Office of Admissions
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December 12, 2022
What do you want to be when you grow up? It's a question many of us are asked from the time we're little. For a college student, deciding what to study for four years might feel like finally choosing an answer.
But with so many disciplines to choose from, it can feel stressful or even dissatisfying to toss all of your eggs into one academic basket. After all, no one is interested in just one subject or topic — which is what makes the option to declare a minor in college so powerful.
On this episode of College Admissions Insider, we're looking into what a college minor is and how exploring one or more minors can enhance a student's educational experience.
Our guest is Ghislaine McDayter, Bucknell’s associate provost for research and creative inquiry.
If you have a question, comment or idea for a future episode, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
[00:00:06] BHA: What do you want to be when you grow up? It's a question many of us are asked from the time we're little. For a college student, deciding what to study for four years might feel like finally choosing an answer.
[00:00:17] BT: But with so many disciplines to choose from, it can feel stressful or even dissatisfying to toss all of your eggs into one academic basket. After all, no one is interested in just one subject or topic.
[00:00:29] BHA: Which is what makes the option to declare a minor in college so powerful. I'm Becca Haupt Aldredge from Bucknell University. On this episode of College Admissions Insider, we're looking into what a college minor is and how exploring one or more minors can enhance a student's educational experience.
[00:00:47] BT: I'm Brooke Thames, also from Bucknell. Today, we'll talk about when and how students can declare a minor, the value of exploring disciplines beyond your major, how to think about minors if you're undecided and more.
[00:01:00] BHA: Joining us is Ghislaine McDayter, Bucknell’s associate provost for research and creative inquiry. Ghislaine has been a faculty member at Bucknell for more than 20 years, with academic experience in 18th-century literature, British romanticism, gender studies and more. Welcome to the podcast.
[00:01:17] GM: Thank you very much, you guys.
[00:01:19] BT: Yeah. It's great to have you, Ghislaine, to talk to us about this really interesting topic. First, can you tell us a little bit more about your role as an associate provost?
[00:01:27] GM: Sure. So my role as an associate provost actually takes me a little more onto the side of faculty than students. At the moment, what I spend a lot of my time doing is helping faculty with their research and scholarship — finding them ways to get interesting grants that will help them do their writing, their scholarship, their lab work, and allowing them the freedom to go ahead and do some really interesting work that will then be translated into the classroom, which students will then see.
I also oversee all of the undergraduate research. So if you're a student, and you're interested in working with faculty on doing some of their scholarship and research, this is a great time to reach out to them and say, “What are you doing? I might be interested in working with you.” I help set that up.
[00:02:11] BHA: Awesome. As we jump into discussing minors, I suppose we can begin with maybe the most obvious question. What is a college minor, and how does it differ from a major?
[00:02:21] GM: So minors are really sort of mini majors. A minor of Bucknell requires a few courses and thus less depth in the disciplinary material than a major usually does. Many minors require about four to five courses. So they're pretty easy to declare even quite late in the student's academic career. But majors are where students will spend much of their time academically from their sophomore year on, when they will be asked to declare one.
So the major is where students really experience and engage in the intellectual depth of any given field, learning its language, its focus and its importance. It also tends to be more structured than the minor. The minor will be a cluster of courses, whereas the major tends to be far more scaffolded. You take one course after another.
[00:03:04] BT: In general, most colleges will require a student to declare a major. Is that the same with a minor? Is it something that's required of a student or does it really vary depending on the school?
[00:03:17] GM: Yeah, that really depends on the school, but generally no. So certainly, my undergraduate school, which was a big R1, wasn't particularly interested in minors at all. And many schools don't allow them. In the past, students at Bucknell could really earn a minor only after they had taken the required courses. So they would declare it after they had taken several courses.
Now, we've just made it possible for students to declare an intended minor in advance of completing the coursework. That's really helpful because it allows departments who are looking to see what students are interested in their major to find out the students that might be interested in attending various opening sessions, speakers that are coming or pizza parties, and they will then know to reach out to the students who might be interested. It also helps students to plan their academic calendar in advance.
