Drastically Disparate Double Marjos– Can it work?
February 15, 2007 2:35 PM   Subscribe

Is it foolhardy to pursue such different double majors as graphic design and neuroscience?

(Apologies for the extreme length)

I've long planned to pursue a double major in graphic design and neuroscience (biology) for my undergraduate education, but I've recently been seriously questioning if that wouldn't be making a big mistake.

Art and Science have long been the guiding passions of my life, and I expect they will continue to be. I get just as much enjoyment out of one as I do the other, but each serves to stimulate my mind and soul in a different way. The interplay between the two is fantastic, and I can't imaging trying to live with only one or the other.

If I do complete both degrees, I'll likely work in the user-experience field for a few years before going on to other things.

For a long time growing up, I was convinced that I wanted to go to medical school, and although the idea still greatly appeals to me, I'm wondering if maybe I should go down a different path– that of research. Whatever the case, I know I'll eventually want to pursue some sort of post-graduate education in the sciences.

Can something like this work? Is it foolhardy to invest so much time, money, and effort, into a degree (design) that will likely not be my eventual career? Is it silly to get a degree in your hobby? (although design is much more than a hobby, and I predict that even after settling into a career in the sciences, I will continue to be a practitioner of design on the side)
posted by dantekgeek to Education (37 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Whoop! "Marjos" = Majors
posted by dantekgeek at 2:36 PM on February 15, 2007

My youngest brother just graduate with a double major in French Horn performance/composition and Physics. He understands the world in waves, it worked for him.

It is never, ever, ever, a waste of time or energy to invest in yourself when you are young (or old for that matter). You really have no idea what your future may hold. Maybe you will hate the practical aspects of working as a scientiets and you will be a designer your whole life. Just do it, you will enjoy it as long as you don't just see your education as a means to an end, but rather a journey.
posted by stormygrey at 2:46 PM on February 15, 2007 [2 favorites]

If you can find a school that has both programs with quality instructors, rather than just giving lip service to one or the other, I can't see any reason why this would be a bad thing. If you have the energy for a double major, go for it.
posted by lekvar at 2:49 PM on February 15, 2007

I knew a few people who were theater majors double majored with a science (physics and chemistry). I think both are doing well 15 years later. I also had a good friend who was very into music and ended up doing a bio/psych combined major. He's since made a career researching the psychology and neuorbiology of music.

Personally, I think it's a great idea. Communicating and visualizing scientific problems is an important and valuable endeavor. Understanding cognition is important to good design.

Besides, if you do end up going into scientific research, the time and effort of the design degree is going to seem small next to your PhD and post-doc stints.
posted by Good Brain at 2:49 PM on February 15, 2007

If you're interested in research in human vision, etc. your graphic design (and any flash, html, etc. skills) could go a long way in the practicalities of experiment design. I guess that addresses the value of the coursework, not the full-on double major.
posted by availablelight at 2:53 PM on February 15, 2007

My campus has a big dance program, and a lot of the kids double-major in all sorts of completely non-related things (chemistry! computer science!). If it works for you, go for it.
posted by thomas j wise at 2:54 PM on February 15, 2007

I double-majored in history and engineering as an undergraduate. I've always found that even though history was not the "real" career I was shooting for, it always made for good conversation during a job interview or with a professor to demonstrate intellectual flexibility. Furthermore, it indicated that in addition to crunching numbers, I could write a coherent paper, and had learned to analyze situations from both a quantitative and non-quantitative standpoint. You could make the same argument here regarding communication, presentation of scientific results, etc. Besides, I'd argue that your two disparate majors actually have a lovely meeting point somewhere to make for a lovely career (science writing/illustration perhaps?), or really, just a kickass college lecturer, should you decide on the academia route.

On the downside, I suppose someone could look at those majors and just wonder where exactly your focus lies. And where does it lie?

I think there's value in establishing some focus. I'll admit that my double-majoring has meant that I'm prepared to do a wide range of things. Thus, a paralysis of choice has gripped me since my junior year of college, and made for some kind of ugly results (I got an M.S. in engineering, and since I felt like I needed more variety than that, took a job that had nothing to do with engineering and resigned several months in after I became miserable in the position). Presently, I'm un[der]employed, and finding the focus on a particular career goal I realize I should have had way back when I decided to double-major. And I just turned 24! The clock is ticking!

That being said, honestly, I think that if you can restrict your focus and career goals to one of those two things (which it sounds like you have) - neuroscience and design - you'll be able to use one as a strength when interviewing in jobs for the other, and you'll be fine. If you cut out one of those majors now, you'll just be pissed off in the future that you didn't study something you loved when you got the chance. And how could learning more ever hurt you, as long as you know where you're going with that knowledge?
posted by universal_qlc at 2:57 PM on February 15, 2007

The main problem you're going to run into is the difference between a major and a degree. A degree in graphic design will be a BA or BFA (assuming a US university) whereas a degree in neuroscience will probably be a BS -- though it could be a BA. These will require radically different core courses in order to get both degrees. There may be some overlap, but it will make getting out in a reasonable amount of time much harder. This is why it's much easier to double major in English/Philosophy or Bio/Chem.

