Can Designing Your Own College Major Help Your Career?

Majoring in something like “happiness” may not sound like a smart career move — but in some cases, it can be.

A student at Sterling College, where individually-designed majors are the norm, drives draft horses.

The best majors for making a lot of money, according to a 2012 study, are economics, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering. “Happiness” is nowhere near the top 10. But for Lao-Tzu Allan-Blitz, a senior at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, that wasn’t a primary concern. He says, “I really was just trying to figure out how to be happy.”

Gallatin encourages students to design their own majors. And while not every school is as amenable as Gallatin, many across the country do allow students to individually devise a major rather than choosing among existing options. Allan-Blitz — whose full name is Lao-Tzu Seattle Shankara Spinoza Socrates Siddhartha Allan-Blitz and who says “my parents are Hippies” — took music and theater classes for his happiness major. But he also took science classes, as he plans to go to medical school. He hopes med school admissions committees are “intrigued” by his major, but concedes that he can also see his choice going “terribly wrong.”

Lao-Tzu Allan-Blitz.

According to Sahil Mehta, a resident at Harvard Medical School and an advisor at MedSchoolCoach.com, Allan-Blitz shouldn’t worry too much. As long as you’ve taken premed requirements and done well in them, he says, medical schools don’t care much about your major. And an unusual major could even be an asset, as schools might see it as a way to “diversify their class.” The only way a major like happiness could impact someone negatively, Mehta said, was if that person hadn’t gotten good grades in premed classes — “if he hadn’t done well and also had a happiness major, then people might wonder if he could handle medical school.”

For students entering the working world, the picture may be murkier. Trevor Ring, a junior at Vermont’s Sterling College, decided to major in crosscultural food studies because it was a way to combine his interests in global studies, agriculture, and culinary arts. Individually designed majors are popular at Sterling — 15 to 20 students out of each graduating class of 25 choose them, and past majors have included agroforestry, aquatic ecology, and circumpolar studies. Ring says his individually designed major is “a more creative way of going through college” than just picking something already available. But, he says, there could be a downside — prospective employers who “want a strict idea of what you’ve been doing” in college may be unimpressed.

An individually designed major can be an asset if it was developed “with the job search in mind,” says Christine Bolzan of GraduateCareerCoaching.com. But if students are just combining some things that are interesting to them without an eye to marketability, their major can become “a huge drawback” in today’s tough job market. A student who created a major in women’s studies, for instance, but then wanted to enter pharmaceutical sales or finance, would have a hard time. That doesn’t mean there’s no hope, though — she suggests that students with less-marketable individually designed majors seek internships or work experience so they have “relevant transferable skills.”

Allyson Makuch, Sterling ‘14, may be a good example of the right way to tailor a major to a career. Her major is “life science education through sustainable agriculture,” and she says she designed it “with the hope of teaching science in an engaging, affecting way through agricultural examples.” She may not be on track for a finance job, but she’s already heard of an opening at “a social relief center in Mongolia developing an agricultural program for homeless children.” That, she said, is a job she could see herself enjoying for a long time. She says the key to a successful individually-designed major is having “a vision for how it’s important,” because some people will always question your decision — “it’s not an easy road.”

Eric Neville, ‘12, found that out when he tried to design a major in international animation at Stanford. He said that “for the most part students have to be very, very proactive and productive about pulling together their major, and they do it completely on their own — there’s no one there to really actively help them.” Choosing the right classes can be difficult, he added, and “for students who are already struggling through college, […] it’s often a lot to handle.” Neville ended up dropping the individually-designed major in favor of Japanese, but still hopes to go to graduate school in animation.

Sterling students bake pies.

Trevor Ring has one more semester of college, which he hopes to spend studying abroad in India. After that, he’s not sure what he’ll do next — but, he says, “I have this very broad idea of having a restaurant on a farm,” a place that would be affordable but also attract tourists. He says he often has to explain his major to people, but “that’s one of the joys of it — that I get to explain.” He’s proud to say “that I’ve created my own major and it’s not following guidelines that somebody else has made for me,” and he hopes this creativity will stand him in good stead.

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