[00:04:04] BHA: So if a student decides they want to declare a minor, when in their college experiences that happen and how does it happen?
[00:04:11] GM: Well, first of all, once you decide, “Yes, this is what I want to do,” students declare a minor on an online declaration form, which is available from the registrar's office any time after the beginning of their fourth semester. So students will be eligible once they have earned at least 12 cumulative credits. So that's, again, three semesters of work and have declared and been approved for their major. It will then appear on the student APR, which will alert students to the policies and anything involving double counting, for instance.
[00:04:41] BT: So when it comes to the types of subjects that a student can minor in, is it basically whatever is also offered as a major, or is that something that's also dependent on the school?
[00:04:50] GM: For the most part, at Bucknell, you can take a minor in most of the majors. Not all but most. In other institutions, no, that is not the case. Sometimes, there are very specific minors that are related to courses. Sometimes, you can't get them at all within certain forms. There are also institutions where there's only a minor, and you can't get a major in that field.
[00:05:12] BT: So it seems like students should definitely be checking out the website of the college and also possibly reaching out to maybe college counselors or folks who’d be able to answer some of those questions in terms of what students can major and minor in.
[00:05:23] GM: Absolutely. Don't assume that because there's a minor in the program, that there's going to be a major also.
[00:05:28] BHA: It sounds like the process for declaring a minor different from a major doesn't really happen until the student arrives at their college or university, whereas students tend to start thinking about a major sometimes a little bit earlier on in their high school process, when they think about where they might want to attend. Is that right?
[00:05:44] GM: Correct.
[00:05:45] BT: So it seems like we've covered most of the basics so far. But like many aspects of the college experience, I suspect there's a lot more thought that goes into why minors are even offered at schools and how students navigate the choice of whether to declare a minor. So is it something that's meant to complement a major? For instance, should a major in political science minor in sociology for good measure?
[00:06:11] GM: I mean, I would really not recommend that kind of strategy personally. Now, there's nothing wrong with doing it. But I'm really not sure that a student will gain as much from taking a minor in a closely related field to that other major. So in my view, the minor should really be seen as an opportunity to explore new areas of learning and to gain new skill sets outside of those offered already by their major.
Again, there might be a very real interest by students to choose a minor in a field that resembles a major they're already taking because, well, let's face it, that's what they already know they like. But this line of thinking won't actually challenge them to stretch them intellectually, right? It keeps them in their comfort zone. Learning should be, above all else, a little unsettling, a little frightening. If we're always comfortable with the ideas that we encounter in class, we can be pretty sure that we're not challenging ourselves to learn new ideas and hear new perspectives.
So taking a minor in something completely different from a major ensures that students will be able to try something totally new and maybe develop a new passion, a new skill. It should be seen as an opportunity to enter into new realms of knowledge and engage your curiosity.
[00:07:24] BHA: I love that piece about getting out of your comfort zone. I think that's great insight for our listeners. So what I'm hearing is that a minor is a great way to explore different interests beyond your major, to build a variety of skills and even, if or maybe especially if, it's off the beaten path from a student's particular major. That being said, how should students approach minoring in more than one subject area? Is there such thing as too many minors?
[00:07:49] GM: Yes. Sometimes, we can have too much of a good thing. So collecting many minors, ironically, often works against the impulse to explore and to be intellectually curious. So sometimes, students get so caught up in the need to finish the minor that they don't pursue individual courses that intrigue them. Students often think that it is better to have as many majors and as many minors on their transcript as possible, in order to seemingly look appealing to employers down the road.
But after a point, the students who pile up the minors on their transcript might begin to look more like collectors than intellectuals. The emphasis should not be on the credential — on the minor, or even the major, or the number of them — but rather on what's being learned.
[00:08:34] BT: So while it's a great way to lean into exploration and get out of your comfort zone and maybe learn something new about yourself, there's also intentionality that goes into it.
[00:08:42] GM: Precisely, yeah. It shouldn't be something that you're doing simply because you think more is better.
[00:08:46] BT: I'm sure students get a better sense of that as they move further along in their college career. I think you mentioned that at Bucknell, it’s usually the end of sophomore year that students are kind of asked to think about that and declare. So that gives them enough time to really think about what is it that I want to minor in and pursue.
