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Standing Out: Unique
College Majors and Programs Putting a Spotlight on 26 Rare Degree Paths

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College is a pivotal point, not just from a personal perspective, but a professional one as well. A student’s academic program of choice will help shape their future career. Given that, it’s no wonder many students feel immense pressure to choose a major as soon as possible.

However, choosing a major isn’t always easy to do. Only about half of incoming freshmen know what they want to major in. Besides that, over half who are pretty sure of what they want to do at the start will wind up changing their major at least once while in college.

Some schools require students to declare their major during their freshman year. However, most schools allow students to wait until their second year to declare, which provides them with more time to decide. A student can always change their major later, but depending on their course schedule and completed credits, it could severely delay their graduation date.

Sometimes the “right” major just isn’t available at most schools. Any student wants to dive into a major they can truly enjoy and excel at; what if that elusive combination just isn’t available in most college catalogs? This guide looks at some of the more unique or rare majors throughout the nation, as well as the possibility of creating an entirely new major for students who simply can’t find an existing program that works for them.

Meet the Expert

Alissa Carpenter Owner, Everything’s Not OK and That’s OK

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2018 Spotlight:
26 Colleges with Unique Majors and Programs

This college degree in video games development provides comprehensive instruction of the video game process, including something for indie developers all the way up to AAA publishers. Coursework includes computer programming basics, along with how to design different types of video games on a variety of platforms. It’s unique because it focuses more on the creative aspects of video games rather than the technical side.

This degree program prepares students to dive into intelligence-related careers in the government or private sector. “Our graduates typically become intelligence analysts for the U.S. national security community,” says Kristan J. Wheaton, a professor in the intelligence studies program. “There are Mercyhurst intelligence studies graduates in all of the intelligence agencies of the U.S. government including CIA, NSA and DIA.” Students learn about the collection and analysis of information that law enforcement, intelligence and national defense agencies commonly find themselves engaging in, taught by faculty who have experience in the world of intelligence.

This major is perfect for students who want to make a career working with horses. Besides learning about how to properly care for and raise horses, students tackle the business considerations in raising horses, as well as the technical points in proper horseback riding. There is also the opportunity to focus on a concentration, such as horse business management and equine wellness. “We learn from each other within a tightly-knit community,” says Abigail Nemec, director of the equine program. “Each student’s education supports individual career goals, so graduates have strong skills in the industry specialty they want, along with the knowledge to back them up.”

Students who complete this graduate major program will be ready to create medical illustrations in both electronic and print formats. Students will also learn about creating interactive medical communications, with a special emphasis on practical skills through hands-on exercises. “Medical illustrators may illustrate innovative surgical procedures for medical journals, design multimedia websites, produce 3D animated films of cellular processes or hand craft prosthetic appliances for patients,” says Brennan Meagher of Augusta University. “Many medical illustrators are employed by medical schools, urban medical centers, large hospitals and specialty clinics,” as well as in marketing, advertising and legal fields. This program is so unique, only two other programs like it exist in the U.S.

From a pure numbers point of view, this is as unique as it gets: This is the only citrus and horticulture science bachelor’s degree offered in the U.S. Within a short distance of the classroom students can find a wealth of the citrus groves unique to the Sunshine State. Besides graduating with a one-of-a-kind degree, students will be ready to enter the citrus industry with both classroom knowledge and field experience.

This graduate program teaches students about harnessing the power of social media in a variety of contexts, including mass communication, advertising and marketing. The 38-credit-hour program ends with students completing a capstone project involving work with a real-world client developing a social media campaign. “The online graduate program in social media at the University of Florida focuses on providing students the skills and knowledge they need to compete in today’s workforce,” says Andrew Selepak, director of the UF online graduate program in social media. “Our program challenges students to think creatively to best engage with audiences online and to create effective and data-driven content that attracts customers, build brands and produces change.”

What makes this major unique is that it’s actually a combination of multiple areas of study, including epidemiology and biology. With this multifaceted education, students are prepared to tackle diseases that affect world populations. Students who choose this major are in an excellent position to tackle future careers in medicine, veterinary medicine and public health.

