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I hear "major" and "minor" when discussing college/university degrees, e.g. having a major in X and a minor in Y. What does it mean to have a "major" or "minor" in something?

At my university (in a Nordic country), we say you have a master's degree/bachelor's degree. Is this the same (i.e., "minor"=bachelor's degree, "major"=master's degree)? Also, what's up with e.g. "having a major in physics and a minor in computer science"? Does this mean you got a bachelor's degree in computer science and then went and got a physics master's degree? Or does it mean that you take some subjects in computer science that are not part of your master's degree?

Is it more common in the US to take multiple degrees? Is this why people say "I have a major in X with a minor in Y"? I heard that because university is expensive in the US, you try to get more "value" out of your enrollment by taking multiple degrees. Is this true? Where I am from it is not common to hold multiple degrees in different fields. Usually, you just have one bachelor's in your field and one master's, or alternatively, a master's without a bachelor's degree.

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    Related (though strangely, closed and heavily downvoted): How do academic minors work?
    – cag51
    Commented Jan 22 at 3:10
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    You don't mention a specific country (except that it's Nordic) but it seems that the concept of a minor also exists in Denmark, for example studieordninger.cbs.dk/2022/minor/1018
    – Ivo
    Commented Jan 22 at 7:33
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    As @Ivo notes, the concept (or at least a very close equivalent) exists in the Nordic countries too, the OP might just not be familiar with the English terms. For example, I believe Sweden (and Finland) traditionally use huvudområde / huvudämne (pääaine) and biområde / biämne (sivuaine) for "major" and "minor" studies, although some variation exists. See for example this page from Uppsala University (also available in Swedish). Commented Jan 22 at 9:35
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    @Lamar: normally there is a historical reason for such a bandwagon effect (e.g., OP starts insulting people in the comments, the downvotes start rolling, then the mods clean up the comments but the negative score remains). I don't recall what, if anything, led to that question getting such a poor reception though.
    – cag51
    Commented Jan 23 at 1:00
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    @IlmariKaronen I think a lot of Nordic students are unfamiliar with this because they are studying through a programme, with all courses planned for them to automatically fulfill the requirements of a major. It's typically still possible to take freestanding courses and stitch together your own major, but that is less popular, especially if you have a clear goal and a suitable programme for that exists. So in the US basically everyone has to think about choosing a major and fulfilling it's requirements, but in Sweden many will finish their degree without ever having heard about huvudområde.
    – jkej
    Commented Jan 23 at 18:50

3 Answers 3

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In the US, your "major" is the thing you have your bachelor's degree in. "I have a BS in Biology" means the same as "I majored in Biology." Everyone "majors in" something. It is often possible to "double major" by completing all the course requirements for more than one major degree, though few students do this.

Usually there are two requirements for graduation: completing a set of courses required for your major (sometimes specific courses, sometimes "choose one from this list"), and completing at least a set number of credits (typically expected to be completed over 4 years in the US, but some students may take more than 4 years and others may complete far more credits than the number required). The set of courses for a given major is less than the set number of credits, which is how Americans take so many credits unrelated to their major.

A "minor" is a lesser add-on qualification. It usually involves taking 4-5 classes (roughly 1 semester of work; possibly more if other courses are necessary as prerequisites) in an area but the qualifications are entirely up to a given institution. The courses for a minor aren't any more advanced than for a major (unlike a typical masters program), instead it's a minor area of study alongside the main degree. So someone who majors in Biology with a minor in Music took all the classes necessary to graduate with a bachelor's degree in Biology, and also took some additional classes in Music, enough of them to qualify for a "minor". Someone with a major in physics and a minor in CS took all the courses they needed to earn a bachelor's degree in physics while also taking a few undergraduate CS classes.

In the US, undergraduate education is quite broad and involves taking a lot of elective courses outside of the major. Personally I got two minors without really needing to take any "extra" classes, I just chose enough of my elective credits in specific areas to qualify. So, while minors are completely optional, a lot of people end up collecting them because it's not that much additional work.

I would say also that a minor doesn't count for a whole lot. It's not really a separate degree, it's just an added notation to the main degree. The courses you take might be useful themselves, but it's not usually a qualification people are looking for directly when hiring or something.

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    There are cases in the US where a major isn't required for a bachelor's. My undergrad offered a Bachelor's of General Studies which required a broader-than-normal set of courses across fields in lieu of the intensive set of classes within a major. I know people who used a BGS to take coure courses in many different languages but without fulfilling major requirements for any of them.
    – CompEcon
    Commented Jan 22 at 1:20
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    @CompEcon Ah yes, the danger of ever saying "everyone"/always/never/etc. :) Colloquially, though, even in that case it's common to say "I'm majoring in General Studies" or something like that, even if the school officially calls it "no major".
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Jan 22 at 3:57
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    This is perhaps extraneous (since OP didn't ask), but at least at my alma mater, you could double major - if the degrees matched; i.e. filling the requirements for two BAs or two BSes. If they were different, you had to get a double degree which was difficult to do in a typical 12-quarter undergrad enrollment. Commented Jan 22 at 14:18
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    As an additional example, I majored in Computer Science, and just needed one additional class from the Math program to gain a minor. Additionally, I regularly took high level English classes as an elective (to take a break from computers/science/math) and ended up picking up enough credits for a minor there as well. Commented Jan 22 at 15:19
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    @chevybow I think rather that this answer is simply not exhaustive to cover every institution's policies. If your institution has separate requirements beyond major requirements, that's their business; OP doesn't need to know that to understand what people are talking about when they refer to their majors or minors.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Jan 23 at 20:02
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It might be better to start by thinking what university study is like in the US. You go to the university, register as a student, and start working towards certain degrees. Those degrees will usually require you to take certain courses to graduate.

