Double degrees: double the trouble or twice the return?
Double degrees (also called joint or combined degrees)—programs of study combining two bachelor degrees—are increasingly popular in Australian universities, particularly among women. A case study using qualitative and quantitative surveys of current and past double degree students is presented. The study indicates that double degrees benefit students in providing a broad education and increasing skills and options. However, benefits are not fully realised because of administrative difficulties, lack of support and absence of ‘learning communities’. These problems arise because double degrees sit outside the disciplinary structure of universities. As such, however, double degrees have potential to provide transdisciplinary education. We suggest initiatives that would improve the experience, performance and persistence of double degree students. They would also build the skills of integration, boundary work, communication and teamwork associated with transdisciplinarity. These skills not only equip students for a range of employment; they are sorely needed in society.
KeywordsDouble degreesGenderInterdisciplinarityLearning communitiesStudent surveysTransdisciplinarity
Double degrees (also known as dual, combined or joint degrees) are undergraduate courses involving two bachelor degrees studied concomitantly over approximately five (for three-year degrees) or six years (for four-year degrees e.g. law and engineering). They generally require higher entrance scores than the corresponding single degrees. Students graduate with both degrees, receiving a ‘discount’ in terms of credit and time compared with the sum of two degrees. This discount is generally based on the allowance in most degrees for students to enrol in subjects outside their faculty or discipline area. Double degree programs in most Australian universities involve no formal integration of content, skills or teaching between disciplines. Apart from rare examples of courses or degree programs in particular areas such as environment or health, double degrees are simply two degrees study concurrently. As such, they are administrative rather than pedagogical structures.
Double degrees, in covering more than one disciplinary area, seem ideally suited to provide the kind of education that graduates, employers and society need in a complex, changing, knowledge-intensive world (Batson et al. 2002). To begin with, two degrees provide options to graduates unlikely to remain on a single, stable career path. New niches exist for graduates with a mix of knowledge and skills: biologists with law to work in biotechnology companies, historians with management to work in public agencies, IT specialists with creative arts to work in web design. Moreover, there is an increasing emphasis on transferable skills and literacies, reflected in government policy and initiatives within Universities (Rosenman 1996; Batson et al. 2002; North 2005). Studies have suggested that many such skills and literacies are developed in discipline-specific contexts and are not in fact easily transferable (North 2005; Neumann et al. 2002). In developing skills in at least two disciplines, and in learning to switch between, double degree students may emerge more able to adapt their skills and knowledge to new contexts in flexible and responsive ways.
Beyond flexible knowledge and transferable skills, double degrees have potential to contribute to transdisciplinary education, which crosses and bridges disciplinary boundaries.1 This is one of the most neglected and exciting opportunities associated with double degree programs. Transdisciplinarity is characterised by knowledge production that is problem-focused, draws knowledge and methods flexibly from diverse sources, involves collaboration between academic disciplines and other parts of society, and produces knowledge that is ‘socially robust’ (Wickson et al. 2006; Thompson Klein et al. 2001; Nowotny et al. 2003). Such approaches are promoted for their ability to tackle complex real-world problems, particularly associated with sustainability (Thompson Klein 2004; Rapport 2000; Meppem and Gill 1998). Transdisciplinarity may be an important response within a shifting context in which new knowledge producers and users interact with universities (Gibbons et al. 1994)2 and in which universities adopt new roles (King 2004; Etzkowitz 2000; Gunasekara 2004).
There is rhetorical support for transdisciplinary and other cross-disciplinary3 approaches, including within universities and from government (Grigg et al. 2003; King 2004; Winberg 2006). However, considerable structural and cultural obstacles to the development of transdisciplinary research and education exist, owing to the strength of disciplines in structuring universities (Russell 2005; Boucher et al. 2004). While the growing popularity of double degrees may be responding to calls for more breadth and transferability in higher education, disciplinary obstacles may reduce the contribution that double degrees can make in the face of new demands on universities and graduates (Rosenman 1996). With this in mind, we sought to investigate the experiences of double degree students. In addition to a concern that they face unnecessary obstacles in their time at university, we were also concerned that universities are not taking advantage of a considerable opportunity.