Consisting of 12 credits, this certificate program provides an overview to contemporary anti-human trafficking efforts. As a result, this certificate is best suited for those who have established careers that could benefit from updated knowledge about human trafficking. The curriculum revolves around the 4P’s of eradicating human trafficking: prevention, protection, prosecution and partnership. Courses include Human Trafficking, Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, Human Trafficking Aftercare and Ethics and Human Trafficking.

This major was custom-engineered by school administrators to prepare students to create positive change in society. Because of the complex nature of social problems, this major requires students to obtain instruction in a wide variety of disciplines, including religion, sociology, politics and economics. “You will develop the knowledge and skills to think critically on the meaning of social justice locally and globally, examine the dynamics of societal conflicts and analyze social issues from many perspectives,” according to Cole Hatcher, the director of media and community relations at Ohio Wesleyan University. “The major also is highly flexible, allowing you to deeply explore issues related to areas such as race, global feminism, gender, Latin American culture, labor economics, poverty, civil rights and the environment.”

Although this program is part of the English department, students receive a Bachelor of Science degree, rather than a Bachelor of Arts. Writing instruction is the crux of this major, but writing in the scientific and technical fields requires a very different approach from other writing styles. Students will also learn about the organization and synthesis of information of complex ideas for more effective communication to the masses.

This major teaches students how to design and create packaging used in an array of consumer and commercial products. Students will achieve an understanding of the engineering and science parameters, design considerations and business aspects of a product’s packaging — something most people take for granted. One of the graduation requirements includes spending six months working with an industry mentor through a co-op program.

Despite how unique this program is, it’s been around since 1964. After completion of this program, students will be ready to not only perform with puppets within theater, television and movie settings (think “Sesame Street,” “The Muppet Show” or top ventriloquists), but to design their own puppets and create their own puppet productions on both a small and large scale.

In addition to learning about the science of fermentation (which includes specific biology and chemistry topics), students learn about the business side of alcohol production for human consumption, including entrepreneurship and marketing. To further supplement the curriculum, students specifically interested in beer production can enroll in a five-day brewing course held each summer. Graduates are prepared to work in a variety of industries related to fermentation science, from creating beer and wine to working with probiotic products.

Anyone who has attended an auction is familiar with the fast, lilting “song” from the auctioneer. Though it can sound like gibberish, it’s actually finely crafted to keep the crowd excited about what’s happening. This program provides a diploma that represents the culmination of knowledge and hard work that will allow students to develop their own unique auctioneer “chant,” understand the business of auctioneering, obtain items for sale at auction, complete legal documentation and conduct an auction. Students will also be fully prepared to pass the Pennsylvania State Auctioneer License Examination.

At its core, the decision science program is about learning how to make the best decisions in a variety of contexts in both the private and public settings. The curriculum focuses on providing instruction in two main areas. First, there’s the statistical and mathematical discipline, where theoretical principles can serve as the basis of decision modeling. But since decisions made by one individual usually affect other people, the second main area of learning in this program applies the psychological elements of the decision-making process.

Most are aware of popular culture for its entertainment value, but it has a deeper impact on society than most of us give it credit for. “Founded in 1973, the BGSU Department of Popular Culture has trained scholars from around the globe in the age-old intellectual enterprise of interpreting cultural forms and their relationships to everyday social life,” says Jeremy Wallach, a professor in the Department of Pop Culture. The curriculum doesn’t just teach popular culture, but what it represents about humanity and how it can prepare students for a career in various places of employment, including museums and mass media companies.

This is a particularly special graduate program that goes further than the wonders of astrology; it explores the origins of life on Earth and the existence of life in other parts of the universe. Students will study how life evolves and develops, as well as understand how life could begin on other planets. They will also study the scientific methods used to find evidence of extraterrestrial life.

As one of the concentrations at Murray State University’s Department of Art and Design, students will explore metalsmithing as an art form, including the creation of jewelry, sculptures and holloware. Students will gain familiarity working with common jewelry metals, including cooper, gold, silver, nickel and brass. The hands-on experience will provide them with numerous samples of their work, which can be a boon during the job search.