However, there is no need to get a degree in something to take most of the important courses. So I usually advise my advisees to think of taking one degree with multiple majors, but not multiple degrees with multiple majors. In your case, I would say take the degree in the field you're most likely to want to work in and take a bunch of classes in the other discipline without majoring.

There is going to be a little tradeoff in how much you can devote yourself to one or the other. Breadth is great, but it can be achieved without double-majoring. Depth and focus is something few people have time to do when they leave college. You may wish you'd had the time to hunker down a little bit more in one of your disciplines.
posted by ontic at 3:02 PM on February 15, 2007

lie = lay. I think. Sorry. So much for my writing ability.
posted by universal_qlc at 3:04 PM on February 15, 2007

Do it - when else in your life are you going to have this opportunity?
posted by Ostara at 3:05 PM on February 15, 2007

By the way, one way around this is to go to a college that doesn't have core requirements. Way back when when I was looking for colleges, a place like Grinnell didn't have core requirements, so people there seemed to major in all kinds of things. I suppose there were probably people who got in hot water by not being as good at the pre-reqs, but that's able to be overcome.
posted by ontic at 3:07 PM on February 15, 2007

Those two majors complement each other in a wierd and unique way -- I'd say do it. Human factors is generally a graduate area of study, though. Are you also considering a graduate degree somewhere down the line?
posted by brain cloud at 3:10 PM on February 15, 2007

There are a few practicalities to consider when double-majoring.
1) How much support will you get from the university or college you want to attend? My alma mater, for example, supported double majors but limited the number of units that could be taken per semester and the number of semesters to complete a degree (22 credits with approval and only 8 completed semesters, total).
2) Will you have enough money (if you have to take 5 years, some loans and scholarships won't fund the 5th year).
3) Would a minor serve you just as well? A minor in graphic arts will give you access to all the classes and resources, with (potentially)fewer necessary core classes and fewer necessary upper-divisional classes.

That said, I knew a lot of people who majored in a musical instrument and science. It just takes hard work and dedication.
posted by muddgirl at 3:11 PM on February 15, 2007

Ok, one more and then I'll quit. Another option is to see if your college has a "individualized major" program. This would allow you to design the best of both worlds (maybe a "human-computer interaction" major) without the downsides of fulfilling core requirements in two separate schools and degree programs.
posted by ontic at 3:11 PM on February 15, 2007

Just think how nice your diagrams of the brain will look.
posted by joelf at 3:17 PM on February 15, 2007

If you can manage it, I think it looks good to be accomplished in two unrelated fields. Maybe some employers are close-minded and just looking for vocation training, but I imagine many will see it as a sign of a well rounded broadly educated person who can suceed at many things. Just an opinion.
posted by -harlequin- at 3:20 PM on February 15, 2007

Have you considered the field of Medical Illustration?
posted by demiurge at 3:25 PM on February 15, 2007

Think about it, weigh the cons and pros, and then do it.

I know your career plans are pretty much set, but if they do change, your double major will give you an immense amount of flexibility in dealing with both quantitative and qualitative tasks. People and employers will understand this. If you do indeed go in for med/grad school, then you'll gain a lot of specialized education in the field that you choose anyways, so I don't think you will lose much by having completed your major requirements only (at the least).

More importantly, if you're really a dual-person, then you won't be able to live without either side, and you'll feel like you cornered and limited yourself if pick either one in a compromise. Most of my friends are the same kind of dual-type that I am, and majored in Bio/English, Computer Science/English, CS/Art History, et cetera; I did as well. My experience in this is that my science classes balanced out my humanities, vice versa, and increased my general enthusiasm for all of my classes.

If, credits-wise and grade-wise, you think you can pull it off, go for it. If you can combine the two (which is doubtful), go for it as well. The fact that you're asking the question itself probably means that you do want to, and that you know you'll be able to pull it off as well.

(P.S. You may be able to combine both fields and apply it to something else as well, but it probably won't be so obvious, like drawing diagrams of the brain or such. There was a period when which I considered English + CS (instead of Art History + CS) , and people asked me when I was going to make programs that wrote novels. Gah! There will be applications, there may not, but it doesn't mean that your overall knowledge won't be enriched by engaging in more than one field of study.)
posted by suedehead at 3:46 PM on February 15, 2007

I almost ended up getting dual chemistry and art majors [and degrees] - I ended up deciding against the latter because in my undergraduate institution, art was part of the architecture department, and I didn't want to have to take all the architecture classes. However, making time for all those art classes was great: as you say, art and science are both incredibly interesting and stimulating, and one can often find strange connections between the two. I found that I needed to be making art to stay sane, and taking art classes for grades gave me a good excuse to make time in my schedule for art.

