Do-it-yourself degree: Design your own interdisciplinary college major

A group of students attending their college graduation commencement.

A group of students attending their college graduation commencement.

Does the traditional list of majors not inspire you? Were you advised to take a bunch of liberal arts courses and figure it out later? Did you know you can design your own major? If you’re bold, persistent and have a clear idea what you’d like to study, you may be able to discuss your academic goals with administrators to create your own degree. Specialized or interdisciplinary degrees combine academic resources, various courses and sometimes totally new courses.

Why design your own degree?

A growing number of colleges and universities are allowing students to create their own majors. As of 2010, more than 900 four-year schools let students design their own degrees, up 5 percent from 2005. So why not just earn a degree “off the shelf” as most students do? Because:

• Highly motivated and self-directed students can pursue individualized learning.

• A specialized degree can train you in complex, cross-disciplinary career fields.

• Traditional degree plans may be confusing, required courses may be unfocused to your desired field of study, and required courses may not be available for semesters or years.

The interdisciplinary degree combines many fields

The University of Northwestern in Minnesota offers an interdisciplinary degree that combines courses from different academic departments. “This unique major allows you to pursue a bachelor’s degree customized for your specific interests,” explained the school in “Build Your Own Bachelor’s Degree Interdisciplinary Studies Major.” The purpose of the interdisciplinary major is to “provide a quality, comprehensive academic experience with academic aspirations not served by a specific academic major” at the university. Examples of the school’s interdisciplinary degrees are:

  • Ancient History & Languages
  • Writing & Directing Theatre/Film
  • International Leadership & Criminal Justice

The article “Can’t Pick a College Major? Create One,” by Sue Shellenbarger in the Wall Street Journal, November 17, 2010, presents some majors created by students:

  • “Performing arts management” — a combination of music, theater, dance and stage production
  • “Underwater archaeology” — a study of shipwrecks, oceanography, history and archaeology
  • “Climate change forecasting” — a study of environmental analysis, statistics, ecology and geography
  •  “Globalization studies” — involving global food issues, politics and agriculture

Requirements when designing your own major

This will vary by school, but here are the basic requirements:

1. Decide no later than your sophomore year.

2. Speak with your advisor, department head and/or dean. The University of Washington’s Design Your Own Major program requires students to prepare a learning plan: “What do you want to learn, and why? Why can’t you learn this in an existing UW program? …Translate your broad interests into specific learning goals…including a brief discussion of how each proposed class connects to your learning goals.”

3. Create new courses. Sometimes specific courses will need to be created, with a reading list, workshop, internship, paper or other required major project. Submit your plan to the advisory committee for approval.

4. Determine the number of credits needed to graduate. This will likely be the same number for regular majors, with a list of electives and upper-level courses.

5. Maintain a minimum GPA of 3.5 as determined by your advisors.

Hindrances to designing your own major

• It takes a lot of effort to sell your idea to advisors and administrators.

• Special course design and extra time with advisors may be too costly for colleges.

• Some colleges forbid individualized majors claiming they know best what students should learn.

• Specialized courses and degrees may not be transferable to other schools.

• Doctoral students in science and medicine should take a more traditional path.

• Parents and employers may not understand exactly what skills the student has after graduating.

Puzzle master Will Shortz designed his own degree

A famous example of someone who designed his own degree is National Public Radio (NPR) puzzle master Will Shortz. As a teenager, he loved puzzles, so when it came time for college at Indiana University in 1970, he successfully created his own degree in Enigmatology, the study of puzzles. Today he runs NPR’s Weekend Edition Puzzle, is crossword editor of The New York Times, is founder and director of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, has published numerous puzzle and crossword books, and was an editor of Games magazine.

If you could design your own major, what would it be?

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