester of her sophomore year — Choi confidently shares that her academic home is in Arts and Letters as an economics major. But, she is also pursuing a supplementary major in applied and computational mathematics and statistics (ACMS) in the College of Science.

When asked why she had switched her major so many times, Choi reflected on her academic self-perception.“[Studying a STEM discipline] was more familiar to me. I don’t think I ever saw myself doing anything in Arts and Letters. I’ve always seen myself as a science person,” Choi said.

Choi’s desire to study science could be linked to the fact that she comes from a family of scientists. It could also stem from her educational background. Choi grew up in the Korean school system, where she said pursuing a “traditional” scientific career — attending medical school or going into academia — is highly prized.

Choi said that in Korea, “they definitely lead you to specialize at an early age. You apply to schools by major, so it is super uncommon to change your major. I’ve never really seen anyone — any of my close friends — switch majors … and even if they did, it would probably not be from STEM to non-STEM.”

The notion of expectation, whether self-induced or fueled by external pressures, is key to assessing the value of a double major. A student might feel inclined to take on a second major merely because they feel that they should. Or, as triple-major Kiera Votzmeyer noted, “part of [the pressure] comes from being ambitious and wanting to say [you] can do it.”

Dean of the College of Arts and Letters Sarah Mustillo addressed that feeling of obligation: “What we don’t want to see is students taking [majors] just because they feel like they have to … If you’re doing it because it’s the only thing you know, or you feel like you have to, you’re just not going to get the same experience of Notre Dame.”

Arts and Letters champions the motto “Study everything. Do anything.” While the phrase “study everything” could seem like a direct endorsement of taking on multiple majors and minors, Mustillo said, “We encourage broad study across the curriculum. Our secondary motto is study what you love … that could mean taking classes in many different [subjects], or it could be taking a second major or minor.”

On the other hand, the Mendoza College of Business’s mission statement explains one of their goal is to “contribute to the formation of ethical business leaders,” explicitly stating that the undergraduate program aims to “broaden [the students’] opportunities for employment.” Unsurprisingly then, one of the primary motivators behind the expansion of the Mendoza curriculum is career-oriented. Taking on two business degrees “differentiates Mendoza students in the job market,” explained Director of Communications for Mendoza Carol Elliot.

I would argue that it is perfectly reasonable for a student to study additional majors and minors because they are genuinely intrigued by the subject matter AND because they can see how those programs will help them achieve the career to which they aspire. Votzmeyer, who plans on attending law school, chose her triple major out of genuine interest but found that what she studied helped “inform what I want to do with my law degree and in what area of law I want to work.” Recognizing that “it is expensive to go to [Notre Dame],” Votzmeyer decided to “make the most of her education,” majoring in three subject areas in her four years as an undergraduate.

Trouble arises, though, when a student stacks on multiple majors and minors solely because they believe it will get them a good job. A senior with a science-business major and a health, humanities and society minor shared, “Sometimes when I’m overwhelmed and know that I could get into [medical] school with just a pre-professional degree, I’m swayed to stay with my major and minor because I think it looks better [on my resume].” If all that she considered was her resume, then this student would likely become burnt-out; however, she chose the health, humanities and society minor because she actually felt engaged by the courses while also recognizing the career benefits.

Some students are fortunate enough to feel quite certain in their academic and professional path, but many undergraduates experience a fair amount of doubt about such things. I believe that the major-associated stress some students undergo is, for the most part, unnecessary.

As Mustillo said: “The most important things that come from a Notre Dame education come regardless of what your major is … so much of what your future success is going to be is going to come because of the broader Notre Dame experience … we are really trying to focus on creating fully formed students so that whatever your major is, you’re going to go out into the world and make a difference.”

So, what’s the verdict? To double major, or not to double major?

The economics major in me has the urge to consider what my marginal utility is for another major or minor, to evaluate the return on investment or to complete a cost-benefit analysis. But as my professors have emphasized, humans don’t (and maybe shouldn’t) always act as rational utility maximizers.

The theology minor in me calls for openness to different possibilities — and for trust that all will pan out according to God’s plan.

The human in me says: Even with all the premeditation of someone with a Type A personality, you can never fully predict where your life will take you. Don’t be afraid to try to walk a certain path (pursue another major). You might love it!

But just as importantly, don’t continue to drag yourself along such a path if it is killing you along the way. Many of us, especially at Notre Dame, have it ingrained within us that quitting is not okay. I’m here to tell you that it is absolutely okay to quit, to turn around, to let yourself do less.