It is going to be a time investment, make no mistake: you'll have less space in your schedule for random electives, and depending on the rules of your school, you might even have to take a heavier courseload to make it work, since there's likely to be little overlap between the requirements of the two majors. However, as long as you're OK with that, go for it. It's very unlikely to hurt you.

With regards to neuroscience and research: I highly, highly recommend making time to do research in a lab during your undergrad years. Science is frustrating, and learning and labwork can require totally different skills [and mindsets.] You want to know whether you can handle this before you commit to grad school. Furthermore, I'd also suggest finding a neuroscience advisor/mentor you trust. You'll need advice on whether or not your plan of taking several years of to work in user experience will affect your grad school apps [or your med school apps.] I wouldn't worry about b1tr0t's comment regarding an MS degree: in the US, at least, Master's degrees barely exist in the sciences. The top schools don't even offer terminal MS programs, and if the degree is given, it's often just marker along the way to a PhD or a consolation prize for someone who's given up on their doctorate. That advice would be more useful if you were thinking of heading into engineering.
posted by ubersturm at 4:08 PM on February 15, 2007

My little brother is quite brilliant and got two degrees--chemical engineering and history. He did it in 5 years. I believe his reasoning was that he'd always loved history, so he wanted that degree, but he's also very practical, so he got the chem engineering degree. After a few years as a computer programmer, he's now in a history PhD program.

My point is that if it's what you want to do, and you think you can hack the workload, it's a wonderful thing to have the two degrees in your pocket when you figure out what you want to be when you "grow up."
posted by Mavri at 4:11 PM on February 15, 2007

Do it. For the simple reason that it sounds like you'll regret it if you don't!
posted by finding.perdita at 4:20 PM on February 15, 2007

absolutely not foolhearty!

If you've thought through the requirements and have decided that you can handle them in the span of your undergraduate career, then I think you have two wonderfully complimentary degrees.

If you decide neuro is your passion, graphic design will help you in ways that may not be immediately evident, but your presentations/posters/papers will look all the better, clearer, and easier to undersand.

If vice versa occurrs, you'll have the skills to evaluate research, possibly design reports and collateral for pharmaceutical companies, and be an overall smartey manz. :)

Not to be pedantic, but unless you're majoring in visual science or cognitive science, I'm not entirely convinced that neuro will get you into the UI field, but I could be wrong. Just something that popped into my head (my brain and cognitive science degree [visual science concentration] was immensely helpful when doing UI, and i'm not sure neuro would have been as useful).

Go for it. If you think you can do it and can put up with a year or three of not having a life, it'll be worth it in the end.

Good luck!
posted by absquatulate at 4:28 PM on February 15, 2007

That's a double degree, not a double major. A double major is where you do a bunch of core subjects for one degree and at the end, do two specialisations.

But consider that neuro is a Science/Med degree and Graphics is gonna be arts... there is no overlap in the pre-requisites for these two things. It's not like you get do it in the same time as a single degree or even the +1 year required to do related double-degrees (e.g. engineering+maths, physics+comp sci). The time you'll need is pretty much the sum of time taken to do the two degrees back-to-back.

That's not to say you shouldn't do it. There's nothing wrong with double degrees, it happens all the time where the skillsets are complementary (engineering+law - a bit insane but the people who complete that are in HUGE demand). I'm not sure that neuro + graphic design will make you directly more employable but it will definitely make you a more rounded person.
posted by polyglot at 4:44 PM on February 15, 2007

I am a neuroscientist (PhD, Zoology). I spend an amazing amount of time using Adobe graphics products. Figures, images, line illustrations, poster design for conferences, etc.

Go for it.
posted by caution live frogs at 4:53 PM on February 15, 2007

polyglot: Not all schools differentiate between double majors and double degrees. In many universities, the former implies the latter.
posted by ubersturm at 4:54 PM on February 15, 2007

What demiurge said, and also, my SO is getting a PhD in neuroscience and I'm truly surprised at how much graphic design he does. His work includes putting together good charts/slides for talks or articles, creating posters for conferences, and designing possible cover art to accompany a journal article. (on preview, caution life frogs)

FWIW, he nearly double-majored in philosophy and biochemistry in college. The philosophy courses helped him stay grounded and have a life outside of the lab. I wonder if the graphic design courses would do the same for you.
posted by ml98tu at 4:59 PM on February 15, 2007

Oh god do it. I just graduated college and I wish I had =/
posted by infinityjinx at 5:13 PM on February 15, 2007

Same as infinityjinx - I just graduated from Software Engineering, and I wish I also had a BFA in fine arts. I love fine arts and I had very little life during university - except for my final year where I lived with arts students *only*.

