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MIT student blogger Jessie L. '07

Pursuing multiple fields by Jessie L. '07

Aha! We have a question! Jon asks “Also, I was wondering (uh oh here’s a question) if you could tell me how easy it is to double major in two fields that are totally unrelated. For me I love both physics and literature but I’m concerned that it will be too tough to try to get degrees in both.”

Well, Jon (and others who were wondering the same thing), there are different options you can follow to study multiple fields. For two related fields (like Course 7 and 9, for instance) it’s obviously more convenient to double-major than for two unrelated fields, but that doesn’t mean that for unrelated fields, it can’t be done.

As you asked about Physics (Course 8) and Literature (Course 21L), let’s use those as an example:

No matter what your major is, you have to get credit for 8.01 (Physics 1), 8.02 (Physics 2), 18.01 (Single-Variable Calc), 18.02 (Multi-Variable Calc), 5.11x (Chemistry), 7.01x (Biology), and eight humanities classes (the humanities requirement is more complicated than that, but we won’t get distracted by that here).

For their departmental program, Course 8 students have to take…

18.03 (Differential Equations)
8.03 (Physics 3 – Waves and Vibrations)
8.033 (Relativity)
8.04 (Quantum Mechanics)
8.044 (Statistical Mechanics)
8.05 (Quantum 2)
8.06 (Quantum 3)
8.13-8.14 (“Junior Lab”, has the same number of units as 3 ordinary classes)
8.ThU (Thesis)
Either 8.07 (E&M 2), 8.08 (Stat Mech 2), or 8.09 (Classical Mech 2)
An advanced (beyond DiffEq) math subject

So, that’s a total of 156 units beyond the General Institute Requirements (GIRs). For reference, a “normal” courseload is 48 units/term.

For the 21L departmental program, students must take…

Three seminar-level lit subjects
Seven additional lit subjects (again, the requirement is more complicated, but let’s not get distracted)

If we assume that three of those ten subjects satisfy GIRs (a reasonable assumption), then you’re looking at around 84 units beyond the GIRs. Add that to your 156 from before, and you get 240 units beyond the GIRs, which is 2.5 years’ worth of work at a “normal” courseload.

But there’s a slight catch. In order to double-major, you need 270 units beyond the GIRs. So in addition to your GIRs and the classes in your majors, you’d have to take 30 extra units (about 2.5 classes) to graduate. And that plus your GIRs will come to a little over 400 units, where four years’ worth of “normal” courseloads is 384 units.

So, that’s what sort of picture you’re looking at. Maybe this sounds good to you. Or maybe, you’d prefer something with a little more flexibility. After all, under the program described above, you don’t have much room for classes outside your majors. In fact, you have to take more than 48 units at least one term in order to graduate in four years.

Luckily, many departments offer a flexible option (such as 2A, 7A, or 8B), which is intended for students with multiple academic interests. Since we’re already looking at Course 8, let’s look at 8B, for which you need:

18.03 (Differential Equations)
8.03 (Physics 3 – Waves and Vibrations)
8.04 (Quantum Mechanics)
8.044 (Statistical Mechanics)
8.05 (Quantum 2) OR 8.033 (Relativity) OR 8.20 (Intro to Special Relativity)
8.13 (first half of “Junior Lab”) OR non-physics lab of “similar intensity”
One other physics subject
Three subjects “forming an intellectually coherent unit” in some area other than physics

Now, this is ideal for a double-major because your three “intellectually coherent unit” subjects can be in your second major. So if you don’t count those, this program requires about 90 units beyond the GIRs, as opposed to the 156 from the “original” physics program. Because you still need 270 units beyond the GIRs, you’re still going to have to take close to the same large number of units as before, but a lot more of them can be used for whatever you want, not just your majors.

But what if you want to study two fields in depth, but without so many units? If your two fields are a science field and a humanities field (as in this case) or an engineering field and a humanities field, there’s a completely different degree option you can take – 21S (for science/humanities) or 21E (for engineering/humanities). For either of these degrees, you take a bunch of subjects in your science or engineering field, and a bunch of subjects in your humanities field, and you’re awarded a single degree that indicates both fields of concentration.

If none of these appeals to you, you could simply minor or concentrate (a concentration is sort of a humanities mini-minor that you have to do if you’re not majoring or minoring in humanities) in your second field.

2 responses to “Pursuing multiple fields”

  1. dave glasser says:

    of course, you can also just take lots of classes in whatever you’re interested outside of a single coherant major.

    like, at this point i think i’m one class away from a music minor (I’m course 18). in my opinion i don’t think there will ever be a time in my life where it will actually matter whether or not my MIT degree says “music minor” on it or not, so basically my feeling is “if i decided to take the class I need to and get the minor, yay; if not, i don’t really care”.

  2. Mollie says:

    Sometimes I wish more people would stop and think about why they want to double-major before they actually do it.

    Like me, for example. I mean, I’m doing 9 and 7A, which is not really that difficult in terms of subject matter, since there’s a lot of overlap. But I came in with very little AP credit, so I’ve had to take 4 terms of 60 or 75 units. And I can’t remember why I’m doing it. Seriously. At this point, I’m doing it because I’ve suffered so much trying to do it. That’s just not right.