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Alexey Komissarouk
33rd Street

Credit: Alexey Komissarouk

I’ve met your kind before. President of your high school class, valedictorian, 2370 SAT, straight 5s on the 12 APs you took, captain of your high school volleyball and debate teams. You’ve started either a non-profit, a company or both. You’re impressive, and I’m impressed.

You applied to every Ivy and chose Penn to be dual degree through something like the Jerome Fisher Program in Management and Technology. You’re going to finish all (minimum) 46 credits in just four years, just like 85 to 90 percent of M&T students do.

You’re not alone; nearly one in four engineers pursues a dual degree of some sort, according to the School of Engineering. Penn promotes its interdisciplinary nature as a good fit for incredibly driven students. Interested in both mechanical engineering and accounting? You no longer have to choose — here, you can do both!

One thing we don’t tell applicants to dual-degree programs, however, is that no matter how talented or driven a student may be, doing two things instead of one has a substantial opportunity cost.

Having been a TA for a good portion of the intro to computer science curriculum, I’ve been bothered by the number of dual-degree students in their junior or senior years who haven’t had time to learn to code yet.

“It’s hard to get depth in either [of my fields],” said M&T senior Yash Kandoi. “If I was studying only finance, I’d have time to read books … outside of class. Instead, I have homework assignments [due] one after another, and if I want A’s then I have to keep going.”

We all have classes that we take, cram for and forget the following week, but attempting a dual degree often results in “good enough” becoming the default approach to most courses taken.

“It is in the intersection of business and engineering where many M&T students see themselves and where they strive to be successful,” said Jaime Davis, associate director of the M&T program, addressing some of my concerns.

Zach Goldberg, a 2010 Engineering graduate and associate productmanager at Google (one of the most prestigious positions available in this exact intersection) disagreed. “[Being rejected from M&T] was probably the best thing that could have happened to me,” he wrote in an email. “Focusing on just one degree allowed me to graduate with an extensive resume of activities in the field and several years of crucial experience, enabling me to have an immediate impact post graduation.”

I don’t mean to suggest that Penn should get rid of dual degrees; the programs are a great way for Penn to differentiate itself and recruit top talent. As a caveat, I am most familiar with students who major in computer science or a related field, and I cannot with any authority claim that all dual-degree programs are prone to the same pitfalls.

That said, we need to stop looking at dual degrees as a silver bullet. As Goldberg puts it, “If you find something you love and you explore it deeply in college, that will stand out more on a resume and get you further in life than being a slave to seven courses a semester for four years and graduating with an extra piece of paper.”

M&T was founded as a five-year program; over time, cultural and financial pressures have driven most students to attempt to finish the program in four. Dual-degree students staying for a fifth year should be commended for their dedication instead of being considered second-class; financial aid for a fifth year should be extended as needed. Students studying subjects with minimal overlap who complete a four-year dual degree should be the exception and not the rule.

Penn’s emphasis as an interdisciplinary center of learning is one of the main reasons I am here today. I am immensely grateful to my advisor for sitting me down during my sophomore year and telling me to stop worrying about what set of majors and minors I would graduate with. Focusing on the courses that interest me without regard for what department they are in has enabled me to fully take advantage of the University during my time here.

Being interdisciplinary is an option available to all students regardless of their majors. It’s more than just a synonym for dual-degree.

Alexey Komissarouk is an Engineering senior from Kfar Shmaryahu, Israel. His email address is 33rd Street appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter: @alexeymk

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