The study was carried out at the University of Wollongong (UoW) in Australia in 2004–2005 and involved surveying students enrolled in double degrees at UoW, and students who had completed a double degree at UoW or elsewhere. The research investigated the experiences of these current and past double degree students with a two-stage (qualitative and quantitative) survey process. In this article, we discuss the students’ responses and make general observations about enrolment in double degrees. Despite their popularity, there is very little literature about this type of degree, which we see as having an increasingly important role in universities. Based on our results, we make recommendations for improving double degree programs, and for developing this unique opportunity to prepare graduates for transdisciplinary knowledge production.
A preliminary qualitative questionnaire was designed to explore the experiences and concerns of a range of double degree students and to collect in-depth responses that would inform our further investigations. The questionnaire gathered data about respondents (double degree combination, age, gender, international or domestic status, ethnicity) and responses to open questions about their motivations and experiences. The questionnaire was sent to a group of 48 current double degree students, selected to represent the range of degree combinations (approx. 2% of students from each combination) and to include both genders. The questionnaire was also sent to two groups of past double degree students, one of current postgraduates at UoW contacted via an email list (not all of these had done their double degree at Wollongong), and the second drawn from students selected randomly from a UoW Alumni Association list. The questionnaire was delivered by email, with the inducement of a chance to win a $50 book voucher. Respondents included 15 current students and 27 past students (12 Alumni and 15 postgraduates), from a range of double degree combinations representing all but six of the 23 possible combinations of faculties,4 in proportions roughly reflective of the double degree cohort as a whole. There was a slight over-representation of Creative Arts—Arts students5.
The qualitative responses were coded using NuDist v4 software (QSR) and the coding used to develop categories for a quantitative survey. This web-based survey included similar questions, offering between seven and 12 possible responses (based on the qualitative survey), with most questions requiring students to select “all that apply”. The survey was sent to current and past students via an email requesting their participation with a link to the survey website and a password (to prohibit accidental respondents). This email was sent to all current double degree students on campus (1344 students), all past students on the Alumni list with email addresses (350) and all postgraduates via the email list (unfortunately, the request was sent as part of a newsletter by the list moderator, which reduced the number of respondents).
Percentage of double degree students in major double degree combinations at the University of Wollongong, showing representativeness of the survey sample
Double Degree Combination
% in University
% in Sample
Who takes double degrees?
It appears that double degrees are taken predominantly by school leavers. The majority of respondents had completed a High School Certificate (88%) and 12% had entered with a non-university qualification of another kind. Only 1% had begun their double degree with a prior university qualification. In terms of work experience, 82% began a double degree with no prior work experience, 14% had worked for 1 or 2 years and 2% had been in the workforce for 10 or more years. Among those with work experience, the majority had worked in business/industry.
Percentage of females and males in each double degree combination
Double degree combination
The observation that females have higher participation rates in double degrees is consistent with a national study by Batson et al. (2002), which also found that participation in double degrees brought women above target for non-traditional areas such as IT and engineering. This is interesting in light of research by Kim Thomas (1988), who found that women were disadvantaged in both ‘male’ and ‘female’ disciplines. In her study, they lacked confidence and struggled to match their identity as women with their identity within the discipline, whether physics or English. A preference for double degrees among women suggests a willingness to take up a challenge and likely reflects the higher proportion of girls who achieve a high tertiary entrance score (Temple 1997) (double degrees require a higher score for entrance). In terms of motivation, it may signal a preference among women for integrating different knowledge areas and crossing boundaries. Perhaps, rather than ‘male’ and ‘female’ disciplines, disciplinarity itself as a way of ordering knowledge is more suited to males. Spanning disciplines potentially involves the skills of integration, synthesis and communication; and the attributes of breadth of perspective, respect for diversity and appreciation of paradox. Perhaps these skills and attributes are better embraced by women. If so, education across disciplines, through programs such as double degrees, may provide an important opportunity for women to contribute and excel.
