While many students at the College pursue majors that align with their interests and passions, some feel pressure to choose those they perceive as providing the strongest practical skills and career opportunities.
Brendan Murphy '14 said he initially wanted to major in the humanities, but decided to pursue math because he "couldn't justify spending that much money when you can read books and basically get the same education," he said. While there are other subjects he would have enjoyed studying more, Murphy chose math because he saw it as a signal to potential employers.
For the past five years, between 15 and 20 percent of graduates have been double majors. Trends in major choices reflect students' tendency to pursue majors that are deemed more practical: economics has been the most popular major at the College for at least a decade, followed by government and psychological and brain sciences. The number of students majoring in English and classics has decreased, while the math and engineering majors have become more popular.
Linguistics and cognitive science, women and gender studies, studio art and Asian and Middle Eastern studies have also become more popular, while the number of students pursuing majors in Spanish and Portuguese, earth sciences and art history has decreased.
Government major Jane Cai '13 said she faced pressure from her parents and peers to pursue a government and economics double major, but decided against it after realizing she was not interested in studying economics.
"There's a lot of pressure here to major in what are perceived as high-end and marketable majors, but I don't really buy into that," she said.
While economics, computer science or other hard sciences are often viewed as "legitimate" fields of study, Cai said she thinks that Dartmouth students have diverse and meaningful experiences in a variety of departments.
Many students feel the need to pursue a double major, which can be the right choice for some students but does not inherently add value to a degree, pre-major advising dean Cecilia Gaposchkin said.
Pursuing a double major makes students look more academically serious, said Josh Lee '13, a double major in environmental studies and Spanish modified with comparative literature, and a minor in public policy.
Vipul Kakkad '13 said his decision to double major in engineering and math was pragmatic but also matched his interests. His choice "came very naturally" because he had taken and enjoyed a number of classes in both departments, he said.
Math and government double major Emily Hoffman '14 said she likes being able to switch between writing long papers and working on complicated problem sets.
"I never had this long-term plan that these majors would get me this career," Hoffman said. "It was more about getting a well-rounded education and being able to explore as much as possible while at college."
Majors are geared toward fostering study at a high intellectual level, which can only be achieved by delving deeply into a subject, Gaposchkin said.
Sometimes double majoring can limit students' ability to reach this depth or to pursue other interests.
"You don't get twice as much out of your major by double majoring," she said. "That's often kind of a revelation to people."
When choosing a major, students should participate in an "ongoing conversation" with peers, deans, professors and employers to dispel myths and reflect on their interests and options, dean of undergraduate students Francine A'Ness said in an email.
"You will be spending a number of years exploring the field, why be miserable?" she said.
A liberal arts education is meant not to prepare students for a specific profession but provide them with the tools to succeed in any field, Gaposchkin said.
Students would likely have an easier time choosing their majors if they let go of the "misguided" notion that major choices define future career possibilities, Gaposchkin said.
She worked with Career Services to create a "Majors to Careers" directory that includes graduates' majors and current professions to show students that what they study at the College does not necessarily define their career.
Neither of the two most recent Treasury Secretaries majored in economics, for example. Tim Geithner '83 studied government and Asian and Middle Eastern studies while Hank Paulson '68 majored in English.
Majors have changed throughout the years. Academic departments modify their programs when necessary, registrar Meredith Braz said in an email. Interpreting exactly how major offerings have changed at the College over time is difficult as some departments may change the name of a major without changing course offerings or restructure a program while retaining its original name, Braz said.
New majors are introduced through an established review and approval process.
They are rarely introduced at the College in part because students already have the flexibility to construct their own intellectual programs by modifying their majors, Gaposchkin said.
Last year, the College introduced a biological chemistry major in response to growing student interest. The English department recently modified its major program based on an external department review and feedback from graduates.