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How to Design an Individualized Degree

  • Keep It Simple
  • Concentrate on Relationships
  • Include an Internship
  • Choose a Marketable Minor
  • Build from Existing Plans

Designing your own degree is risky but rewarding. With careful planning, self-designed degrees can unlock a lifetime of opportunity. Skeptics need to look no further than Will Shortz, who pursued an individualized major in enigmatology, the study of puzzles, and has worked for the The New York Times as the crossword puzzle creator for more than 20 years. Before designing a degree, curious students should consider these five tips for success.

1. Keep It Simple

According to Linkedin, employers spend an average of six seconds reading a resume. A customized bachelor's degree in the "psychology, ethnomusicology and philosophical interpretations of the effects of Derrida and Foucault on the development of hip-hip in 1970s-era Brooklyn, New York," takes more than six seconds to understand. Individualized degree names should be as short as possible. Something like "French Philosophy and American Music" or "African American Musical History" would be much easier for employers to read and understand.

2. Concentrate on Relationships

In a traditional degree program, students have several years to build relationships with professors in a single department. Individualized degree program students don't have that luxury. Because students designing their own degree take a smorgasbord of classes from many departments, it can be challenging to connect with professors. Weak relationships mean weak letters of recommendation for graduate school and limited opportunities for undergraduate research. Students should seek out networking opportunities like office hours, seminars and student organizations with faculty sponsors.

Ranking: 30 Best Liberal Arts Colleges in the West, Ranked by Return on Investment (ROI)

3. Include an Internship

The best way to land a job after graduation is working before graduation. This solves the paradox of needing experience to get a job but needing a job to get experience. Internship programs let students learn office norms in a supportive environment, and they're an easy way to signal to future employers that students won't be difficult employees. For students who design their own degrees, it's important to show an ability to follow workplace rules.

4. Choose a Marketable Minor

Self-designed degree programs make it easy to add a minor or two. Wise students will concentrate on traditional, marketable minors like business, organizational leadership or communications. If students plan to pursue an academia-oriented career in research, then minors in statistics or research methodology may be more appropriate. Either way, choosing the right minor can counterbalance the uncertainty of a customized degree plan.

5. Build from Existing Plans

Traditional majors were created for a reason. Professors and college administrators thought about which classes naturally complement each other and future career needs. Some courses, like Chemistry I, Chemistry II, Organic Chemistry I, Organic Chemistry II and Biochemistry, build on each other and create one long course spread out over multiple semesters. That's why customized degree students need to carefully choose their course plans. Modifying a traditional program is easier and more logical than drawing a brand-new roadmap. For example, a student creating the "African American Musical History" degree mentioned above should start with a music history or ethnomusicology degree plan and add sociology, race theory and history courses.

Individualized degree programs are a jigsaw puzzle. Students must sort between their own academic interests, the requirements of their school or university, the demands of professors and the requirements of future employers. If you're willing to put the pieces together, designing your own degree program is a puzzle worth solving.

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