As an undergrad I had a couple majors and a couple minors...no big deal. Ultimately all it meant was I took a lot of classes all over the place and went through the time and effort to declare them.

As a PhD student, though, declaring a minor is pretty uncommon. Hell, a lot of schools don't even offer the option. My understanding is that minors are usually for highlighting a certain amount of coursework in a closely related field to the one you're studying. Seemingly obvious pairings would be a PhD in Math with a minor in Statistics, or a PhD in Classics with a minor in Philosophy. However, unlike in undergrad (and really even at the Masters level), during a PhD the emphasis is primarily on research, not coursework. So why is a PhD minor a thing? Does it serve any purpose more than just another notch in your academic belt?

Personally, I am thinking about adding a Math or Statistics minor to my PhD in Computer Science, but I can't come up with a good reason other than "I'm interested in higher level math/stats and it's really applicable to the area of CS I work in." That's enough to satisfy me, I guess, but is there really any other reason to do this?

EDIT: I guess I should add that *in my case* I'm not thinking about a minor for minor's sake, but rather that I'm already taking a bunch of courses in that area so it just means an extra course or two. The question still stands though: why is it a thing? And, furthermore, does it carry different connotations in different areas (e.g. the humanities vs. applied sciences)?

  • To give some resemblance of credit for all the additional classes outside of your primary degree needed to complete your research. – Paul Apr 7 '15 at 4:50
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    I've never seen someone declare an official minor for a PhD (I didn't even know it was possible). People (including me) usually just take the courses they are interested in and or are related to their work. – Austin Henley Apr 7 '15 at 4:58
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    @AustinHenley I know. As I said, it's a rare thing. But people do do it. That's why I'm curious. – marcman Apr 7 '15 at 5:08
  • Is it actually called a minor where you are? In the places I went there were types of certificates you could get for say adding medieval studies to your history or philosophy degree. – virmaior Apr 7 '15 at 5:24
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    To be honest, I've never heard of a minor for a PhD. However, not all PhDs have courses. My PhD was 100% research, no coursework involved, so the option for a 'minor' was mute, and the 'major' was dependent on what school you were enrolled in for funding. – awsoci Apr 7 '15 at 21:20

In addition to the laudable goals of actually advancing one's education in a structured way, as several of the other posters have mentioned, it does serve to credentialize you in the minor department. Someone with a PhD in Math with a minor in Statistics potentially reads to me as very different than someone strictly doing a PhD in Math, even before I dig into their CV. That is one function - essentially keyword recognition of "I belong amongst both groups".

As someone who works in an interdisciplinary field, that can frequently helpful.

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A minor gives a grad student the option of diversifying his/her learning experience. Much research is interdisciplinary (like stats and CS), so taking a few classes in another department can be very beneficial. It also gives a grad student an excuse to take courses in something that isn't directly related to their research. (Minoring in a foreign language or business can be generally useful, for example.) In my own experience, most grads minor in something closely related to their research.

As far as I know, very few people look at a graduate student's minor. The biggest reason I can see for having a minor outside one's home department is to diversify one's educational background.

I looked around to see what universities said about this. Georgia Tech states that "The purpose of the minor is to encourage a wider interest on the part of the student and to provide a broader basis for the evaluation of the student's capabilities." (source) Stanford requires a minor for its Education grads (source).

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Per what jvriesem says I can verify that Georgia Tech, and I would expect other universities, does indeed encourage a PhD minor in order to broaden one's education. In fact, it is a requirement for graduation to get a minor, by taking something like three courses outside of your department. I would encourage a PhD student to pursue a minor for this reason, if it wasn't already requirement.

I ended up taking EE courses which were pertinent to my physics research area, which I may have taken anyway. I did find content to be directly helpful for my research, so it was a net gain. Outside of satisfying the graduation requirements, it may be useful to some potential employers, even if it is only a small part of the consideration for a job candidate. In my case the engineering knowledge proved helpful for landing a job, since my core area of study was physics.

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