A “Build Your Own” Major?

The September 5 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education featured a story, “Newly Customized Majors Suit Students With Passions All Their Own,” which examines a growing trend in undergraduate education: “Build Your Own” Majors.

You’re Majoring in What?

Few students are aware that such an option exists here at Texas A&M University! In fact, the first two University Studies – Honors majors just graduated in May, 2010.

University Studies - Honors Graduates Kat Drinkwater and Libby Joachim
University Studies - Honors Graduates Kat Drinkwater and Libby Joachim

The University Studies – Honors major allows students to identify an “area of concentration” comprised of 21 to 24 credit hours of course work focused on a particular topic. To supplement, students must also select two pre-designed minors, one of which must be housed in a different college than their main area of interest.

For example, recent University Studies – Honors graduate Libby Joachim ’10 identified her area of interest as “Neuropharmacology,” which included course work in microbiology, nanotechnology, neuroscience, pharmacy, and biomedical engineering.  Libby will pursue an MD/PhD at the University of Illinois.

Fellow University Studies – Honors graduate Kat Drinkwater ’10 designed a curriculum that took a holistic approach to the topics of communication and interaction by combining courses from neuroscience and psychology, with minors in linguistics and Spanish.  She will continue on to nursing school.

To some students, the inherent value of the University Studies – Honors major is obvious. As the Chronicle article relates…

Self-designed majors generally allow students to choose which courses count toward their majors. “This is the kind of major that could have kept a Bill Gates or Steve Jobs in college,” Dave B. Jones, dean of Drexel’s Pennoni Honors College says.

Another administrator notes…

“I think students do best when they are studying what they really care about,” Raymond W. Hedin, Professor of English at Indiana University says. “I had a number of students who told me they would have left college if they had not had an individualized major.”

But What Do I Do With That?

A common response to the idea of a “build your own” major is that it will hinder students who apply for graduate school, professional school, or the workplace. In fact, the opposite is true. As the Chronicle article notes,

Trudy G. Steinfeld, who runs New York University’s Wasserman Center for Career Development, says undergraduates in NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study generally fare better in the job market than do classmates with traditional majors. An individualized course of study allows students to market themselves as “entrepreneurs and self-starters,” she says.

In fact, students with aspirations of top-flight graduate programs, medical schools, or law schools might actually fare much better with their custom-built degree plan. In addition, students with an individualized major are often more competitive for prestigious fellowships:

Last year four of NYU’s 11 Fulbright scholarship winners were Gallatin students or alumni, Ms. Steinfeld notes, even though students at the school make up only about 6 percent of the university’s full-time undergraduates. Other institutions cite similar statistics. For example, although less than 2 percent of Duke University’s students have individualized majors, five of them have been among the 13 Rhodes scholars there in the last 15 years, says Norman C. Keul, associate dean of Duke’s Trinity College.

So when people ask you “What are you going to do with that?”, you can say, “Whatever I want.”

For further information on the University Studies – Honors major, contact the Honors Programs office at 845 – 1957 or honors@tamu.edu.

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