One of my high school friends designed his own major when he was an undergraduate at Tufts University in the 1980s. It was a blend of English, Environmental Studies, and Computer Design. He has since become an educator who teaches children how to build robots, becoming part of a dynamic new field that merges education with cutting-edge technology. His self-designed major is a success story and he continues to be a true innovator.
That was over twenty years ago, when the concept of a self-designed major was not all that common. These days, however, it seems that almost every college and university is changing their concept of a major to include ways for students to design their own unique programs of study. There are multiple reasons for this, including the desire to serve student interests, but perhaps most relevant today is the need some students have to design their own majors in order to carve out a specialized and exciting career in a shaky economy.
What is a Self-Designed Major?
In The New York Times article “Creating Your Own Major, From ‘Keeping It Real’ to ‘Grand Romantic Gestures,’” Education blogger Lily Atlavena points out that in self-designed majors,
Individualized studies programs give students the option of designing their own major. Students usually choose this option because they have several interests they hope to study simultaneously. Most programs even require a self-designed major to be interdisciplinary – combining up to three or four topics.
Instead of following a college catalog’s outline for specific the completion of a specific academic degree program, students who opt to design their own major usually combine two or three fields of study and inquiry, write a proposal and map out a formal plan that is then approved by the college and relevant instructors. This is the program they follow, and when they graduate their degrees reflect their multidisciplinary studies.
The Value of the Self-Designed Major
Many educators believe that interdisciplinary and individualized majors can be useful tools for securing employment. In Anna North’s interview of career coach Christine Bolzan on Buzzfeed.com, Bolzan pointed out that, “An individually designed major can be an asset if it was developed “with the job search in mind.” But if students are just combining some things that are interesting to them without an eye to marketability, their major can become “a huge drawback” in today’s tough job market.” She points out that employers want “relevant transferable skills.”
The key to building a successful self-designed major that will help you build your career, most agree, is practicality and marketability. While it may seem like a genius idea to combine your interests in Gothic literature, fashion design, and anatomy into a unique major, you may have a difficult time landing a job unless you want to become a zombie costume designer. That may be a fun career, but realistically, how many job openings will there be in that area? By contrast, perhaps you are interested in global politics, economics, and public health. You might be just the right person to work for an international health organization.
A good example of a recent graduate who used her self-designed major to propel her career forward and help people at the same time is University of Vermont (UVM) alumna Sasha Fisher. She created a non-profit agency called Spark MicroGrants that works in Africa to help people improve the quality of their education, healthcare, and other fundamental societal needs. As Fisher explained to UVM writer Amanda Kenyon Waite, she found that none of the traditional college majors would help her achieve her goal to “to enable all the humans on Earth, even if they’re in an illegitimate state or a corrupt state, to meet all their basic needs.” To that end, she studied art and human security, a field that combines political science, economics, and other disciplines. [Click here to watch a video of Sasha Fisher discussing her work].
Is a Self-Designed Major Right for You?
Students interested in pursuing a self-designed major need to think carefully about their long-term goals and whether or not this option is right for them. Here are five things to consider:
- Does your college or university provide support and an infrastructure for self-designed majors? Will faculty be able to meet with you individually on a regular basis? Speak with an admissions advisor about this when considering schools.
- Do you have the discipline to follow a self-designed program? Because it is unique, there will be no other expert in your major than you-professors, advisors, and administrators will need to be kept abreast of your work, which you will be responsible for organizing according to your self-designed program.
- Do you have the stamina to work alone? No other student will be on your exact path. The kind of camaraderie and built-in support system that develops among students in the same major will not necessarily be there for you. You will need to rely more on internal self-motivation.
- Are there practical values to your program of study in the form of transferrable skills or a direct path to a possible career? Speak with your school’s career advisers to learn more.
- Do you plan to go to graduate school? If so, you need to determine if your self-designed major will contain the prerequisites you need for a graduate program of study.
A self-designed major can be a creative and dynamic way to pursue higher education. However, this choice should not be taken lightly and will require as much rigor as any traditional major. Following through on important questions such as these can help you make the best decision for you studies and your future.