Will an individual major be taken seriously?
October 16, 2006 3:09 PM   Subscribe

I am an undergraduate student considering entering my school's Individualzied Major Program. Is this a good idea, especially w/regards to post-graduate work?

I know I eventually want to work in international public health-- hopefully with an organization that focuses on the health problems of the poor and approaches those problems from a multidisciplinary perspective, and hopefully living or spending a lot of time abroad. I will probably do some graduate studies first, maybe a masters in public health.

I've looked around at my large state university, and have checked out a number of majors that relate to this goal (public health, non-profit management, applied health sciences), and I really don't like any of the programs. They're not very rigorous, the professors aren't terribly impressive, they focus predominately on the US, they aren't particularly interested in the social landscape of disease, and they seem to be preparing me for a career in the administration of a large hospital. And they're boring, too.

What I've been thinking about doing is creating an individualized major, which I can do at my school. With the help of a faculty member I put together a proposal talking about what I want to study and why, and develop a curriculumn. Before graduating I do some sort of special project. All of this gets approved by a faculty commitee. It sounds like a good chance to move things in my own direction, take the classes I think are important, learn what I really want to learn. I'll probably also pick up a minor in history and one in social science and medicine.

My main concern with the idea is that I don't know how potential employers/grad schools will look at an 'individualized major.' This plan doesn't give me a firm disciplinary background-- in fact, it's kind of intentionally structured not to. It doesn't require me to live up to a set of fixed university standards. Is this going to look like a flimsy degree? Is it going to make me look flaky? Or, will it do what I would like it to do: highlight that I am a curious, self-motivated, passionate student?

I'd particularly like to hear from people who have done this kind of thing. How did it work out, and what kind of responses did you get?
posted by bookish to Education (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Take a look at the courses in Development Studies in the Cornell University Agriculture School. They might have some ideas for you.

I suspect most places you go after this will care about what specific courses you took. And, what courses you take and how seriously you take them will determine how prepared you are for the next step.

Take language courses for whatever area of the world you're interested in. Take quantitative courses. Take courses that will be comparable from school to school, so your good marks mean something. Take courses that will give you the basic building-block skills for the next tep (especially quantitative courses! They will be needed whatever you do next. Hard science courses if you're leaning in a doctor/epidemologist direction). Don't take this chance to take exclusively "soft" conceptual classes -- take some, especially history of the areas you want to work in, but not exclusively. The big risk of the independent degree is that a student might just take the courses that seem most interesting at the time, not the ones that are boring at the time, but are necessary foundations for more interesting advanced work.

And definitely take advantage of opportunities to travel, study abroad, do fieldwork classes, etc while you are in school.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:24 PM on October 16, 2006

Two other thoughts.
Get a good faculty mentor if you can. If you can find someone good, and make a point of meeting with him or her regularly (at least once a semester), they'll be able to write you a truly outstanding recommendation letter to whatever your next step is. And the regular contact will keep you from drifting out of focus (another danger with an independent program).

Think about what kinds of program you will want to apply to -- both academic and nonprofits. Get in touch with a couple of them and ask them what kind of preparation is most important. What skills do they want recent grads to have? What skills are most important 5 years down the road, in higher positions? Etc.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:29 PM on October 16, 2006

There are few employers who care very much about a student's major, rather than the qualifications, when the student has a BA (except maybe in social science situations). I've known students with many different kinds of degrees working in non-profits. BS degrees in science and engineering tend to lead to jobs that actually require these specific degrees.

Grad schools may be a bit more picky, depending on the insularity of the department.

One thing to keep in mind -- and I say this with all possible respect -- is that since you aren't an expert in the field yet, in all likelhood, what you really want to learn and think is important may not accurately reflect what you need in your chosen field. An individualized major is a great oppportunity, and may be for you, but make sure you've got good guidance from someone living/working/teaching in the field rather than just basing it on what you think you will need.
posted by ontic at 3:41 PM on October 16, 2006

Sure, some individualized-major majors are slackers who wanted to cherry-pick for the most fun/least work classes. But a well-designed, challenging study program with good faculty support will speak for itself on your grad school applications.

