5 Subjects That Go Together Better Than You Might Think

There are different ways to take two subjects at university. In some cases, universities will offer a course where the modules have been selected to allow the two subjects to complement one another – for instance, a Law and French course where you study the law of your own country, French law, and the French language. In other cases, you’ll take a certain number of modules from each subject (which can be 50/50, or can be a major and a minor subject) but you’ll study with students taking the subjects on their own, and the only connections between the two subjects are the ones that you might choose to make. What these courses are called will vary from university to university, but “Joint Honours” and “Combined Honours” are the typical terms.
These courses have their advantages and disadvantages. First of all, applying for them makes writing a personal statement significantly harder, especially if you’re applying for slightly different combinations of subjects in different universities. You also risk sacrificing depth for breadth, and may have to take care that you take the right modules to qualify for whichever future career you are aiming for. On the other hand, having two subjects rather than just one under your belt can expand your career options and spark great ideas as you see the synergies between the different topics you’re studying.
There are some classic subject combinations for these courses, such as Oxford’s famous Philosophy, Politics and Economics degree, humanities subjects paired with languages, and other obvious combinations such as History and English Literature. But there are some more unusual combinations that you might not even have realised were possible. Here are some ideas for surprising subject combinations, and what makes them work.

1. Economics and Psychology

Our economic decisions are not always as rational as we might think.

Economics is a subject that lends itself naturally to joint honours courses. Beyond the obvious Philosophy, Politics and Economics from Oxford, there are similarly logical pairings with Business (all about the money), Mathematics (all about the numbers), Statistics (all about the future employment in banks) and Social Sciences (all about the graphs and coursework). Economics can be a wide-ranging degree; these joint honours courses help to suggest a particular direction, whether that’s the stock market, entrepreneurship or accountancy. And it probably goes without saying that these degrees offer very promising job prospects.

Psychology is less often taken as joint honours, though there’s no reason it shouldn’t be; there are a variety of ‘soft sciences’ with which it could partner quite easily. And indeed, while the combination of Economics and Psychology initially seems odd, after any degree of reflection it makes perfect sense. They are both subjects that try to take certain aspects of human behaviour and the way we interact with one another – in the form of economic systems and interpersonally, respectively – and address them scientifically.
And the two subjects can be of significant benefit to one another. An often-identified failing in Economics is the assumption that economists sometimes make, that humans will act rationally according to their own economic self-interest. The study of Psychology reminds us of just how wrong this assumption can be. In fact, challenging the belief in our rationality was what won Daniel Kahneman – a psychologist – the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002. You can read about his ideas in the bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow, which demonstrates beautifully how Economics and Psychology can overlap. This is a combination that would leave a wide variety of career paths open to you, and would be particularly suited to careers such as the civil service, marketing, HR or recruitment.
Because these two subjects are taught at most universities, it’s not too hard to find somewhere that you can study them as joint honours. Universities offering this combination include St Andrews and Durham, among others.

2. Mathematics and Music

You could go from this to composition or rehearsal.

Students who are keen and talented musicians face a difficult choice when going to university. Do they go ahead and study Music, in the knowledge that unless they want to go into teaching, the job opportunities in directly relevant fields are few and far between – just a sixth of music graduates were employed as musicians six months after graduation in the UK – or do they choose a more standard academic subject, and pursue music as a hobby, not a degree? While job prospects for music graduates are better than you might think – less than 10% are unemployed six months after graduation – it can still be a tough decision, with many students deciding that their music outlet can be the university orchestra or choir instead of pursuing it as a subject of academic study.
But there is, of course, a third option between studying Music exclusively and not studying it at all, and that’s to study it as a joint honours subject. Music pairs naturally with other arts and humanities subjects such as History or English Literature, but the downside of these is that they don’t help much to make you more employable as a graduate. One of the top advantages of Mathematics is that it does – not only is the graduate employment rate good, the top jobs for Maths graduates are all very well-paid, such as becoming an investment analyst, accountant or finance adviser. If you want to pursue a musical career but are worried about ending up penniless in a garret, having Maths as part of your joint honours degree would give you a very good option to fall back on.
But it isn’t just for practical reasons that Maths goes well with Music. Many musicians have observed that music is a surprisingly mathematical art form, and studying both Maths and Music with the point of view of the other subject in your head can be fascinating. This combination is offered at Edinburgh. An even more unusual course along similar lines is Physics and Music Performance at Imperial, a unique course that is taught jointly with the Royal College of Music.

3. Music and Foreign Languages

Music connects people across language barriers.