This degree will allow students to learn about the modern medical and scientific principles of herbs, as well as traditional herbalism teachings. They will learn which herbs are safe for use, which ones are to be avoided and many of the “old school” uses for which herbs were greatly valued by our ancestors. The program teaches students how to grow and cultivate herbs, use herbs for medicinal purposes and gain a familiarity with historical and cultural views and uses of herbs.

Those who have an avid interest in golf but don’t think they can work as a professional golfer might enjoy the course in another way — as a manager. The curriculum is built around hospitality and tourism management, but also teaches about the sport of golf and goes in depth to improve golfing skills. Students can expect to understand the business aspects of the golfing industry as well as accomplish more hands-on tasks, such as repairing golf clubs.

Students in this major are trained not only in the technical and practical aspects of SCUBA diving, but also in the entrepreneurial context. Students can expect hands-on training with diving, plus plenty of classroom time as they learn about business, management, finance and the like. Upon graduation, students will have a comprehensive understanding of diving safety and equipment and know how to run and operate a diving business, whether it be in retail sales, repair or rentals.

An undergraduate program, paper engineering prepares students to work in various aspects of paper production, including tree growth and processing, marketing, paper manufacturing process, sales, product development and research. With the growing interest across the world in alternative sources of energy, this program explores using trees as a potential source of biofuel. Students can obtain hands-on experience through the co-op and summer internship programs.

A movie, play or musical is just a series of lines and dialogue until the costume designer comes in. Costume design brings a character to life in ways nothing else can. This degree teaches students how to take a costume idea and apply it to a tangible outfit an actor can wear. The curriculum is varied, showing students how to create the costumes and become familiar with the management side of costume work.

This major is about everything flowers, including growing, distributing, selling, using and marketing them. Therefore, the courses include hands-on training as well as the finer points of management, finance and the like. At the completion of their major, students will be prepared for a career in a variety of horticulture fields. To ensure students can apply the knowledge they have learned, they must complete a 12-week internship.

If a student loves the outdoors and related activities, this is the perfect degree. A significant portion of the curriculum requires students to engage in outdoor activities that many do for fun, including rock climbing, backpacking, kayaking and mountain biking. As students learn the basics of outdoor adventure, survival and safety skills, they will lead their own expedition and complete a 400-hour internship with an outdoor organization.

This Bar Harbor, Maine-based college takes a rare approach to academics — the self-designed major. COA offers just one undergraduate degree program, a Bachelor of Arts in human ecology, and each student designs their own major within that program. There are some degree requirements that must be fulfilled, but students are otherwise able to chart their own paths.

DIY College Education

What happens if a student can’t find a major they want? Luckily, some schools allow students to create their own major. This provides an opportunity to pick and a curriculum of courses that will provide the custom education a student desires. This is particularly helpful for those who become fascinated with two or more academic disciplines, but whose school doesn’t offer the ability to major in one and minor in the other.

“Creating your own major can be a great alternative to combine your areas of interest,” says Alissa Carpenter, owner of Everything’s Not OK and That’s OK, a coaching and leadership company. “With that said, you want to do your research on the current major offerings of your school to see if there is something that would meet your needs with potential course substitutions.”

What if there aren’t enough course substitutions that will create the degree of your dreams? Carpenter suggests thinking ahead: “If you’re still coming up short on the ideal major, determine your end goal with this degree and then think about the courses, experiences and knowledge you would need to meet your ideal major,” she says. “You also want to reach out to your academic adviser and other campus professionals to see what options are available based on your interests and school policies.”

When planning a major, be prepared to work hard to make it a reality. “Creating your own major can be a difficult and timely process,” Carpenter says. “Spend time researching the specific courses you’re interested in taking. It’s also wise to speak with faculty who have experience in the area you’re interested in and ask them for suggestions of courses, research and experiences that can be beneficial for you.”