Just make sure that you're not dodging a valuable subject area just because you don't think you like it/have aptitude in it. For instance, statistics and survey design, which may well be boring classes but teach invaluable skills for translating strategy into logistics. (For example, you will likely have to write grants, quantify your rationale, demonstrate need, demonstrate progress, etc.)
posted by desuetude at 3:49 PM on October 16, 2006

is that since you aren't an expert in the field yet, in all likelhood, what you really want to learn and think is important may not accurately reflect what you need in your chosen field. An individualized major is a great oppportunity, and may be for you, but make sure you've got good guidance from someone living/working/teaching in the field rather than just basing it on what you think you will need.

On preview, the above, also. Ask those established in the field what they wished they'd taken in college.
posted by desuetude at 3:51 PM on October 16, 2006

...and when they say "Accounting" and "Law", pay attention :-)
posted by ontic at 3:55 PM on October 16, 2006

First, I came out of a university with a well-known individualized study program (Gallatin at NYU). I came out of a standard department, but I had many friends in Gallatin, and they were indeed some of the most motivated people at the university. I'm sure from a faculty POV that that is recognized.

Second, I'm now a PhD student at a top-5 university in my field of study. We have many PhD students in our department that have not followed traditional routes. In fact, we've had a theater major and a graphic arts major both come through the MA program; the former is now PhD track at another top-5 university. We've had people with other social science BAs accepted straight into our PhD program. So it's not "what was your major" but "what is your research plan and background?"

Finally, I would suggest that you check your anthropology department for medical anthropologists. I would do it for you, but you don't have any location information from which to infer which university you attend. It is very tied to global health issues, very often particularly to those of the poor, and it will give you perspective that any other of those "hospital admin schools" could never give you.
posted by The Michael The at 4:00 PM on October 16, 2006

I think this is a great idea, perhaps partially because I did this very thing at Cornell. It worked well for me - I got to talk to interesting professors more than I would have otherwise, and was slotted into undergraduate research quite early. I'm now doing just fine in a top-um-1 grad program, so it's clearly not a big problem.

Come to think of it, I don't think anyone has ever asked me what my major was; partially this is because no-one cares, but also because people are most interested in whether you have an interesting story to tell and whether you can think for yourself. An interdisciplinary program will force you to do the latter, which will lead naturally to the former.

So, yeah, do it. No reason not to, lots of reasons in its favor. The only other thing to say is to take LobsterMitten's advice seriously: do your absolute damnest to get a good mentor. Nay, get several, and get all you can out of them.
posted by metaculpa at 4:24 PM on October 16, 2006

(Email me if I can help at all, or for further advice of any kind; perhaps including specific advisors if my intuition is correct.)
posted by metaculpa at 4:26 PM on October 16, 2006

Here's a link to the Cornell Development Studies programs. They may give you some curricular ideas (you can find courses offered under the umbrella of these programs, and see what they think is important to study), and might provide useful contacts if you find a faculty member there who seems to work in an area you find interesting. Email him or her and ask if your course plan sounds like it's covering the right bases.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:46 PM on October 16, 2006

Sure, some individualized-major majors are slackers who wanted to cherry-pick for the most fun/least work classes.

Which is exactly what the admissions committee at the graduate program of your choice may think. If you are at a prestigious institution like Cornell that may not matter. But if you are coming from a less well-known school, it could well count against you. Contact some of the grad programs you are interested in and see what a professor there thinks about your plan. Also, if you go the individualized major route make sure that you have something else to distinguish yourself by the time you apply to grad schools, like work experience in the field, or a published article or conference presentation.
posted by LarryC at 6:37 PM on October 16, 2006

If you know you are certainly going to graduate school, this will probably work out. People in the academy will be much more open to looking at the details. If you want to reserve the chance to work in the private industry and you are concerned about an unusual degree you might try one of these approaches:

1. Pick the major that is closest/most desirable/most marketable and go after it. Use your electives to get the classes you want and see if you can petition the school to allow you to bend the rules on other required classes for the major to shoe-horn in the classes you want.