International versus domestic students
Double degrees are a domestic student domain. Only 1% of double degree students were international (both across campus and in the survey), compared to 16% for single degrees. Double degrees are clearly an area of opportunity for internationalisation. International students may currently be put off by the extra time and money required. “It’s difficult enough for international students throughout a normal degree, having to pay full fees and support themselves living in a new country and culture, and being separate from their families and friends” (D. Hull, International Student Advisor, UoW, pers. Comm., 2006). However, it may be that double degrees are little known overseas or are unattractive to international students without clear guidance about job opportunities and career prospects. There is evidence that the proportion of international students enrolling in double degrees is increasing nationally (Batson et al. 2002). Providing more support, streamlining adminstrative aspects, providing career information and advice, and creating incentives for double degree students may open this area up for international students. This would potentially increase international enrolments, increase cultural diversity in double degree programs and provide international students with opportunities to broaden their education.
Why do students take double degrees?
I chose to do the double as I thought it would benefit me in the science sector as I wanted to get into mining with my geology background. I knew that mining companies used the stock market quite a bit and I was also interested in the finance side of business. (Science–Commerce)Table 3
Main reasons for undertaking a double degree
To increase my employment opportunities
To acquire more skills
To explore different areas of study
Out of interest/ enjoyment
It’s better value than two separate degrees
It’s a challenge
I have/had to take a double degree
… despite the fact that I utilize both disciplines in my work... it made no difference in my ability to get a job. Employers in Australia were not interested in whether or not I had one or two degrees—but more concerned about how much work experience I had. My peers who did a single degree were already in higher positions due to their 2-year head start. Interestingly, …I found to my pleasant suprise that employers in the USA did recognize that I had two undergraduate degrees. (Arts–Commerce)Table 4
Responses of former students when asked whether their double degree had been useful
It broadened my perspective/knowledge
It made me more competitive for jobs
Skills I learnt have been useful at work
It provided a good foundation for further study
It qualified me for my current position
It has given me a unique approach to my work
It has not been useful
Finishing high school hadn’t made it any clearer as to what I wished to continue studying, except that I had a huge range of choices. I didn’t want to narrow my options just yet (or was putting off making decisions perhaps) so a double degree seemed quite a natural choice. (Science–Arts)
I was curious about the practical side of engineering. I also realised that I wanted to improve on things that I was not good at. In regards to the commerce component, I wanted to develop the skills that I knew I could do well at. (Engineering—Commerce)
Of those who had graduated and entered the workforce, it was the breadth of knowledge and perspective that was most commonly selected as having been useful (by 87%; Table 4). Given that this was emphasised less as a reason for enrolling, it may be that the double degrees had given them this breadth, and had also lead them to value it. For a few, this breadth extended to exploring the connections between disciplines. For example, one chose a double degree “because I was interested in the idea of an interdisciplinary approach to my visual arts practice and English studies.” However, in a related question, only 11% selected integration of disciplines as the main benefit of a double degree.
What is their overall experience of double degrees?
Aspects students liked about their double degree
I gain a broader base of knowledge
It offers career/work opportunities
I acquire diverse skills
It is interesting
I can transfer knowledge and/or skills between disciplines
It is challenging
I have contact with diverse perspectives and ideas
I can link/integrate my discipline areas
It helps me clarify my interests
Diverse social interactions (peers and staff)
It helps me clarify my goals
the opportunity to apply other modes of learning to your principal degree, for example the organisational behaviour course was beneficial for the engineering component of my degree as well as the commerce component. (Engineering–Commerce)
When it comes down to it however, I am ever grateful that it is possible for me to do such an unusual double degree and I know nowhere else offers it, so I would rather the hectic-ness anyday than to not be able to do it at all! (Science–Creative Arts)
I would go through times were I wished that I only did one degree so that I would finish quicker and have less work load, but now that I am in my final year and almost finished I am happy that I did both! It is worth it! (Arts–Informatics)
What are the problems and challenges of double degrees?
There was considerable dissatisfaction and disillusion among double degree students. This may be reflected in approximately 4% (net6) of the cohort switching to single degrees each year for the last 5 years at UoW. This ‘switching’ may reflect intentional choices, or dropping out of one degree and settling for the other; but may nevertheless reflect the challenges and problems double degree students face.
