Australia's engineering undergrads have
wised up— almost half of them are pursuing dual degree programs
and getting employers attention.
Marcelle Gannon was in good company three years ago when
she graduated from the University of Melbourne with two bachelor degrees,
one in engineering and one in commerce. Nearly 68 percent of the university's
engineering students (up from 60 percent a year ago) are taking combined
degrees. At Monash University, just across town, the figure tops 40
percent. And at Australian universities nationwide, the number hovers
between 20 and 60 percent. Enthusiasm for combined degrees is strong
in other disciplines as well. There's growing interest, for example,
in pairing in medicine and law.
Gannon, who works as a hardware and software engineer
for Silverbrook Research, a technology development company in Sydney,
initially planned to concentrate solely on engineering. But after talking
to other students, she discovered that many of them were enrolling
in combined-degree programs. "I decided that if my prospective
competitors for jobs were going to be armed with two degrees, I'd
better be equally equipped," she says. She opted for a commerce
degree that included economics and accounting, a decision that allowed
her to pursue an interest in economics. In job interviews, she'd
often been asked about her non-engineering abilities "and I got
the idea that two degrees were a definite plus." What's
more, she notes, "I can read an annual report and do a lot more."
It took five years to complete the two degrees, rather
than the four an Australian engineering degree takes on its own. Students
generally have to add one year for a combined degree, except when they're
pairing engineering and law. Then it's two extra years because
the disciplines have less in common that most other combinations.
The engineering component of combined degree programs
is fully accredited, and no core engineering material is lost, says
David Shallcross, associate dean of the University of Melbourne's
engineering faculty. "We now accept that it's not important
to teach everything we once thought an engineer should know. Some non-vital
material must be sacrificed, both in engineering and the other strands
of combined degrees," he adds. Marcelle Gannon says scheduling
generally worked well for her, "though there was one course that
clashed with another so I couldn't go to lectures, but in the
end I did all right studying on my own."
But is the workload too much for students? "Absolutey
not," says Shallcross. "The university won't permit
us to overload students and we wouldn't attract such large numbers
if we did so." With the extra year, he says, students don't
have to work harder than they would with a single degree.
At many schools, engineering students have a big choice
of second degrees to pick from, including architecture, arts, commerce,
law, and science. Engineering and education combinations are currently
in the works at the University of Melbourne, along with engineering
The advantages of combined degrees are numerous, says
David Wood, recently retired dean of the University of Melbourne's
engineering faculty. Graduates, with second degrees in fields such
as botany, chemistry, or economics will be able to address societal
needs such as environmental protection and sustainability. Those with
second degrees in computer science, physics, genetics, or microbiology
can enter developing fields, including information technology, nanomaterials,
and tissue engineering. Graduates with combined degrees in most disciplines
have learned teamwork, leadership, and communication skills. And who,
asks Wood, is in a better position to develop new products than engineers
with second degrees in biochemistry, microbiology, pharmacology, or
Mike Parkinson, former executive director of the Institution
of Chemical Engineers, still smiles about the student who combined
engineering and arts so that he could study classical Greek. He didn't
want to mix socially with just engineers and had always had a love
of classical Greek. But he saw his career path as being engineering-oriented.
A combined degree was a chance to pursue education for its own sake. "And
that's marvelous," says Parkinson.
Still, the University of Melbourne's Wood cautions, "we
have to make sure that fundamental elements of engineering education
are retained." While he believes the combined degree programs
in Australia have been an unqualified success, there is a downside.
It has become more difficult to get students to pursue Ph.D.s. The
combined degree holders often feel they've spent long enough
on campus and want to join the workforce where they'll be in
demand and earn good salaries.
Combined degrees got their start in Australia when they were offered
in the late 1980s to staunch a decline in engineering enrollments.
They were an immediate hit, says Melbourne's Shallcross, "and
now most of our students are in combined degrees." Declining
enrollments was the key reason that faculty members embraced them so
enthusiastically. Now more students are pursuing engineering, including
some who otherwise would have gone to science or commerce, he says. "They
don't have to make a choice—they can do both. And Australia
ends up with better, more rounded engineers."
In a combined program, students can't earn an engineering degree
simply by completing an extra year after having picked up a diploma
in another field. The two must be integrated in advance because of
the overlap of some courses and the counting of some courses toward
both degrees. "A sound knowledge of mathematics, physics, and
chemistry is important to both degrees," says Shallcross. Combined
degrees, he adds, have forced educators to examine the material they
teach more closely, eliminating what's irrelevant and placing
greater emphasis on what will be most useful in the combined degrees.
Parkinson, who also is an honorary fellow in chemical engineering
at the University of Melbourne and an honorary associate in chemical
engineering at Monash University, keeps a close watch on engineering
education around the country. He emphasizes that students with combined
degrees are highly marketable. The engineering and commerce combination
is in particular demand—not just from engineering companies but
from financial companies and others as well. "The engineering
faculty was worried initially about a brain drain from engineering
to commerce and science. But the ability to do both while investing
only one additional year appeals to bright, eager students. He sees
a growing interest, too, from law firms in combined law and engineering
degrees. "They want lawyers who understand engineering issues
for specific cases," he says.
Parkinson says that combined degrees are a win-win for everyone concerned.
The quality is the same as for two separate degrees. His personal opinion
is that a combination with commerce or law makes more sense than one
with science, "because science and engineering are too similar," he
says. Marcelle Gannon agrees, "Many of my friends were combining
engineering and science—so for them it was more of the same,
where I did something completely different in choosing commerce, and
this combination helped me land a good job."
The local arm of oil giant Exxon, Esso Australia, also puts great
stock in the dual degrees. Esso's Stuart Jeffries says his company
is a major recruiter of Australian engineering graduates, and of those
employed in the past three years, almost half have combined undergraduate
degrees, including economics, arts, law, and science. "We've
found that graduates with combined engineering degrees tend to have
a breadth of skills that are valuable to a diverse business such as
ours—including economic analysis, alternative perspectives in
decision making, and additional vocational skills," he says.
Whatever the reason, whether it's to improve one's chances
of landing a good job—or in the case of one student to expand
his circle of friends—combined degree programs have hit it big
Chris Pritchard is a freelance writer based in
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.