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DIY degrees: How to create your own college major

Will Shortz, the genius behind The New York Times crossword puzzles, launched his career in 1974 with a degree in enigmatology, the study of puzzles.

Never heard of the major? That's because Shortz designed it himself as part of Indiana University's Individualized Majors Program. More and more colleges and universities are encouraging students to follow their intellectual curiosity and design a major that feeds it. The Wall Street Journal reported that an estimated 900 universities offered an individualized major option in 2010, according to data from the College Board. That's up 5.1 percent since 2005.

What is a custom college major?

Custom majors usually approach a theme from several different directions, drawing together humanities, social science and science disciplines. Real-life examples are as diverse as the students who devise these individualized programs: students have designed majors that study sound, religious art, digital innovation management, happiness, love, globalization and marine archaeology, to name a few.

There's a trend afoot here: DIY college degrees. In the book DIY U, Anya Kamenetz observes: "The future lies in personal learning networks and paths… Increasingly, you will decide what, when, where, and with whom you want to learn, and you will learn by doing."

Is a custom major the right choice for you?

Custom majors are rigorous programs for self-directed students. The University of Washington notes on its website that individualized studies are not meant to be a light and easy route to a degree. Instead, this option is "for the intellectually curious, reflective and highly self-directed students who embrace learning for its own sake."

Who can benefit from individualized study:
  • Self-motivated students targeting a particular professional niche or intellectual vocation
  • Mid-career professionals returning to school to fill a specific skills gap
  • Students interested in emerging fields, such as sustainability or nanotechnology, who use individualized learning to anticipate job shifts before the academy has time to develop a formal program

Many online master's and MBA programs, which cater to working professionals, allow students to tailor thesis and capstone projects to real-world business problems. Some go a step further, encouraging students to tailor the course curriculum and major field to an applied specialty.

Who should not pursue a custom major:
  • Students aiming for a graduate degree in a traditional discipline like chemistry or classics may be better served by sticking to the defined undergraduate curriculum. Most graduate programs in the hard sciences and traditional fields require certain courses as a prerequisite.
  • Students with diffuse interests and career goals. The custom major is not a way to turn a random set of courses into a major at the last minute.

Creating a new discipline takes personal discipline. To create a program that has traction in the real world, you must create a rigorous and useful curriculum -- a novel program of study.

How to design your own major

You can take charge of your education and build a major that reflects your interests and career objectives. Each college should have specific policies related to individualized majors, but in general, expect to follow these steps:

  1. Define your field of study. Generally, custom majors identify a common theme and combine courses from three or more disciplines to shed light on this special topic.
  2. Find a mentor -- or two or three. Persuade a professor to champion your degree path and mentor you along the way. For best results, identify an advisor in each department that your field touches.
  3. Set an objective. Define the relationship between your field of study and a particular line of work.
  4. Complete special projects. Individualized majors generally culminate in a research project or paper.

For the right student, a custom major can make academic learning come alive. Take the initiative to create a meaningful degree program for you, and follow your intellectual passion to graduation and a job in your targeted field.