Course structure and timetabling
There were occasions where I would have a day that started at 8:30 and finish at 8:30 with no breaks in between. (Science–Engineering)Table 6
Aspects students disliked about their double degree
Difficulties with timetable or course structure
Different faculties have differing expectations
Long duration of the double degree
Lack of administrative and educational support
Lack of integration or linking between your disciplines
Lack of recognition of your achievements as a double degree student
Lack of a social peer group
A sense of not belonging
Timetabling has been awful to the extent that for some classes I had to miss all/ the majority of lectures for that subject, and doing the subject another year meant that whole degree got put back another year. (Creative Arts–Engineering)
My main complaint was the exam timetable—every year without fail, I had a major maths exam on the first Saturday morning, and a major law exam on Saturday afternoon. I know I should have been thankful for them not clashing…(Informatics–Law)
I once had 5 exams (across both faculties) in the space of 3 1/2 days with no special consideration. I have even been scheduled to have a law exam and a commerce exam separated by only 45 minutes provided exams finish on time. That’s 5 1/2 hours worth of very demanding exams in the space of basically six hours including leaving the exam room and finding the next room. (Commerce–Law)
When doing a presentation for the engineering component of the degree the interest was focussed solely on the presentation content. When doing a presentation for a sales course your personal presentation, gimmicks attached to presentation and audience handouts were equally as important as the presentation content. Most students …are not aware of this and find themselves receiving very low marks because they appear not to have put much time into putting their presentation together. (Engineering–Commerce)
Trying to allocate readings so as to balance between the work loads of both degrees, i.e. A law degree consists of a substantial amount of readings which usually took up most of the time leaving very little hours left for preparation for the other degree. (Computer Science–Law)
Guidance and support
I would not recommend my double degree to anyone as it stands—it was too difficult to find help when I needed it. (Science–Engineering).
Throughout my double degree I did not have any help in relation to working out how many subjects I needed to do. Each faculty continued to tell me the complete opposite information. In the end I had to work everything out myself but was always left thinking ‘have I chosen the right subjects’ and ‘will I be able to graduate on time’… (Health & Behavioral Science–Commerce).
Because students undertaking single degrees move at almost double the speed, friends move on in all faculties and you are left in fourth year with new second-years etc. You make new friends, but it is hard to make close friends and achieve continuity. (Arts–Commerce)
Together with a lack of institutional support, this failure to develop peer connections may exclude double degree students from a ‘learning community’, with implications for their performance and persistence (Gablenick et al. 1990, Smith and Bath 2006).
… I was never recognised for my academic achievements as I never (until my last year) did enough subjects from one faculty to make the Dean’s Merit list. I was always in the top 5% of students but never got recognised for my efforts. I graduated with distinction from both my degrees. Being on the Dean’s Merit List is extremely important when applying for summer vacation jobs and graduate jobs. (Health & Behavioral Science–Commerce)
…upon graduation, there was almost no recognition within the graduation ceremony that I had actually completed a double degree. Double degree graduates for Arts / Commerce were lumped in with all the BA graduates. It was a real let down of a graduation ceremony—after putting in so much extra study compared to regular one-degree students, and the University did not seem to recognize that at all…(Arts–Commerce)
A lack of recognition is not only unfair to double degree students who achieve as highly as their single degree peers, and may miss out on employment opportunities as a result, it also reflects a failure to recognise the special effort of these students in coping with the administrative, workload and epistomological challenges of studying in two disciplines. This failure to recognise the emergent qualities of double degrees is probably related to disciplinary culture and the central role of disciplines in the structure of universities (Russell 2000).
How could double degrees be improved?
When asked what was missing from their degree, a lack of real world job skills was criticised by two thirds of the respondents, followed by a lack of integration (38%). The lack of real world job skills was criticised systematically more often (P-value < 0.004) by students enrolled in Arts–Law, Science–Engineering and Science–Law. We suggested a number of initiatives that might be implemented to improve double degree programs and asked whether they would be helpful. Three quarters indicated that a handbook for double degree students would help them, 55% would find a website for information, announcements and discussions useful, 41% would make use of subjects that integrate their disciplines and 21% would appreciate regular meetings, seminars or discussion groups. No differences existed between different combinations with respect to these responses, suggesting that they could be introduced for all double degree students.
