Should you specialize or keep your studies broad?

The pros and cons of both

Should you master something or become a “jack of all trades” in your subject area?

I know choosing a major can be hard enough without worrying about the multitude of ways you can customize your degree, such as adding a minor, option, specialization, double major, co-op, and the list goes on. 

There are pros and cons of focusing your studies or keeping them broad. It’s just a matter of deciding which one is better for you and your future career plans. Let’s look at the differences between the two as well as students’ opinions on why they chose one over the other.

Pros and cons

Specializing

Pros

  • Deep knowledge and expertise
  • Master a unique skill set
  • Discover new ground-breaking research or ideas (Could a start-up or Nobel Prize be in your future?)

Cons

  • May have limited flexibility and a heavier workload
  • Many specialities require more education (e.g., certificates, post-diplomas, Master’s, PhD, second Bachelor’s) which can be expensive
 

Keeping your studies broad

Pros

  • Flexibility to try different subjects 
  • Opportunity to focus your energy on your major/ program 
  • Keep your options open 

    Cons

    • May make it difficult to narrow down what you want to do, what’s next, or what company/industry to work for in the future
     

    Student on blackboard studying chromosomes.
    Things to consider if you specialize

    When you go all in on the subject you’re really interested in, you’ll have a deeper understanding and more specialized hands-on skills in certain areas of your program (or discipline). You’ll have the opportunity to become your friends (and maybe future employers’) go-to person.

    Study what you love in great detail

    My friend, Ryan, a Math and Business Double Degree student (majoring in Finance and Statistics with a minor in Combinatorics and Optimization) enjoys having a more focused education.

    “I really like the opportunity to learn as much as possible and focus my skills. My two majors, one which is more theoretical and one which is more practical, really complement each other and make learning more enjoyable. I find the ability to apply knowledge from one of my majors into the other helps me get a deeper understanding.”

    My two majors, one which is more theoretical and one which is more practical, really complement each other and make learning more enjoyable.

    Fewer free electives

    It may take more time to get all your required courses in. For example, I'm doing a French minor but can't fit all my required courses in if I took the normal course load of five courses per term. Instead, I took a course almost every co-op term so that I could get my minor requirements and graduate when I am scheduled to.


    There's a lot to think about when choosing a program. These articles can help make the process a little easier for you.

     

    Heavier workload and potential course scheduling conflicts

    Sometimes it may take more time to complete your degree if you're trying to add areas of study to your program. Courses you need might be offered at the same time or only certain terms.

    In my case, I’m doing a Materials and Nanoscience major with a French minor. I can’t fit all my required science and French courses into my eight university terms. And I prefer not to take more than five courses a semester. My workaround was to take a course during most of my co-op work terms. I really wanted to finish my degree on time and graduate with my friends (and when I’m scheduled to). All this juggling helped my time management and organizational skills!

    2 girls study in front of window.

    Things to consider if you want to generalize 

    By studying more subjects, you’ll have a wider range of knowledge. And because you’ll experience a wider range of assignments, learning environments, and teaching styles, you may have a more diverse and transferable skill set.    

    Time to focus

    By sticking to just your major (or program), you can focus on your main area of interest without any competing academic distractions. You’ll know to spend the majority of your study/homework time on the courses for your major versus your elective courses. 

    Ability to have a lighter schedule

    Many of my required science courses are demanding and I try and take lighter classes when possible. Having a less rigorous course load can free up time for things like co-op applications, part-time jobs, side projects, and a social life.

    Keep your options open

    If you’re considering professional school, having more electives will help you complete the requirements for whatever you’re planning on studying afterwards. Each professional school has their own set of required courses. Make sure to plan ahead and check out which courses you’ll need to get into whichever post-graduate program you're looking at.   

    For example, my friend Jessica found that keeping it broad helped her reach her goals. She started in Waterloo’s Conditional Admission to Pharmacy program with a Biomedical Science major so that she would fulfil all the requirements to study Pharmacy. After doing a term in pharmacy school, however, she decided it wasn't for her and finished her undergraduate degree in Honours Science.

    "After leaving Pharmacy, Honours Science allowed me to complete my degree on time. It also gave me the flexibility to explore other pathways that I had never considered until after I switched out of Pharmacy." Jessica is now completing her Master’s degree in immunology.  

    It also gave me the flexibility to explore other pathways that I had never considered until after I switched out of Pharmacy.

    Be true to your goals!

    Of course, you can always decide what to add on to your degree later. You don't have to be decided the second you apply or accept your offer! Ultimately, you know what you’re working toward.

    However, if you're ever unsure about what to do, have a chat with your academic advisor (like a guidance counsellor just for your program/major) and they’ll be able help put you on the right path. You may also want to take advantage of free resources at your university’s career resource centre.

    Maybe you’ll specialize, maybe you’ll keep your options open, or maybe you’ll be somewhere in the middle. Good luck with your decision!