How to Create Your Own College Major
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Editor & Writer
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Ready to Start Your Journey?
- If you can't find a major to match your interests, many colleges let you design your own.
- Student-designed majors go by different names at different schools.
- Make your case, hit deadlines, work with professors, and produce a culminating project.
- Alternatives to self-designed majors include double majors and minors.
The option to design your own major isn't new to U.S. colleges — but self-designed majors are increasingly available, increasingly popular among students, and increasingly relevant in a fast-evolving job market.
Independent majors tend to take an interdisciplinary approach that combines separate fields, like behavioral therapy and dance or political science and marine biology. While a traditional degree builds broad understanding of a subject, a self-designed degree produces expertise in the niche of your choosing.
By promoting creative thinking and adaptability, self-designed degrees can also prepare students for career changes and emerging fields.
According to Rory Senerchia, Ph.D., associate dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at Johnson & Wales University, independent majors hold value — both for tomorrow's job market and for the current generation of college students.
"[Students] know that they need to have strength in multiple areas, and having a degree in just one defined academic discipline isn't enough to be able to conquer what is going to be happening," Senerchia says.
The passion-driven element of independent majors is equally important.
"This generation knows exactly what they want," says Senerchia. "Gen Z is really looking for purposeful work. They are looking to create majors that pursue purposeful work that will make a difference in the world," such as intersecting traditional degree fields with sustainability and justice.
How Do Self-Designed Majors Work?
Self-designed majors go by many names at schools: "Design Your Own Major," "Individualized," "Personalized," "Custom," and "Interdisciplinary Studies," to name a few.
At many colleges, independent majors come with strict deadlines, significant paperwork, greater responsibility, and higher standards for academic performance, such as a minimum GPA. This typically starts with a required introduction course to the major.
This intro course often teaches students about various disciplines and how the program allows them to combine those disciplines. It also guides students through selecting two or three subjects areas to create a degree plan.
The academic plan often includes major courses, ideas for a capstone project or senior thesis, and any required experiential learning. The hands-on aspect of the degree can take the form of undergraduate research, studying abroad, or an internship.
At this point, students submit their proposal to a faculty committee for approval. Approval is not guaranteed, however, and some colleges only allow prospective independent majors one shot at getting their plan passed. If faculty aren't satisfied, you may have to choose a different degree.
When students' plans are given the green light, they officially get paired with professors from their chosen disciplines who will serve as mentors through graduation.
Creating a unique major is a big responsibility. Students take on the curriculum planning that highly trained professors perform. Shouldering this responsibility forces students to forge connections with faculty and take an active interest in what they're learning.
How Do Self-Designed Majors Vary Among Schools?
Individualized majors are typically cross-disciplinary, meaning they combine two or three traditional fields in order to explore a specific topic, answer a specific question, or set students up for a nuanced career.
Colleges that have embraced the self-designed major have created a variety of programs with different parameters, such as for the number and type of disciplines that may be included.
At some institutions, students may only combine majors from within a single department or college. Stanford's individually designed major program, for instance, is only open to students enrolled in the School of Engineering.
At other schools, including Johnson & Wales, the self-designed major allows students to roam across the full breadth of curriculum.
The design-your-own-major program Senerchia helped launch in fall 2020 allows students to choose two or three majors from all Johnson & Wales colleges. This provides students the "opportunity to truly be interdisciplinary," Senerchia says.
At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, pursuing a bachelor's degree with individual concentration asks students to draw from at least three disciplines, with courses chosen from any campus in the Five College Consortium.
Some student-designed programs have even become full-fledged majors, such as the philosophy, politics, and law degree offered by Binghamton University.
3 Alternatives to the Self-Designed Major
It's best to consider all your degree options before deciding to self-design a major. Below are some popular alternatives.
Remember, too, that changing majors is always an option if something captures your interest.
1 Double or Triple Major
Like a self-designed major, a double major allows students to pursue multiple areas of interest. But while independent majors require just one degree's worth of credits, a double major, as the name suggests, could double the number of required courses.
You might also consider pursuing a triple major. However, this path may triple the number of courses you need to take to graduate. As such, you may wind up staying in college longer than the traditional four years.
If you're aiming for a career in certain highly competitive fields, such as STEM, multiple majors may be more impressive.
2 Add One or More Minors
Another option is to major in your favorite subject and supplement that with minors. Minors don't appear on diplomas, but they can be included on your resume.
Most students pursue one major and one minor, in a related or unrelated field.
3 Carefully Choose Electives
If you just want more opportunities to explore, you can make use of elective credits to find fields that spark your interest.
Most colleges allow you to dedicate a certain number of credits to elective classes, which don't count toward your major, minor, or general education requirements.
The Benefits of a Self-Designed Major
Independent majors are unique and valuable because of the way they allow for an integrated, hands-on, focused approach.
Designing your own major is ideal if you can't find a major that matches your specific interests, have specific research you want to do, or can see a creative way to channel your passions into a career.
Self-designed majors can work well for students hoping to go on to medical or law school, in which case prerequisites and test scores are more important than the major. A unique degree can showcase interests and research chops. It's also a good academic track for aspiring entrepreneurs.
With traditional jobs waning and new industries rising, creating your own college major is a great way to establish your special aptitude early on while developing a flexible knowledge base.
As Senerchia points out, accessing an array of disciplines, colleges, and courses can allow students to "appeal to employers in the future … and really strengthen themselves for the marketplace."
With Advice From:
Rory Senerchia, Ph.D.
Rory Senerchia is associate dean and professor within the John Hazen White College of Arts & Sciences at Johnson & Wales University. Her research focus is in the areas of curriculum development, particularly in the areas of interdisciplinary studies and arts and sciences.
Senerchia has also focused her research on generational and educational changes, bridge programs and academic culture shock, and academic acculturation intervention. She has led various academic preparation programs for first-year students and international students, in addition to leading programs for faculty on best practices and continuous improvement.
As a professor of English and humanities, Senerchia has taught English and communication classes, English literature classes, and English for second-language learners. She continues to teach integrative learning courses.