Liberal Arts DIY: Build your own major

Maren Schiffer

Credit: Carrie Sloane

This article was co-authored by Hanna Kahl and Kelsey Kennedy.

Whitman cannot always accommodate every student’s particular academic interests; some students are very passionate about a field of study that Whitman does not offer as a major. A fraction of these students decide to pursue their passion by creating their own major. The process, however, often proves arduous.

According to the Office of Institutional Research, the Independently Planned Major (IPM) has only been undertaken by a small minority of students in recent years. Last year, only one student graduated with an IPM, and there are currently six students on campus with approved IPMs: three juniors and three seniors.

Registrar Ron Urban points to Whitman’s inclusion of interdisciplinary majors such as Asian studies and race and ethnic studies as part of the reason why the number of IPMs are lower than they were in the early 2000s, when it was common for 10-15 students to graduate with this type of degree.

“Often a discipline will start off as an IPM and then become adapted by the faculty into a standard major,” he said.

Back-breaking Labor

The lengthy approval process for the IPM involves jumping through several administrative hoops. First, the student must secure an Individually Planned Major Committee, consisting of three faculty members (two of whom must be tenure-track), to be a constant presence in the process — from initial construction to senior comprehensive exams. According to Urban, maintaining faculty members on this committee can be a challenge due to sabbaticals and leaves of absences taken by the chosen professors.

Hayley Sampson, a senior pursuing a degree in cognitive neuroscience — an IPM that integrates biology, psychology and philosophy — attests to the rigor of this process.

“It was a very complicated process; [it] could be a lot more streamlined. For a while, I was taking two sets of classes, just in case I didn’t get approved. I had a really difficult time integrating the different fields into one all-encompassing thesis that my advisers approved of,” she said.

Gary Wang, a senior pursuing an IPM in political philosophy, faced similar challenges.

“One of my thesis advisers made me submit nine proposals,” he said.

Urban said that this phenomenon is common for students pursuing IPMs.

“Most students have to revise and re-submit. An IPM proposal is not likely to pass the first time. It can take two or three revisions and the process as a whole can take a whole semester,” said Urban.

The counsel from many of his professors made the process easier for Wang, but other faculty members were less  supportive.

“Some faculty members were pretty skeptical about this major. They weren’t sure there was a need because the politics department is already pretty theoretically-oriented,” Wang said.

Juli Dunn, director of the Academic Resource Center, emphasizes the importance of faculty support when she advises students in the early stages of the application process.

“It requires careful planning and a solid committee of faculty. The question I always ask students when they are starting down this road is: ‘What will your IPM provide you in terms of content and experiences that some combination of existing programs cannot?’ For instance, if someone is interested in a neuropsychology IPM how would this advantage them or be different than a biology and psychology [double major] or a major in one with a minor in the other, beyond Whitman?”

Sampson felt like she could have used a lot more support in planning her major.

“This project stressed both me and my professors out … No one had the foresight to expect such high demands of creating a major. What a project like mine needed was someone to help me integrate these fields,” Sampson said.

Despite the length of the process, Urban notes that few students give up on their goal of completing an IPM.

“Students are steadfast, and if they’re going through the process of doing an IPM it’s their intellectual passion. We see a very low attrition rate. When people submit they generally go through with it.”

But the difficult process can take a heavy toll.

“I bit off way more than I can chew. My self-esteem suffered. My grades suffered. It was intellectually and emotionally challenging and extreme. I suffered financially because I was spending time working on this major instead of applying for jobs like other seniors,” Sampson said.

Scheduling issues can also create difficulties. While biology requirements are organized so that students can take multiple major classes at once, students with specialized majors are not taken into account in this way.

“Although creating your own major may seem more broad and flexible, it is very constricting. It’s difficult to change classes because you have to petition the Board of Review for permission. Also, when you graduate your transcript will say ‘independently-planned major’ first and then your major’s actual name,” Sampson said.

Ambitious Blueprints

Bob Withycombe, professor of rhetoric and film studies and 2009 Washington state Professor of the Year, who has worked with several students who successfully created their own majors, summarized why students choose to do so.

“I suspect students who want to create their own majors come in three categories. One, they have an estimation of what their professional future looks like, and they want a major specific enough to prepare them for it. Two, they have a realization that there are noticeable gaps in curriculum, and they want a more interdisciplinary major. And three, they would just like to avoid a requirement or two. The middle one seems to me the most preferable motive — it allows students to engage in more serious, focused work,” said Withycombe.

Sampson’s motivation for pursuing her IPM is a combination of the first two categories.

“I want to be a neurologist. I wanted to approach the study of thought from a liberal perspective,” she said.

Sampson transferred to Whitman as a sophomore from Mount Holyoke College where she was a neuroscience major. But at Whitman she did not have that option.

“I just couldn’t give up my love for neuroscience so I began exploring the individually planned major option,” Sampson said.

Wang likewise wanted to undertake a more focused and specific field of study.

“I wanted to look at political theory from a philosophy perspective because you need to understand the intellectual tradition behind politics. I was academically interested in political philosophy and wanted to work with the best professors,” he said.

A Solid Foundation

Withycombe said that IPMs may affect a student’s admission to a graduate program in a variety of ways.

“I think graduate schools can view it as either positive or negative. When writing recommendations, I have found ways to argue that an individually designed major shows student dedication to a specific study. But on the other hand, I could see schools being suspicious of students doing so to avoid requirements,” he said.

Irvin Hashimoto, associate professor of English, suggests that graduate schools consider personal achievement within a major more than the major itself.

“Every year students graduate in majors like philosophy and then apply to graduate programs like creative writing. The name of a degree does not necessarily determine everything, or set things in stone,” he said.

Urban noted that a degree in a specialized, self-directed discipline can further afford students a leg up in the hiring process.

“I think it can be an asset rather than a detriment. How you stand out in a stack of applications is important. If you have a unique specialization, like neurological genetics or social psychology, that will capture the attention of an employer,” Urban said.

Sampson feels that ultimately, the IPM process made her stronger.

“I passed and did really well on my orals. I realized afterward that creating a major was the hardest and most empowering thing I’ve done. When I did this, I proved to myself that I could do anything,” Sampson said.

While Sampson gained much from the experience, she’s hesitant to advise others to follow in her path.

“I would only advise them to do this if they did it in a completely different way than I did. Make sure to know advisers well, only integrate two fields, do not consider an individually planned major unless you have a lot of time left at Whitman to complete it,” she said.

Creating an IPM is certainly a strain; as a result, those who go through with it are some of Whitman’s most motivated students.

“I think it’s always challenging. Excellent students are always the ones to attempt it,” Hashimoto said.