Support and community
The availability of ... information would not only benefit the student, but would also encourage more students to undertake a double degree program. This would benefit the university financially and also raise the Universities domestic/international standing. (Commerce–Engineering)
Administrative support targeted at double degree students or a main contact person who is equipped to discuss all issues with not “see both sub-deans” (Arts–Commerce)
I like the idea of having a meeting, perhaps one a fortnight or a month that brings the double degree students together, just an informal thing so we could all stress about the workload together!!…An introduction to first year double degree students from those who are already doing it would have been very helpful! (Arts–Creative Arts)
‘Learning communities’ have the potential to improve performance, outcomes, satisfaction and persistence in higher education (Gablenick 1990; Tinto 1997; Smith and Bath 2006). As well as improving conventional educational outcomes, a strategy to develop learning communities could make important contributions to the development of integration and transdisciplinary skills (Dodge 2004).
Job skills and career information
Another good thing could be some kind of forum in which career possibilities are explored, as what job opportunities exist in this field is somewhat unknown to a lot of students (including myself). As part of this, the opportunity to do work experience could be very very positive. A Creative Arts/Arts degree can sometimes feel like twice the unemployment prospects when a lot of what we’re learning doesn’t necessarily seem to transfer into a job!!! (Creative Arts–Arts)
… universities should really let employers and others know that doing a double degree is challenging and thus the student is of a higher standard than a single degree student (all other things being equal)…the universities including UOW should really make a point that double degree students have more knowledge/skills etc. (Arts–Commerce)
Preliminary discussions with employers during this study suggested that there is limited awareness of the existence and value of double degrees.
When students complain about a lack of ‘job skills’, they are often thinking of specific vocational skills. Whether universities have a responsibility to provide such skills is debatable, particularly given the diverse range of graduate jobs. However, when employers complain of employees lacking relevant skills, it is often generic and transferable skills, particular communication and teamwork, that are missing, rather than specific vocational skills and knowledge (Barker et al. 1998). Universities have responded by emphasising generic skills and graduate attributes. However, when taught in a disciplinary setting, these may lack the transferability necessary in many jobs (North 2005; Neumann et al 2002) and employers note graduates’ inability to make cross- or interdisciplinary connections and to operate cross-functionally (Barker et al. 1998).
Can double degrees provide transdisciplinary education?
Most graduate employees work on problems that are not organised along disciplinary lines. It is ironic that double degree students suffer from rigid disciplinarity during their degrees, and also miss opportunities to develop cross-disciplinary skills that would improve their prospects and performance when they graduate. For society generally, emerging issues in, for example, sustainable energy production, urban planning and natural resource management also span disciplinary boundaries and require a high level of integration (Rapport 2000; Ramadier 2004; Bammer 2005). Transdisciplinary scholarship has emergent properties that are not recognised in disciplinary settings, but are likely to be valued in settings outside universities (Russell 2000). We believe double degree programs have significant untapped potential in preparing graduates for employment, bringing universities into line with a shifting context of knowledge production, and assisting society in dealing with complex problems.
I believe that as far as the university was concerned they were totally separate (for e.g. there were no opportunities to discuss/integrate the work I was doing in one degree with lecturers/tutors from the other). However, my own interests in both disciplines did allow me to draw from each in the study of the other—but this was done in a personal and independent way and was, unfortunately, not formally recognised by the uni. (Creative Arts–Arts)
In my experience I studied two degrees rather than a ‘double degree’. There was essentially no connection between the two strands of study. … there is (to my knowledge) no effort on the part of the university to maximise the unique potential of the study of concurrent degrees. (Informatics–Law)
I would have jumped at the chance to undertake an (supervised) independent project (during my undergrad not after) that allowed me to integrate my research. I believe something like this would be beneficial since it would allow the capable students to extend themselves and integrate their skills and knowledge from both disciplines. (Creative Arts–Arts)
I would have appreciated the opportunity to integrate both degree specialisations in my honours project, possibly even have two supervisors—one from each discipline. It is with a degree of disappointment that I am now wholly committed to engineering research and have left arts behind altogether. (Arts–Engineering)
We suggest that the development of transdisciplinary undergraduate subjects should be supported by the development of rules and guidelines for cross-faculty and cross-discipline honours and postgraduate degrees. This would have the added benefit of fostering interaction between staff in different areas, fostering a more cohesive university community and more communication and cross-fertilisation, both in teaching and potentially in research.