Foreign languages are a natural and frequent choice for joint honours degrees. They pair well with just about any subject across the sciences and the humanities, they enhance your CV, they make it vastly easier for you to live and work abroad, and they typically also offer you the opportunity to spend a year of your degree studying overseas as well, which the highlight of many students’ time at university.
Foreign languages at university fall into two categories: those you study based on existing knowledge (for instance, A-level language study, which should leave you with a reasonable degree of fluency if you got a good enough grade) and those you study ab initio, or “from the beginning.” Languages such as French, German and Spanish that are typically taught in secondary schools are usually in the former category; languages such as Russian that are less frequently taught in schools are the ones you’re more likely to see ab initio. Studying a language ab initio means that by the time you reach your year abroad, you might not necessarily be fluent yet, especially if it’s a language that’s very different from any languages you’ve studied previously.
Studying a subject like Music as the other part of your joint honours course can make this easier. It’s one of the subjects that translates most easily between languages, countries and cultures, so that you can still be reasonably confident of learning something in your year abroad even if you’re not quite fluent in the language. The same is true of studying Mathematics with a foreign language. But the additional advantage that Music has is that musicians typically make good linguistics, as there are significant overlaps between the ability to listen analytically to music and the ability to pick up accents and intonation in a foreign language.
As a result, Music and foreign languages are available as a combination at a variety of top universities, including Bristol, King’s College London, and Sheffield, depending on the language you want to study.

4. Classics and Foreign Languages

You could study living languages alongside dead ones.

There are a number of subjects – typically the less popular subjects in the arts and humanities, such as Philosophy, Theatre or Archaeology – that are much misunderstood in terms of the job prospects they offer, especially in comparison with more popular arts and humanities subjects like HIstory and English. Classics is one of these subjects, where if you choose it, you might well hear people doubting whether it’s a subject that can ever get you a job, or teach you relevant skills. But in reality, subjects such as these make you more employable than you might expect, as they still teach you employer-friendly skills such as good writing, research, critical thinking and analysis. In terms of Classics specifically, there are very few careers open to English or History graduates that are closed to Classics graduates.
Classics is in its own right already something of an interdisciplinary degree, as it allows you to study the ancient world from the perspective of language, literature, history, art, archaeology and more. Pairing this subject with a modern foreign language is a better fit than you might realise. An understanding of Latin and Greek can help a great deal with learning modern languages, especially romance languages, and studying a modern foreign language and associated literature can give you additional insight into your studies of the ancient world. In one subject, you study the language and literature of a people who are long gone; in another, the language and literature of a people who are very much still with us and who you might get to visit in your year abroad. That’s a contrast that can prove fascinating. And if you are someone who really wants to study Classics but is concerned about the job prospects, adding a foreign language for your CV can help to make you that crucial bit more employable.
Classics is not as widely taught a subject as it once was, but despite that this joint honours degree is taught in a surprising number of places. There are courses at King’s College London, Edinburgh, Exeter, St Andrews, Leeds and Oxford to name just a few, so not only is this combination of subjects possible, you can take your pick of teaching styles and course content as well.

5. Philosophy and Computer Science

Modern technology lends an urgency to philosophical debate.

Just a few decades ago, there would have been very little overlap between the worlds of Philosophy and Computer Science – at most, perhaps the use of logic trees and similar devices would have been common to both fields. But in the 21st century, that’s changed. Many of the questions that philosophers have been asking for millennia, such as the nature of knowledge and intelligence, the correct moral decision when forced to decide between saving one life at the cost of another, or even the nature of reality itself, have become abruptly more relevant as the world of Computer Science has developed.
Self-driving cars force decisions on whether to protect the driver at a potential cost to pedestrians; artificial intelligence forces us to ask what makes us human; and growing concerns about online privacy force us to consider what rights we should have to privacy in a public world. The answers to these questions are deep in the realm of Philosophy. At the same time, philosophers trying to answer these questions in the abstract, without knowledge of the underpinnings of Computer Science, will struggle to find answers that are relevant to the challenges of the modern world. For this reason, the combination of Philosopher and Computer Science is not only an interesting and quirky degree choice that should do your career prospects no harm at all – it might also be essential for us to navigate the difficulties that technology will pose in the years ahead.
This degree isn’t offered in many places. In the UK, this subject combination is available at Oxford and St Andrews, and there are related possibilities such as Artificial Intelligence and Computer Science at Edinburgh. Overseas, a course that integrates both subjects is offered by Stanford.

Image credits: stack of books; money; formula; music; ruin; artificial intelligence.