Individualized degrees teach students to market skills, selves

Fewer than 450 students are pursuing individualized degrees at the U.
By
  • Amber Billings
June 19, 2013

Junior Jane Sitter wants to teach English abroad, but there’s no one major at the University of Minnesota that can let her do that.

Sitter is one of a small group of students pursuing an individualized degree at the University, combining what are normally three majors from two different colleges — English, Spanish and English as a Second Language — to create a degree tailored closely to her career plans.

Students like Sitter are entering the job market equipped with a skill that students in more traditional degree programs may not have — the ability to justify every course selected for their major.

Although the University offers a handful of individualized degree programs, they are rarely advertised, and fewer than 450 students are currently enrolled.

The College of Liberal Arts offers a Bachelor of Individualized Study, which allows students with three different interests to combine them into one degree, and the Individually Designed Interdepartmental Major lets students create a major based on a topic they’re interested in.

Jason Jacobson, program director for the College of Continuing Education, said students can take individualized degrees when they have interests spanning two or more colleges or need the flexibility that online and distance courses, degree and credit programs offer.

Students choose individualized programs for a variety of reasons, but often because their interests don’t fit into one department or even one college, said Wendy Nicholson-Kotas, coordinator for Individualized Degree Programs in CLA.

The programs aren’t heavily advertised because students who pursue individualized degrees usually begin the process by talking with their academic advisers, Nicholson-Kotas said.

“We don’t have table tents,” she said. “We just have good conversations [that] lead to more good conversations.”

While they get to choose the courses for their customized major, students in individualized degree programs have to justify every class they take in writing, which Nicholson-Kotas said can be an advantage later when students are applying to jobs or graduate school and need to express who they are and what they want to do.

“They’ve got a huge leg up on the process of putting themselves out there [and] marketing themselves for what happens next,” she said.

Though requirements differ between programs, all individualized degree students write a proposal for the classes they think are best for their program. The proposals go through several rounds of edits with faculty guidance before being approved.

It’s easy to justify studying what you’re most interested in, said recent BIS graduate Hannah Miller, who split her degree between her three passions: English, horticulture and sustainability studies.

Miller said writing justifications of her coursework was a lot like applying for financial aid — as with many scholarship applications, knowing how to market herself and justify her decisions was key.

“It was a lot of work, but it was certainly a good exercise knowing what I wanted,” she said.

Sustainability studies, urban studies and scientific and technical communication BIS graduate Chrissy Monfette said she designed her degree for the specific line of work she wants to go into — consulting for sustainability-focused corporations like Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.

Monfette will move to Sacramento, Calif., this summer, where she’ll begin her job search — a process for which she’ll justify the coursework she did to show what kinds of skills she developed, just like she did for her degree.

“It makes it really easy to then describe it to a potential employer,” she said.

But some students find it difficult to pitch their unique degrees to employers.

Charles Ryan, who graduated with a BIS in philosophy, sustainability studies and management, said he tried to get a job as a legislative assistant at the Legislature after college but now works as a professional golf caddy.

“I haven’t really figured it out,” he said. “It is definitely a difficult thing to do to try to express your degree.”

Though he’s tried to shine a positive light on his individualized degree for potential employers by focusing on how he created his own curriculum, Ryan said he hasn’t been successful in finding a career.

“My experience has not been great,” he said. “I haven’t widened my job search as much as I could because it is a tough job market no matter what your degree is.”

No employers have questioned her degree program, Miller said, but she’s used to justifying her choice in conversation.

“It’s certainly a mouthful when people asked you what you majored in,” she said. 

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