Double degrees represent an area of growing significance, for universities and society. For universities, they represent a significant proportion of enrolments (approaching 10%), they attract strong students (higher entry requirements) who are more likely to undertake postgraduate work (for students who enrolled in double degrees at UoW between 1983 and 2003, 3.5% went on to research doctorates, compared with 1.8% of single degree students), and they are preferentially selected by women, providing an avenue for improving women’s participation in higher education. There is potential for expansion of double degree enrolments, particularly among international students. Double degrees potentially provide an avenue for developing transferable skills in graduates, including skills in transdisciplinarity and integration. At the same time, our research reveals considerable obstacles and challenges associated with double degrees, which affect students’ satisfaction, performance and persistence.
These observations suggest that double degrees should be a hot topic in higher education. However, this is one of very few studies we are aware of that has specifically investigated double degrees. This paucity of research may reflect the underlying problem for double degrees—they don’t fit. They potentially sit outside, or above, the disciplinary structure of universities. This characteristic likely contributes to the failure of universities to invest in the improvement of double degree programs—they are ‘nobody’s baby’ and have no champions. And yet it is also this boundary-spanning characteristic that gives them so much promise. Given the talents of these strong and enthusiastic students, and the potential of double degrees to create graduates able to traverse and integrate across disciplinary boundaries, to suggest that this is a lost opportunity is to understate the issue.
A dedicated handbook and website— providing information about course structures and rules, links to relevant faculty information, careers profiles of past double degree students, and interactive communication tools
A coordinator/professional officer— giving information and support, developing initiatives, arranging meetings and events, liaising with faculties and the university in developing double degree programs and initiatives
Meetings, events and communication organised via the website and the coordinator
Scholarships and awards for double degree students and a review of rules for other scholarships, awards and accolades.
Transdisciplinary subjects or programs, either topic or skills-based, course-work or research
A framework for honours and postgraduate studies that integrate multiple disciplines.
In addition to enhancing the skills and performance of double degree students and improving their graduate attributes, these would provide opportunities for collaboration and cross-fertilisation among staff across the university.
If universities commit to supporting double degrees and the transdisciplinary opportunities they represent, this would be a useful step in broadening university knowledge production. There is general agreement about the value of disciplinary specialists both inside and outside academia, providing depth in academic research and a foundational education for graduates (Costanza 1990). What is missing is a group of transdisciplinary specialists who act as bridges across disciplinary boundaries, addressing complex, big-picture problems, and providing breadth and responsiveness to academic endeavour (Bammer 2005, p 12). While there remain obstacles for those who seek an ongoing academic career as transdisciplinary specialists, notably the lack of recruitment opportunities (Russell 2005), training a bright cohort of double degree students seems like a good place to start.
Transdisciplinarity (transgresses disciplinary boundaries) is distinguished from multidisciplinarity (disciplinary scholars collaborating while remaining within their respective disciplinary frameworks) and interdisciplinarity (work at the intersection of two or more disciplines) (Wickson et al. 2006).
Gibbons et al. describe a new approach to knowledge production, Mode 2, characterised by heterogeneous, transient teams of academics and knowledge producers from other parts of society, which form in response to particular problems or opportunities.
‘Cross-disciplinary' is an umbrella term for multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches (Grigg et al. 2003).
Each of these 6 combinations constitute a small proportion (less than 3%) of the overall double degree enrolment.
12% compared to 5% of the double degree cohort overall.
Corrected for students switching from single to double degrees.
Interestingly, this small proportion comprised roughly equal numbers of females and males.
We would like to acknowledge Fern Wickson and Anna Carew for research assistance and ideas, Patrick Gamble for assistance with University data, and Kieren Diment for development and administration of the web survey. This research was supported by an Educational Strategic Development Fund grant from the University of Wollongong.