[00:08:59] GM: Yep, exactly. Yeah.
[00:09:01] BHA: So at Bucknell, when we're talking about our College of Arts & Sciences, and declaring by the end of your sophomore year, that could look a little bit different in different colleges, whether it's engineering or, at Bucknell, in our Freeman College of Management. So I think the best guidance there is just to make sure that you're checking with your advisor and making sure that you're on track for whatever institution you're at and whatever major or college you fall into.
[00:09:23] GM: Yeah, that's essential because there are majors where you have to declare from the very beginning in order to get all the scaffolded courses that are dependent on learning one after another.
[00:09:32] BT: Ghislaine, you mentioned quickly there looking impressive to employers. Regardless of what students study in college, they'll all eventually enter the workforce, where they'll apply the lessons, experiences and skills they learned throughout their education. How do minors help set students up for success in their post-grad careers and lives?
[00:09:50] GM: So minors can be invaluable. It really reveals to potential employers not simply your breadth of knowledge and your range of interests, although it, obviously, does that. It also says something about who you are and what you care about. So if you're, for example, doing a major in math but also complete a minor in, say, women’s and gender studies or French, this signals to others just a little bit more about your priorities and your pleasures. It tells a more interesting story of your intellectual journey and your profile.
But even beyond this, if you major in biology and take a minor in English, my field, it indicates fluency in two very different disciplinary languages and skills. Equally, if you are like a classics major with a minor in physics, employers can be assured that you have two equally valuable forms of literacy in your tool chest that can be used at any time.
[00:10:44] BT: Yeah. I love that pairing of something like biology and English because I think sometimes we forget that scientists are also writers a lot of the time. So those things really go hand in hand a lot of the time.
[00:10:55] GM: Indeed. One of the most important things that scientists have to learn is how to write grants. If you can't write a good grant, you are not going to be able to run your lab.
[00:11:04] BHA: We also know that the landscape for what work looks like is changing rapidly with advances in technology and an increasingly connected world. A lot of our students might even be coming into college and preparing for careers that don't exist yet. So how does all of that development influence the ways college students should think about majors and minors, and maybe some of the disciplinary examples that you mentioned?
[00:11:29] GM: Yeah. This is such an important point, and I'm really glad you're asking it because the world is changing so rapidly, never more than in the last few years, as we've all experienced. What that means is that we are looking at a future that might be radically different from what our parents experienced or, indeed, even from what we experienced.
As you say, we don't yet know what jobs might even be possible in a few years’ time, right? So preparing for a specific career is now kind of a dangerous proposition. It wasn't in the past, but it is increasingly now. There's no guarantee it will even exist when a student graduates. So instead, the advantage of taking a wide range of courses with a variety of skills means that when you graduate, you will have an invaluable and highly marketable qualification, which is flexibility and adaptability.
Because of the various skills you've learned through both majors and the minors, students who graduate with a liberal arts degree — an education that places its emphasis on learning a broad range of skills, rather than a narrow path towards a single job — will be far more likely to succeed in shifting demands of the unknown future that we are going to encounter soon.
[00:12:43] BT: Yeah. I think if we've learned anything from the past couple of years, it's that having that ability, like you said, to adapt and be flexible is really, really crucial. Not even out of just necessity, but maybe even just a change in passion.
[00:12:56] GM: Precisely. Yeah, I mean, we all use the word “pivot,” like everyone was pivoting during COVID. But that precisely is the articulation of that need to be adaptable and very, very open to experiencing new things. We learned a lot. It wasn't all bad. We did learn a lot because of that experience of learning to be vulnerable and adaptable and try new things.
[00:13:19] BHA: Without it, we might not even have this podcast.
[00:13:21] GM: Indeed, right. These are all new skills that we learned during COVID. There's no way I would have known how to do it. So, yeah, we can thank COVID for that, at least.
[00:13:30] BT: Speaking of pivoting, let's switch gears a little bit to chat about students who are still in high school and figuring out what they might want to study while in college. What do you say to the student who is undecided? How would you encourage someone with many interests to think about exploring minors, even before they've decided what they want to major in possibly?
