Taking courses by the reins: An in-depth look at self-designed majors


Ever thought of designing your own major? At the College of William and Mary, if you can dream it and find an advisor for it, you can do it (assuming you get approved, that is). The self-designed or interdisciplinary major gives students the opportunity to direct their path of study, accommodating unique interests that do not fit under the currently offered programs.

Savannah Orsak ’22, a design and merchandising major at the College, takes a wide variety of art, art history, physics, applied science, chemistry and business classes for a deep understanding of applied design. For Orsak, who hopes to work in the fashion or textiles industry post-graduation, a self-designed major made the most sense for career planning.

“I decided to self-design because I came to a point in my academic career where I needed to declare a major ASAP, but I was having a hard time narrowing down what would be most beneficial for me to study based on my specific career goals,” Orsak wrote in an email. “I was interested in pursuing art or design, but I also really enjoyed the classes I was taking at the business school. Luckily, I was taking a 3D Design class with Professor Mead at the time, and she approached me about my career goals and how design might work into them. She put the prospect of self-designing on my radar and connected me with alumni who work in similar areas and roles that I want to work in.”

After networking calls, meetings with her future major advisor and consultations with the Charles Center, Orsak settled on the self-designed major, realizing it would open more opportunities for her than a traditional major could.

“Definitely consider self-designing if you have a clear idea about what your career or academic goals are,” Orsak wrote. “It’s a great way to create some tangible work toward your interests and goals.”

Orsak also recommends that students considering a self-designed major set up a meeting with The Charles Center to discuss post-graduation plans.

Lauren Miller ’22, a self-designed race, rhetoric and justice major, seeks to explore the intersections of race and law in America through a combination of government, history, philosophy, sociology and Africana Studies classes. Before making the decision to self-design, Miller explored several departments. As a freshman, she planned to double major in history and international relations, but after discovering she did not like economics classes, she began to pursue a double major in history and government before deciding to self-design.

“I finally realized during my GOVT research methods class that I think like a historian, not a political scientist, which was why I found the majority of my government classes counterintuitive,” Miller wrote in an email. “So I went to Professor Jackson Sasser, whose Civil Rights and Civil Liberties class I loved and was currently in, and explained my situation. He was the one who suggested I design my own major, and since then there was no going back.”

As for advice to those thinking about self-designing, Miller recommends going for it.

“The application process can be a little daunting, but if you are passionate about what you want to study and find some good people willing to mentor you along the way, it’s an incredibly rewarding experience,” Miller wrote in an email.

Jonathan Newby ’22, a self-designed digital studies major, seeks to explore the political, social and cultural effects of technology and media. This field of study incorporates the social sciences, data science and the humanities, leading Newby to take a wide variety of courses, from professor Paul Vierthaler’s Hacking Chinese Studies to professor Elizabeth Losh’s Gender, Sexuality, and Gaming, to courses on superheroes, esports, fake news and more. Newby completed an independent study last spring about independent games, also known as “indies,” arguing that independent games build communities by providing avenues for marginalized groups to share stories and experiences.

Newby suggests that students thinking about self-designing a major should consider how often courses are taught — some courses are taught annually, some every few years and some only once, so students should take advantage of a course of interest that could potentially count toward a self-designed major. Newby also recommends that students look at how other departments structure their majors, as that can prove helpful when crafting a course list.

Newby sees the self-designed major as an expression of the College’s legacy.

“William & Mary is a liberal arts research university two sometimes very different types of schools together in one,” Newby wrote in an email. “Embrace that energy as you go to craft your own major your interdisciplinary curiosities have a welcome home here. W&M’s legacy is in the ampersand both/and.”

The rules governing the self-designed major are relatively straightforward — the proposed major must be between 30 and 48 credit hours, include classes from at least three departments (no more than half of which may be from a single department) and must fulfill the writing requirement, often completed through an independent study or an honors thesis. As for the fine print, no more than six credits can come from independent study and no more than two introductory-level courses are typically accepted. For those double-majoring or minoring, up to two courses can overlap. Students can apply for a self-designed major any time after reaching the required 39-credit threshold, as long as the application is submitted for approval prior to pre-registration for the first semester of their senior year.

For students interested in pursuing a self-designed major, the first step is finding an advisor knowledgeable in the applicable field of study who can help craft a potential course list, an important part of the application process. The proposed course list includes all of the courses which will make up the major, notes the course that will fulfill the writing requirement and indicates what semester the student either intends to complete or completed the course in question. 

Open Course List is helpful for determining potential classes for the upcoming semesters, while Banner and previous years’ course catalogs show classes offered in the near past which may be taught again. For classes offered on a rotational basis, it can be difficult to determine when, or in some cases, if, they will be offered again. In such cases, reaching out to the professor and department chairs can help. Once a self-designed major is accepted, it is possible to amend the course list, by adding or substituting a class, for example, but doing so requires a Petition for Change in Program that must be approved. 

The other unique component of the self-designed major application is the single-page proposal providing a description of the major and why it should be approved. This rationale often explains how the proposed major differs from other paths of study already offered by the College, as well as information on particular courses and how they relate to the major. Students must also submit an unofficial transcript as well as the standard Declaration/Change of Major Form as part of the application. Once the application is submitted, the Vice-Dean for Arts & Humanities & Interdisciplinary Studies must approve the major. As for the timeline, expect up to 30 days following submission before approval. 

Students looking to forge their own creative path need look no further than the self-designed major — the options are infinite.


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