Double Majoring at Caltech

Like many students, I came into Caltech with a vision in mind. I had planned to major in bioengineering, do research in a bioengineering lab, and then eventually apply for medical school during my senior year. While some people manage to follow their four-year plans, I definitely did not. Within three weeks of my first term, I had decided to completely change my initial plans, from bioengineering to chemistry. The chemistry research interested me more, but a not-so-insignificant part of this decision was a desire to do less math. Ma1a was intimidating, what can I say?

Still, I was interested in biology so I decided that I would pursue the newly created biology minor. At the time, it required two more elective classes than it currently does, so it kept me relatively busy as I juggled my chemistry major, working in a lab, and squeezing in biology classes. But somehow along the way, I noticed myself taking a lot of history courses. At first, I figured I would just take these classes to fulfill the HSS requirements, but with each term’s course registration, I would find classes that caught my eye.

Before I knew it, I had decided to aim toward a history minor. The requirement was to take 11 history courses, which I was well on my way towards, and I figured I might as well keep going as long as there were interesting classes for me to take. The great thing about the Caltech history department is, there are always interesting classes, so it wasn’t really a concern for me. During my first term of my junior year, I ended up taking two chemistry classes, one biochemistry class for my biology minor, and two history classes. Little would I know, this distribution of classes would reflect the options that I would declare. Maybe the fact that I was taking more history than biology courses should have been a sign?

As I kept taking history courses through my junior year, which was unfortunately virtual due to COVID, I kept circling back to the possibility of writing a thesis in history. I would probably spend a good portion of the rest of my life doing chemistry, but I had a somewhat more limited window of opportunity to do history research, at least assuming I continue in the direction that I had intended, which was a chemistry Ph.D (spoiler, I’m now committed for chemistry grad school, so yes, I am continuing in that direction). I meant to just talk about what a thesis looked like with a professor, and somehow, over the course of the conversation, I found myself discussing what thesis topics I might want to work on and what I would have to do in order to declare the second option.

So, there I was, a third term junior, just deciding to do a second major. When I was a sophomore, I had been told that most people who do a second option had to have decided by the middle of their sophomore year in order to do both options and still graduate in time, but the fact that I had been aiming for a history minor already, and the lower number of required courses in HSS majors helped a lot.

During admissions panels, I’ve been asked if I would recommend doing a double major. My best answer is: only if you’re already doing well in your first major. If you find yourself with a decent amount of free time, think that you can juggle the extra classes, and most importantly, you’re actually interested in the courses required for that second major, I would go for it. But at the end of the day, the second option boils down to some extra words on a diploma, so I would only recommend it if the second major is something that seems really interesting. Caltech is hard enough as it is, without adding on any additional majors or minors. I keep on repeating this across posts, but the most important thing to try to keep in mind is to enjoy your time at school!