[00:13:50] GM: First of all, I love it when students tell me that they're undecided. And they're so often really apologetic about their lack of decision, but I always tell them that what this actually means about them is that they're open and receptive to all learning and all opportunities. It's actually a really good thing. It's great.
We don't allow students at Bucknell to declare their major until their sophomore year for a reason. We want students to try new things and not close themselves off from those opportunities they might never even have thought of. Like how many students have even heard of linguistics or animal behavior before they come to college? I know I hadn't.
So students should try new courses and see what excites them. When they become particularly intrigued with the discipline and want to learn more, that's the moment that they need to consider a minor. Sometimes, it might even turn into your major. That has been known to happen many times.
[00:14:48] BHA: Another important audience to talk about here is our parents of prospective college students, who are instrumental in a student's college journey. What advice would you give to a parent who might be supporting a student who's passionate about a whole list of subjects?
[00:15:03] GM: Yes. First of all, I'd say well done. Your student is going to be just fine. Nothing distresses me more than when I have a student in my office choosing courses, and all they want to take as their major courses. They have no interest in anything else, and that's when I worry. But if a student is brimming over with enthusiasm and curiosity, wants to take every course under the sun, it fills me with a certain kind of joy. That is, after all, with the educational journey should be about, an appetite for knowledge, ideally, an insatiable appetite for knowledge.
So first of all, don't try to narrow the student's vision by insisting upon a single disciplinary path. Encourage your student to take a few of the courses related to their interests, and see if that interest intensifies into a major. If it doesn't, nothing lost. That's cool. It could either become a minor or simply a really interesting class that added some insights and skills to your students’ undergraduate experience.
00:16:01BT: Ghislaine, I feel like as we've been going through this conversation, we have been essentially talking about the essence of a liberal arts education, which is something we talk about often on this podcast. So it seems like minors are, of course, a significant piece of that. So as we close, can you leave us with a little bit of insight into how minors embody that liberal arts spirit of discovery?
[00:16:23] GM: For sure. Thanks, Brooke. I would say that minors should really be viewed as an invitation to discover, to explore and to fully indulge curiosity and imagination. Minors are all about the pleasure of learning for the sake of learning. Really, that is what the liberal arts education does so brilliantly. It's an education grounded in the belief that learning is never wasted.
So just because a course doesn't count towards a student's major — something that students worry about quite a bit, for example — that does not mean that it is a waste of time and simply has to be gotten out of the way. That's, again, something I hear from students a lot: “I need to get this course out of the way.”
On the contrary, these vary courses that might not formally count toward the chosen major often inform, deepen and even challenge the assumptions and disciplinary expertise we've learned in the major. They make us better at whatever it is we ultimately decide to pursue because they have taught us the most important lesson there is. Learning can't be contained in one major or one discipline. What the liberal arts education excels in teaching us is the importance of learning how to love learning, no matter what the major or minor we choose to undertake.
[00:17:41] BHA: Wow. Well, I have chills. Brooke, I don't know about you, but I am ready to go back to college right now and not collect minors for the sake of it, but to browse a course catalog and see what looks exciting. Hopefully, our listeners are feeling that way too.
[00:17:56] GM: I hope so. I hope to see them in class sometime.
[00:17:58] BHA: Thank you so much, Ghislaine, for being here and chatting with us today.
[00:18:01] GM: No problem. Happy to be here anytime. Take care.
[00:18:04] BT: We also want to thank everyone out there for listening. If you're a fan of the podcast, take a moment to rate, subscribe, and share this episode with the students in your life.
[00:18:13] BHA: We'll be back with another new episode in a few weeks. In the meantime, you can send your questions, comments and episode ideas to email@example.com. We read every note you send.
[00:18:25] BT: And don't forget to follow Bucknell on your favorite social media apps. Just look for @bucknellu on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok. You can also follow our student-run Instagram account, which is @iamraybucknell.
[00:18:39] BHA: Until next time, keep reaching for your dreams and your dream school.
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