Will Shortz, the genius behind The New York Times crossword puzzles, launched his career 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.
And colleges with individualized majors aren't as rare as you might think. The College Board lists a whopping 964 four-year schools that let you design your own degree as of January 2020.
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."
What is a custom college major?
Custom college majors, or individualized majors, are programs that allow students to design their own course of study. As the University of Washington puts it, "A university education is about learning to ask and answer complex questions." An individualized degree program allows you to do just that.
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.
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 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.
Before you go down the DIY degree route:
Not everyone can build a custom degree and expect it to be accepted by a university from the get go. Individuals who decide to get an individualized degree often start their programs with an undeclared major. It can be a good way to do some scouting - to see what may work well and what might not. It can be a good way to get to know your professors before pitching your idea to them.
Another important factor to look into is whether your customized major will be significantly different to the degrees your college has to offer. If it isn't, then maybe one of the degrees they have to offer may suit your needs.
It can also be a good idea to speak to people working in the field that you wish to enter to find out what skills you need and which classes are likely to be the most beneficial.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Set an objective. Define the relationship between your field of study and a particular line of work.
- Complete special projects. Individualized majors generally culminate in a research project or paper.
- Choose an appropriate name for your degree. Your future employers need to know what you have studied. If they are confused, chances are you might not land that job - even if you have taken the right classes.
Many students who opt for individualized degrees often have clear career goals. And this can actually work in their favor. According to a 2017 survey of CEOs by Pricewaterhouse Coopers, 77 percent of the CEOs surveyed were concerned about being able to find people with the right combination of skills for their business. An individualized degree can help you gain the combination of skills necessary for your future career, demonstrate your innovativeness, and your ability to work hard to achieve you goals.
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.
And yes, you may be able to customize an online degree too!
- College Search, Big Future, The College Board, https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/college-search, accessed January 2020
- 20th CEO Survey, PriceWaterhouse Coopers, https://www.pwc.com/gx/en/ceo-survey/2017/deep-dives/ceo-survey-global-talent.pdf, accessed January 2020
- Design Your Own Major, University of Washington, https://indiv.washington.edu/content/design-your-own-major, accessed January 2020
- Kamenetz, Anya. DIY U: Edupunks, edupreneurs, and the coming transformation of higher education. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2010