Double majors, secondary majors and dual degrees at Stanford, explained

April 27, 2023, 8:27 p.m.

Many Stanford applicants envision their future educations at the university as being highly interdisciplinary. However, once enrolled, many undergraduates at Stanford find themselves pursuing a single major in a specific area of interest.

But, for students whose interests span two different disciplines, they may choose to pursue multiple programs of study over the course of their undergraduate careers. At Stanford, the three options for such students are double majors, secondary majors and dual degrees.

Each of these options offers a different academic pathway, resulting in some combination of Bachelors of Arts (B.A.), a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) or a Bachelor of Arts and Science (B.A.S.).

What is a double major?

A classic double major requires the standard 180 minimum units to graduate — averaging to approximately 15 units per quarter — and a student who pursues this option will receive a single degree with both majors listed: either a B.A., B.S. or B.A.S. Combining two B.A. majors leads to a single B.A. degree, combining two B.S. majors leads to a single B.S. degree and combining a B.A. major and a B.S. major leads to a single B.A.S. degree.

Undergraduate Academic Advisor Melissa Stevenson ’96 explained that to complete a classic double major, a student would be required to complete the requirements for both of the majors without any overlapping classes, or “double-counting.” In other words, a single class cannot be counted toward the requirements for both of the majors. 

“So let’s say we do a double major in chemistry and physics. We complete the requirements for all of the majors, no overlapping, both of them end up as a B.S. And so at the end, you get one diploma that says ‘Bachelors of Science in chemistry and physics,’” Stevenson said, “And that is a classic double.”

What is a secondary major?

Like a double major, a secondary major also requires the standard 180 minimum units to graduate. However, according to Undergraduate Academic Advisor Katie Phillips, students pursuing a secondary major are allowed to double-count classes between their primary and secondary majors.

“So if you’re interested in things that have some overlap in terms of the coursework, then a secondary major might make sense because it allows that overlap,” Phillips said.

However, unlike with a double major, the secondary major only appears on a student’s transcript, not their diploma, Phillips explained.

Stevenson gave the example of a student wanting to major in both chemistry and chemical engineering. Because the two majors have many of the same requirements — especially their core classes and lab classes — they’re deemed to have too much overlap. In this case, a student would “designate one as the primary and one as the secondary major,” Stevenson said.

Stevenson also said that individual majors have different rules about what classes are allowed to be double-counted. For example, Stevenson said, some majors will allow students to choose between three classes to fulfill a requirement. In this case, the major may not approve double-counting that class given the variety of options for fulfilling that requirement. Majors may also have limits on the number of classes a student is permitted to double-count.

Ben Kinder ‘26 is planning to pursue a secondary major, with data science as his primary major and public policy as his secondary major. Kinder wrote that he was at first interested in majoring in public policy and doing minors in other areas. 

“I quickly realized that at the rate I was taking classes, I would be done with the 60-unit [public policy] major by the end of my sophomore year,” Kinder wrote. “When I began looking into other majors such as data science which I really liked, I realized that since there was so much overlap, doing a double major (which would be upwards of 160 units) was simply not feasible whereas if I used the overlap to my advantage I could do both without much trouble.”

What is a dual degree?

A student who completes a dual degree receives two degrees: one B.A. and one B.S. Students who are interested in double-majoring in two B.A. or two B.S. majors are not eligible to pursue this option. Unlike the unit requirements for double and secondary majors, a dual degree requires a minimum of 225 units to graduate, in addition to completing the requirements for both majors. 

Phillips gave the example of a student wishing to pursue a dual degree in history and computer science. If the student were able to fulfill the requirements for both majors and reach the minimum of 225 units, they would receive two diplomas: one for their B.A. in history and another for their B.S. in computer science. 

“[A dual degree] is a lot of units and you do have to start early. Sometimes students come in with very distinct interests…and they really want both of those diplomas,” Phillips said.

Senkai Hsia ’24 is planning to pursue a dual degree in mechanical engineering and international relations. Hsia said that his decision largely stemmed from the fact that he was interested in both areas and wanted the personal satisfaction of completing both as separate degrees.

“My original plan was to do mechanical engineering as a major and then minor in international relations,” Hsia said. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, however, Hsia did additional research into the conflict, which led him to realize that he wanted something more than just an international relations minor.

“I looked at my plan. I looked at my classes. I realized I could do it,” Hsia said. “And then I was like, ‘I’m willing to put in the extra effort to get a degree in this and have that as something substantive to show for my interest, my intellectual interest and my work.’”

Judy N. Liu '26 is the Academics desk editor for News and staff writer at The Daily.

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