2. Double major. This is what I did. I had two loves and I did both, even though by school "did not allow it" (did not offically give out a BA and BS).
posted by Tallguy at 7:01 PM on October 16, 2006

I was an independent studies major at Warren College at UC San Diego. I was the only one in my year (and the years surrounding it, from what I can tell, since there was no apparent institutional memory about how to do it). My proposal was highly interdisciplinary, causing me to take classes in a ton of departments. I was also _very_ heavily involved in research (Ubiquitous Computing). I had a serious leg up on everybody else my first year in grad school. In some ways, I feel like I still have one, due to the breadth (and depth, in a few places) of knowledge I acquired in the process of doing the major. That said, it does require a lot of assertive/aggressiveness.

Also, make sure you don't pick a douchebag for a faculty advisor. I did and had to switch, which was kind of a pain.
posted by rbs at 7:31 PM on October 16, 2006

Also, it won't hurt you at all with grad school. They were all up on my jock when they saw what I had done.
posted by rbs at 7:31 PM on October 16, 2006

I second LarryC's comment and disagree with Ontic for two reasons.

A college degree is no longer a fool-proof get-any-job-you-want or get-an-advanced-degree pass. In every job application and every interview I've completed in the two years since my graduation, it has made every bit of difference. Most applications and resumes only have room for a limited amount of information about what you did in college. Unless that includes an internship, it is mostly just your major and relevant skills.

Like you, I was challenge-oriented and highly motivated to do well at my large state university. Like you, I was drawn to several programs with a convergent goal. I ended up with two majors and a minor, which has just begun to pay off.

Here's what I'm thinking about for you: many schools have majors in International Studies--it is very interdisciplinary (anthropology, sociology, foreign language/culture, linguistics).
Couple that up with a Nursing degree (I'm guessing your school has a research hospital?)-- a Verry rigorous and Desperately needed position-- and you've got yourself a future.

If your school has neither of those, would you be willing/able to transfer to another school? Even if it costs $20,000 more and you have to get more student loans, it would be better than spending $25,000 on a degree that you can't get hired with. Take it from personal experience.

And do a stint with the Peace Corps. With all those qualifications and obvious love of humanitarian work, there is no doubt you would be their dream candidate.

Good luck with your future plans.
posted by mynameismandab at 8:56 PM on October 16, 2006

i also know alot of friends that went to gallatin at nyu and they have mixed success 5 years later. then again, so do my friends who had traditional majors. there is certainly something being said to going through a major...although you think you know what you want to do and you can certainly enlist faculty guidance, there is an advantage to knowing the entire canon or an organized discipline. that being said, if your goals are to continue health education then there's probably no harm in specializing in what interests you now because the later courses with be very regimented. i know that at gallatin they have a course that explains to you how to market your individualized study major.
posted by BigBrownBear at 10:12 PM on October 16, 2006

I went to Warren Wilson College (North Carolina) and did their version, Integrative Studies, in which I melded philosophy, psychology, theology, and environmental studies.

I went on to start a masters program in Accounting at one large state university and then moved, before finishing, and started another master's program in Finance in a totally different huge state university - both in the USA. I had no problem crossing disciplines and getting into the masters programs, other than having to do some prerequisite courses.

While doing my undergrad I had a few professors warn me of the Integrative Studies major (where I designed my entire curriculum and determined all my own required courses for my major "Invinronment" [not a typo]) and how it would look bad if I went on to apply for Master's programs. They were blowing smoke.
posted by iurodivii at 1:47 PM on October 17, 2006

Thank you all for the wonderful advice. I'm always touched by how helpful and thoughtful people are when I post askmefi questions. I will have to take into consideration all of the reasons to do it and the reasons not to do it mentioned here before I make my final decision. I think I'm leaning towards the individual major, but I'm still not certain. If I do go for it, the advice here (about quantitative courses, good sponsor, making sure I get some guidance from someone who knows the field better than I do, etc) will really come in handy.
posted by bookish at 3:37 PM on October 21, 2006

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