Reflections on the Dual-Degree Dilemma

By Lara Saldanha

In junior year of high school, when I began researching music/liberal arts dual-degree programs, I ran into this article written by David Lane, the Director of Admissions at Peabody. It is the definitive explanation of the various types of musical/academic combination programs available to undergraduates. I also remember feeling distinctly uncomfortable reading his conclusions about the type of student that should pursue a dual-degree.

Lane differentiates between three hypothetical kinds of students interested in dual-degree programs: a student who has an undying passion for horn performance and marine biology, a student who can’t make up her mind what to study, and a student who wants a conservatory education but whose parents have reservations.

He recommends a dual-degree program for the first type, a liberal arts college for the second, and a major music school of conservatory the third. With all due respect to David Lane, I would not categorize any 17 or 18-year-old who has done their research and shows interest in dual-degree programs into a “liberal arts” or “conservatory” student. It seems criminal to me to deprive high school students who love music, but maybe just need more time and further musical education to decide what place music will have in their lives education in a conservatory or major music school. In fact, the process of conservatory-level coursework is often the clarifying factor. And frankly, parents or students who have reservations about getting a music degree with no “backup plan” are not being entirely unreasonable. The musical world today is incredibly competitive. However deep your love for music you have to be realistic as well in figuring out how you can make a living, and having the second degree can open up options in that respect.

In my experience, dual-degree students come in many shapes and forms. There are those like me, who just cannot choose. There are those who use their liberal arts degree to supplement their study of music—taking a language degree to enrich their study of opera for example. These are also those whose primary reason may be to have a backup plan or satisfy nervous parents. Realistically, it’s some combination of all three factors to various degrees, and no one reason makes you more or less successful. What dual-degrees have in common (not to imply in any way that single-degrees do not have any of these attributes) is ample motivation to complete an extra set of requirements and a genuine desire for a broad education—because as a dual-degree you will be taking many courses that are completely unrelated to music.

To be perfectly honest, there is a trade-off for almost all dual-degree students in quality of education in both disciplines. I am neither as good a pianist as someone who studied only piano or as good an economist as someone who only studied economics. Dual-degrees come out of their four to five years qualified to further pursue either degree, but not having fully focused on either side.

But with that said, if I were to start college over again, I would have chosen dual-degree all over again, chosen the doubts about the direction of my life for the immense privilege of getting to study music and academics at a high level simultaneously.

If you are considering a dual-degree, here are some things to consider. Not all dual-degree programs are created equal. I’m not talking about U.S. News and World Report rankings, but about how supportive a school is of its dual-degree students. A good litmus test is to ask the school what proportion of students are dual-degree. The most active supporters of dual-degree have around a third of their students in these programs (though fewer than that graduate with both). If the school has only a handful of students in the dual-degree, the faculty and administration may not be wholly supportive of the concept of pursuing diverse interests. This is not to say that completing the dual-degree is impossible in these environments. It may be an indication of logistical challenges in scheduling or having to commute between campuses, a seemingly insignificant but important factor in your future student life. Also, having a body of fellow dual-degrees is good not only for moral support, but also an indication that you are more likely to fit in with like-minded students. Whatever the case is, it is important to have an honest conversation about dual-degree with your potential studio teacher, as having their support and understanding makes a huge difference in the experience of dual-degrees even within the same school.

No other country in the world offers dual-degree programs, and I understand why. There is immense value in committing wholeheartedly to one thing—and there were many days over the last four years when I wished more than anything that I could have picked one degree and been happy doing only that. But for all its faults (and ridiculous cost of tuition) the United States produces some of the most innovative minds in the world precisely because it offers holistic, interdisciplinary programs like the music dual-degree.

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