I now have to go back to school.
posted by niccolo at 6:47 PM on February 15, 2007

Thanks for all the insight everyone!

I've applied to the City University of New York, and if everything works out, I'll be going for a BFA in Electronic Design and Mutimedia at City College, and a BS w/honors at in Neuroscience at Queens College (The program here is particularly nice because it requires research, which I enjoy)

I love learning, and so the only real worry I had about the situation was the purely practical aspects of it; energy; time; and moeny.

That being said, the fact that so many of you responded in such a positive way has re-enforced my determination and drive, and I much appreciate it.
posted by dantekgeek at 7:35 PM on February 15, 2007

Looks like you already have answers to your question dantegeek. I also think you should pursue both degrees. If you have the passion, both fields will be relevent to you.

Anyway, as inspiration, there is Danel Levitin, who studied neuroscience and music, and the two topics became his area of expertise as a researcher.

I have a co-worker who studied computer programs/applications on the side and has a PhD in biochemistry. He just started his own personal freelance art business, where he creates computer animations, designs, etc. , for other chemists - pharmaceutical companies and researchers.

I wouldn't worry about appearing 'unfocused' or the other argument you hear against this route. First, you are studying undergraduate degrees and the goal is to be a 'generalist' - what better time to study material you enjoy. Second, I know people with a similar background to your proposed career track - and know that some employers will consider this a strength.

Have fun!
posted by Wolfster at 8:02 PM on February 15, 2007

Hey, you look like a version of me that's more open minded to actually going out and doing this! (whereas I tend to be more "stay the course" and "goddamnit, I'm going to get a job out of this BFA degree if it means sucking up to every VA head in Canada").

You've inspired me -- time to finally sign up to get my prereqs for neuroscience out of the way, and see if there's anyway they'd let me study at two universities for the price of one.

Thanks, dantekgeek.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 8:13 PM on February 15, 2007

It looks like the word is pretty much unanimous, but I wanted to add this: as you keep studying your "disparate" fields, it is likely that you'll begin realizing the connections they have to each other, and where you can be useful in the seam between them. My boyfriend triple majored in political science, physics, and computer science, and is now pursuing a PhD in physics and a masters in international policy concurrently. When he's out he'll be quite well qualified to do any number of things - but at some point along the line he realized he'll be insanely well qualified to work on science policy.
posted by crinklebat at 9:07 PM on February 15, 2007

My university has a biomedical engineering department where they model all kinds of biological processes (computer simulations of heart function, mapping of tumour topography and blood flow, biomechanical work, lots of other stuff) and I can see the combination of degrees you're talking about working wonderfully in that kind of field. Don't think about just drawing pretty brain pictures, but making about 3D in silico models showing movement of neurotransmitters or neuron morphing or changing gene expression or electrical activity or something else cool that increases our understanding of neurophysiology.

This is just an example, there will be all kinds of other things possible. I think your skills will fall together in ways that you can't foresee. Being able to think visually and in four dimensions (including changes over time) will aid your understanding of many biological processes and give you a different insight into things that those of us with more traditional science brains don't get. So yeah, definitely go for it.
posted by shelleycat at 1:52 AM on February 16, 2007

I have to chime in with the people that say no. There's nothing wrong with taking all the graphic design classes you want but there is no benefit that you will gain from having a double major. Even if you choose a career in graphic design, a BS in Neuroscience will get you any job that you could get with a BA in Graphic Design. In graphic design, the portfolio is of the greatest importance. They are interested in people with Bachelor's degrees but the nature of the degree has little relevance as long as the person knows their stuff.

I graduated with a BSCE but took a lot of photo and art classes and even worked for awhile as a photojournalist but it made absolutley no difference what my degree was in. I could have stayed as a photojournalist in any media in the country based only on an impeccable portfolio and a degree.
posted by JJ86 at 6:21 AM on February 16, 2007

This sounds like a great plan. Me = undergraduate in Biology and Philosophy, graduate studies in Philosophy, now working as an academic librarian on the technology side of the world.

IMNSHO, you can't ever have too much variety in learning.
posted by griffey at 7:44 AM on February 16, 2007

I study the cognitive neuroscience of vision. Your undergrad will put you in a pretty good position if you were interested in pursing something like that. Still, I can't help but feel that you're doing more work than you need to. Both majors will entail extra stuff that you don't feel like doing. Why not pick one (so you have a useful degree), and focus exclusively on the fun stuff from the other?
posted by Eamon at 4:53 PM on February 18, 2007

I got degrees in computer science and music composition and never regretted it.
posted by dfan at 11:21 AM on February 20, 2007

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