Innovators Wanted: A Hard Look at the Self-Designed Degree

Choosing a major is one of the most difficult decisions a college student has to make; it will likely affect their college experience, as well as future job prospects and career satisfaction. For some students, though, not being limited to the specific majors offered at their schools makes the choice much clearer. Self-designed degrees are offered at dozens of colleges across the country, allowing students to combine disciplines and explore new ways of looking at topics.

The idea of individualized degree programs began to be implemented in the 1960s and 1970s, and has grown to be a great option for certain students. More than 100 schools offer some kind of self-designed program, including New York University, North Carolina State University, University of Maryland, and University of Connecticut, just to name a few. The program names vary between institutions, but may be anything from Individualized Major Plan to Interdisciplinary Studies to Self-Designed major. Indiana University-Bloomington started an annual conference for universities providing individualized major programs in 2009 with a network of about 50 colleges across the nation that offer these self-designed degrees

Untraditional majors let students explore their true passions and forge careers in areas that don’t interest many people or fit neatly into one program. One of the most famous examples of an untraditional major that a student created is that of Will Shortz, editor of The New York Times crossword puzzle. In 1974, he graduated from Indiana University with the world’s only degree in enigmatology, the study of puzzles.

Online students aren’t left out of these opportunities. Oregon State, University of Minnesota, University of Wisconsin-Superior, Drexel University, and many others offer individualized degrees online.

Calling Independent Learners

Many traditional college students find designing a degree difficult because they like to be told exactly what classes to take and in what order. Self-designed majors are for more independent thinkers, who may actually benefit from being able to complete coursework whenever they choose.

Online courses also allow more adult learners to complete a degree. Instead of trying to imagine how disciplines relate and figure out what they’re passionate about fresh out of high school, adult learners have the benefit of time and work experience. They can then create a degree with a mature perspective on how they can use it and complete it while still working full-time.

Self-designed degrees, whether online or on-campus, aren’t a good fit for everyone. Students choosing to create their own degree path have to think creatively about how disciplines connect and must have a clear idea of what they want their studies to look like.

“Generally, these students need to be self-starters who can take considerable initiative,” says David Smith, Deputy Assistant Dean of Student Academic Affairs at University of Michigan, where they offer an Individual Concentration Program on campus. “They need to be able to see connections between disparate courses and articulate well how they fit together to help accomplish their respective plan of study. They will need to be able to knock on doors of faculty members and willing to engage in conversations about their ideas. Overall, they need to be passionate about asking questions and learning.”

Getting Started

To help discover suitable candidates, most schools require potential students to submit proposals, goals, and other paperwork for their degree. Advisors can then determine if a student’s degree will delve deeply enough into the student’s desired topics and if the student has put enough thought into this degree in the short- and long-term.

Certain careers may not lend themselves to self-designed degrees. Karolyn Redoute, a senior advisor at University of Minnesota’s College of Continuing Education, points out that any field where you need a certification to become employed won’t lend itself well to an individualized degree.

“A student who wanted to be an engineer, for example, could not really pursue this kind of degree, as the student would need to spend all his or her undergraduate study in Engineering to be certified as an engineer,” she explains.

Similarly, those wanting to become Certified Public Accountants need a large number of accounting and business courses before taking the CPA exam, so they would need to focus on those areas during college. Teachers who don’t want to earn alternative certification may also want to rethink an individualized degree. The education-to-career path is laid out clearly for these kinds of fields, so there is little room for creativity.

Potential Pitfalls

Self-designed degree earners might have some explaining to do. Hiring managers don’t necessarily understand the benefits of an individualized degree. Since most of these degrees are one-of-a-kind, employers may not know what they’re looking at, and they sometimes have pre-conceived notions about them.

“One possible career pitfall is that employers often have misconceptions about what a self-designed degree entails,” says Ashleigh Stubblefield, an academic advisor with Oregon State University’s Liberal Studies program. “They often believe students have used previous course work to cobble together a degree or have used a self-designed degree as the easiest or fastest way to graduate.”

She also says, that most self-designed graduates are well-equipped to explain their studies since they have had to write essays on the theme of their degrees. All the prep work for getting a degree plan accepted prepares students to tell future employers exactly what they’ve learned through their education. Smith agrees; the degree can create opportunities to show off in interviews.

“This often can become a good question for the student to address because the student now can take time to explain in more detail how and why they designed their individual program of study,” he says.

A Degree with Unique Advantages

For every potential downside of these individualized degrees, there is a potential benefit. Savvy employers and post-grad admissions boards understand the advantages. Because of the kind of student that gravitates toward these degrees, completing a degree you designed shows passion and innovation.

“From my perspective, the career benefits of an Individual Concentration are the motivation and commitment demonstrated by these students,” Smith says. “In most cases, these students are very dedicated to the subject they are studying and exhibit the drive and motivation that employers are often seeking from prospective applicants.”

This deep interest and study of a subject from unique angles can actually be great preparation for grad school, law school, or med school. In grad school, where research is a core focus, the ability to look at a topic from multiple disciplines is a boon. For those hoping to continue on to law school or medical school, as long as they take appropriate classes to prepare for entrance exams, a self-designed degree can show admissions boards that students have the focus and drive necessary to excel in post-grad studies.

While other degrees may pigeonhole a person into one field or career, self-designed degrees can turn into self-designed careers. Smith, Redoute, and Stubblefield have seen students from their programs go onto a wide variety of careers — with major media organizations, NGOs in Egypt, ambassadors in foreign countries, restaurants, park systems, just to name a few. Many innovative degrees allow students to jump on a growing trend before schools have had a chance to come up with an official program for that field of study, giving them the chance to become leaders and experts before others catch on. Students have graduated with degrees in subjects like Food and Culture, Global Health and Poverty, and Environmental Ethics when you wouldn’t find these combinations of studies in any degree program catalog.

“Often students who do individualized degrees are bellwethers for what is going on in the culture,” Redoute says. “Students here were focusing on ‘green business’ before it became a catch phrase and the trends in understanding local food movements and global health issues, for instance.”

For self-starters and innovators, individualized degrees can be fulfilling and give students a boost above the competition, but keep in mind they aren’t for everyone. They require hard work, the ability to see the big picture, both in coursework and in the career world, and a serious focus, but can be worth the risk. If instead you want to follow a well established career path or have a four-year plan laid out for you, you’d be better off going with a traditional degree.

Posted on 02/12/13 | by Staff Writers | in Degrees | No Comments »

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