Designing Your Own Major

Academic Guidance

Designing Your Own Major


In February of 2012, the New York Times published an article about schools around the country that allow students to design their own majors, or courses of study. At that time, I was a sophomore at Duke taking a class called Genome Sciences and Society. This class is one of the 15 core classes in my Program II major in Bioethics. Duke has one of, if not the, oldest make-your-own major programs in the country and when I was applying to college, I knew I wanted to pursue an interdisciplinary course of study. The process of creating a new major varies from one university to another, but at Duke, it involves first finding an advisor who is a professor appointed in an undergraduate department that sponsors another major (for me, that’s philosophy). Then, students plan out a core curriculum of 14-16 classes and write a 5-page essay about why their self-designed major is a legitimate course of study. A committee of 3-5 faculty members and deans review the proposals and either approve them or suggest possible improvements.


Some popular self-designed majors have centered around global health, environmental issues, human rights, childhood education, bioethics, biopsychosocial wellness, and genomics, to name a few. There are a few distinct advantages to designing your own major. The first and most obvious is that you avoid taking classes simply because they are required to complete a degree. A self-designed course of study basically guarantees that you will be engaged by and interested in all of the classes on your schedule. Additionally, there is a special sort of learning that occurs when the material from your classes overlap across disciplines. This adds a depth of understanding that is otherwise difficult to achieve.


Often, students (or more often, their parents) are worried that a self-designed major is not as attractive to future employers or graduate schools as a traditional major would be. My response to this concern is twofold. If a reputable university offers a major, chances are that businesses and schools know that the course of study is legitimate. And more importantly, designing your own major gives you 5-10 minutes in an interview to explain that process, why you chose to do so, and basically talk about the one topic on which you can be considered an expert. This is a huge advantage that allows you to showcase your passion and academic prowess. Now obviously if your interests can be accommodated by established degree programs or combinations of existing programs, most universities will encourage you to study those degrees. After all, there are reasons that established majors have produced successful graduates for so many years. But as the lines between disciplines continue to blur and our generation is called to collaborate and think in nuanced and integrated ways, the interdisciplinary, self-designed major uniquely prepares students to meet these challenges in a variety of fields.