Here're the relevant webpages for physics at the University of Florida. This university has two kinds of bachelor's degree, a BS degree and a BA degree, and also a physics minor. Look at the three degrees and see the different requirements:

  • The BS degree requires 41 physics credits, plus 7 chemistry credits and 21 mathematics credits, plus a few more courses required at university/college level.*

  • The BA degree requires 32 physics credits, plus 7 chemistry credits and 18 mathematics credits, plus a few more courses required at university/college level.

  • The physics minor requires only five physics courses.

Therefore we can say:

  • The physics major will generally be working towards either the BS or BA degree. Because the BS degree requires more physics credits, people with a BS degree tend to know more physics than those with a BA degree (but those with a BA degree still know quite a bit about it). They also know a little chemistry and some math.
  • The physics minor knows some physics, but relatively little of it. They've only taken five courses, compared to physics majors, who've taken at least twice the number.

You can see how this works for someone who's a physics major and a computer science minor - they took enough physics courses to know a lot about physics, and enough Computer Science courses to know something about CS (but not nearly as much as CS majors).

I think I may have heard somewhere that because university is expensive in the US, you try to get more "value" out of your enrollment by taking multiple degrees (?).

Depends on how you view it. For example the university might expect you to take five courses a semester. Physics majors will generally take 3-4 of those in physics, and spend the remaining courses on the university or college requirements. If you major in physics and minor in CS, then you'll be focusing those remaining courses on CS. Comparatively, someone who's only majoring in physics will likely take a greater variety of courses (e.g. they could take a history course just to see what it's like).

It's also possible to overload. If the university requires you to take 5 courses a semester, you could take 6. It will take effort, but you'd learn more that semester, getting more "value" from your money.

Yet another possibility is to study longer. A hypothetical physics major could take CS courses and also the history course, plus economics, and archeology, and what have you. They might end up graduating in 5 years as opposed to their peers, but they'd still graduate with a physics degree.

Finally, it's possible to take enough courses to graduate with a double major (two major degrees), but it'll usually take longer because it's improbable to take all the required courses within the same time. (However, universities will usually have a limit to the maximum number of years you can study, and of course, it's not cheap.)

*The university might also have requirements - e.g. they might say "all science students need to take at least three courses outside their major, and at least one of those outside their faculty" (here "faculty" refers to the faculty of science, i.e., the university says you need to take a course that isn't a science course).

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  • Meanwhile at UF, the Physics B.S. requires 21 credits in mathematics, while a Math minor requires 23-24. One required math class for Physics doesn't count for a math minor, so you need maybe 1 or 2 extra math classes.
    – mkennedy
    Commented Jan 22 at 13:46
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    Note that the map between "courses" and "credits" isn't obvious. One course could typically be anywhere from 3 to 5 credits. A credit maps more or less to the number of hours per week the course meets.
    – Buffy
    Commented Jan 22 at 13:59
  • @mkennedy Well yes. The BA is also almost certainly set up to make it easier to double major in this respect. It's a common setup at UF.
    – user176372
    Commented Jan 22 at 20:18
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    Worth mentioning that while in that case (and in general) a BS requires more and more intensive of courses, there will be significant differences between schools. My college didn't give BSs, even in STEM majors, and my (single) major was 72 STEM credits of the ~130 I took during my time there Commented Jan 23 at 5:25
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The field of study one gets their bachelor's degree for is usually called the major. The minor is a package of a few courses in a different field of study that you take during your bachelor's.

For instance, in the Netherlands, most bachelor degrees require six semesters (180 ECTS) of study. This duration refers to the regular (or minimum) study time. Of these six, one semester (30 ECTS) or half a semester (15 ECTS) is allocated to the minor program. This is a group of courses arranged around a specific topic of study that doesn't need to relate to the major (e.g. major in Aerospace Engineering and minor in Forestry). However, some students do choose a minor on a narrow topic that deepens their knowledge in their major field of study (e.g. major in Aerospace Engineering and minor in Airport Development). You can do the minor at your home university or a different university. Most universities in Belgium and the Netherlands offer several packaged minor programs on specific topics that you can choose from (e.g. Translating English to Dutch, Artificial Intelligence and Societal Impacts, and many more). Alternatively, you can pick some courses that arguably cover a coherent topic and get it approved as your individual minor program. The latter option opens the door to doing the minor semester further abroad, which is popular. The main study program completed in the remaining (e.g. 5) semesters is called the major.

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    What's a semester in this context? Granted that we're both Europeans of sorts, but the term is virtually unknown in the UK. Commented Jan 23 at 21:33
  • @MarkMorganLloyd a semester is half an academic year just like everywhere else. It's only an informal term. Many Dutch universities formally divide the academic year into shorter periods. We had five: two in the fall semester, two in the spring semester and one in the summer "break".
    – Joooeey
    Commented Jan 24 at 9:13
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    Right, half a year thanks. As I said, it's not used in the UK so your "everywhere else" is spurious. Commented Jan 24 at 9:17
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    Semesters do exist at some UK universities ─ BCU has them, apparently Manchester, Sheffield and St. Andrews do too. There are probably more.
    – kaya3
    Commented Jan 24 at 14:31
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    I work at a UK university, and we always talk about our academic year as organised in semester A, semester B and semester C (where C is the summer semester, where not much happens)
    – penelope
    Commented Jan 24 at 14:31

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