Do-it-Yourself Interdisciplinary Majors

by
Editor, Carnegie Communications

A self-designed or interdisciplinary major is a great way for students to take control of their education. But these majors aren’t necessarily crazy combinations of interesting subjects. Many students use this option to pursue a more conventional major that may not be offered at their school, such as American Studies, which generally comprises courses in sociology, history, literature, and art. Sometimes traditional and sometimes totally not, interdisciplinary majors are all about pursuing your passions.

“The people who find us tend to be the most engaged,” says Marta Robertson, Coordinator of Interdisciplinary Studies at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. She says there are two types of students who pursue self-designed majors. The first is very passionate about a topic, but cannot find a department that addresses it in quite the right way. The second student may be struggling academically, unhappy with their current classes. “They often can’t figure out why the pieces aren’t connecting for them,” she says. “We can help them pull the pieces together.”

Self-designed majors hinge on a theme, such as women’s health, international relations, or environmental sustainability. Students then pick classes to support their topic, which is actually easier than it seems “We try to get them to see connections across the curriculum,” Robertson says. When looking through the specific lens of their major, “suddenly, all the courses make sense.” Advisors may suggest (or require) a certain foundation of classes, but students generally have plenty of freedom in their selection.

Interdisciplinary studies can also lead to specific careers. One Gettysburg student chose to combine chemistry and film studies, which allowed him to analyze cinema through science. He also wants to use his chemical expertise to preserve deteriorating film in archives. Another student designed a psychodrama major, applying psychology to theater. She plans to use psychology workshops to help actors both understand and neutralize their natural motivations.

For Bolton Kirchner, a junior at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, creating his own major was the best way to pursue his interest in the environment and sustainability. “While general science is not my strongest subject, I wanted my major to be a study of how humans affect the environment and how the environment affects us,” says Kirchner, who calls his major Environmental Issues. “I hope to have the freedom to look for connections and patterns while learning about a broad subject base of environmental, economic, and social concerns.”

Picking a topic is simply a matter of following your instincts and interests. “Think about what you are passionate in, especially through service, and try to format that into an academic setting,” Kirchner says. “If you are looking into a self-designed major, I would definitely go for it.”

As for the future, he wants to attend law school, specializing in environmental or social justice law, followed by a career lobbying for environmental issues on Capitol Hill. “I think my options would still be broad if I pursued an existing major, but the knowledge I hope to gain from my major will be different and more helpful to my career path.”

The process

Requirements for interdisciplinary majors may vary from school to school, but you are sure to find a similar process and faculty support no matter where you go. One universal requirement, however, is administrative approval. Students need to present their self-designed major proposals, often to a committee, before they can earn credit. This ensures that they have a well-rounded, viable plan: Are the proper courses available? Will this major translate into a career or graduate school?

“Preparing a proposal for a self-designed major is a serious commitment,” says Susan Welsh, Director of Communications at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. “This option is reserved for students who have a strong interest in interdisciplinary studies and who have demonstrated both initiative and academic excellence.”

For example, at Wesleyan, students with self-designed majors must complete 39 semester hours in addition to their general education requirements, and 21 of those hours need to be with 300-level classes or higher. The student must also pursue an internship, honors thesis, or senior project, again in addition to their regular classes. Faculty advisors guide students throughout the process, from picking classes to designing final projects.

Now, before the rules and requirements scare you, keep in mind that students create their own majors all the time! They also have the same opportunities as students with traditional majors, like internships and study abroad, so you do not need to worry about missing out on those experiences. Plus, when you get right down to it, the extra class hours and prerequisites aren’t radically different from the course requirements for a “traditional” major/minor combination at most schools!

“I had such a wide variety of interests coming into college, I felt like I was limiting myself with just choosing one or two,” says Maia Horsager, a 2009 graduate of St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. Her major, Children, Art, and Society, allowed her to study very specific subjects, but through a wide variety of courses.

So, what classes actually fit a major like this? “Masters of Spanish Painting, Islamic Culture and Art, Educational Psychology, Children Imagery and Play, and Choreography and Improvisation,” says Horsager, giving a sample. “I almost wish I had only done this one major, just so I could have fit even more relevant classes into my course load. (She also majored in Spanish.) There are so many that fit so well with my interests.”

Horsager is considering a career in art therapy or perhaps public education so she can encourage arts integration in schools. “I would have been less likely to discover these career options had I not designed my own major and carved my own path,” she says. “It would have taken me longer to realize that this is what I really want to do.”

Faculty advisors agree that self-motivation, determination, and ambition are essential to pursuing a self-designed major. “Sometimes, that ambition is professional. They want to prepare themselves for a field of study after college,” says Mary Titus, Director of the Center for Integrative Studies at St. Olaf. “Sometimes, that motivation is spiritual or ethical. They seek to integrate spiritual questions and approaches or moral/service values into a field of study.”

Of course, it’s understandable if you’re wary of stepping off the beaten path with a self-designed major, especially when it comes to the postgraduate job search. Students may wonder, “I just designed this. Is it going to be too funky to get a job?” Robertson says. But that’s not the reality. Pursuing a unique course of study shows initiative—a buzzword strongly associated with self-designed majors—and initiative is something potential employers and graduate schools value. “For the most part, people are very impressed.

Winning combinations

Below are some real-life course combinations students have used to "create" a major that was otherwise not offered at their school.

  • Architecture = Anthropology, Art History, History, Physics
  • Criminology = Chemistry, Photography, Psychology, Sociology, Statistics
  • International Environmental Justice = Environmental Studies, Philosophy, Political Science
  • Psycholinguistics = Asian Studies, Biology, Hebrew, Human Neuropsychology, German, Greek, Latin
  • Sports Journalism = Creative Writing, English, Ethics, Journalism, Mass Media, Psychology
  • Women’s Studies = Art, Communication, Economics, English, Philosophy, Political Science, Sociology
  • Worship and the Earth = Anthropology, Environmental Studies, Religion

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