For online college students, the customized major option is less common, although a few schools do offer it. However, students who can succeed in an online program are well-suited for individualized majors because of the level of self-direction and conscientiousness that’s required to complete online courses and a one-of-a-kind major.

Step-By-Step Guide to Creating a Major

  1. 1. Find the right school.

    Before a student can create a major, they must enroll in a school that allows it. Not every school has a system in place where students can create their own major. And the ones that offer DIY majors don’t always advertise that fact. It might be necessary to do a little digging.

  2. 2. Confirm the major doesn’t already exist.

    Make sure you can’t receive the same education by getting a double major or minoring in a particular subject. Many individualized majors are combinations of multiple academic areas. It may be possible for a student to avoid creating a brand-new major by simply majoring in two areas and/or minoring in another.

  3. 3. Be certain you need the DIY major.

    “It is essential to know exactly why you want this degree for your intended career,” Carpenter points out. “Many institutions have hundreds of degrees to choose from and you will need to make the argument that what you’re creating is not only unique but is essential for your post-graduation plans.”

  4. 4. Create a proposal for the new major.

    The student must explain what kind of major they want to create and how they plan to create it. This proposal will consist of several elements, such as a statement of purpose, proposed course list and academic goals the student hopes to achieve. Depending on the school, the student may also need to include a proposed research project they can complete with their potential major.

  5. 5. Obtain approval.

    After submitting the custom major proposal, the applicable faculty advisers or school administrators must approve it. From there, students may need to meet with their relevant academic adviser or administrative official to ensure they remain on track to complete their degree and graduate on time.

  6. 6. Stay open to change.

    “Be open to making changes to your intended major proposal. Often times, approvals are not made on the first try and requirements can vary based on your school policies,” Carpenter says.

Pros and Cons of Creating a Major

The ability to create a major has its benefits and drawbacks. But depending on the school of choice and academic and professional goals, some of the disadvantages or advantages may not be applicable. Here’s a brief overview:

Advantages

  • Gets you ahead of the curve

    Creating a major allows students to predict a new field and receive a tailored education to prepare them for that new professional area.

  • Provides tailored learning

    Students with interests in multiple areas have the opportunity to create a major that allows them to take courses in their various areas of interest.

  • The ability to learn for learning’s sake

    Many DIY majors are intended for students who have a strong desire to learn and don’t see a college degree as simply one step toward a particular career.

  • Standout among future employers

    With a unique degree, future employers may be curious and impressed, not only because of the subject matter learned, but because it demonstrates a student’s initiative and drive. “Employers may ask specific questions about what your major is and how you created it. This gives you the opportunity to share your true passion and demonstrates your creativity, ability to think outside the box and strong desire to pursue this area of interest,” Carpenter says.

  • Mentorship

    Many schools, as a condition of allowing an individualized major, guarantee one-on-one mentorship for the student.

Disadvantages

  • Lack of recognition

    Because no one will have heard of the customized major, prospective employers might not understand what it is or assume it’s a pointless, easy or worthless area of study. “Employers may be confused as to your major, especially if you’ve named it something that is semi-unrecognizable,” Carpenter says. “If they were looking for someone with a specific degree, they may not know that you’ve taken similar courses because they are unfamiliar with the name.”

  • Potential for shallow depth of knowledge

    Because many custom majors require courses across multiple disciplines, there is a risk of receiving a shallow level of learning due to a wider breadth of education.

  • Academic red tape

    Even with formal customized major programs, students can run into trouble with professors or department heads who will refuse to allow students not officially in the department’s major to take a department’s course.

  • Additional paperwork for the student

    Because the major doesn’t exist, the student must create his or her own curriculum and obtain approval from applicable school administrators.

  • Strong self-discipline required

    The person most familiar with the major is the student, so they must be conscious of meeting academic requirements and making sure they stay on track to graduate on time.

Ultimately, students who create their own major are often go-getters who have a solid vision for their future. “Students who are successful at creating their own major have a very clear interest and career in mind,” Carpenter says. “This is not an opportunity to compile unrelated courses together with no end goal but an opportunity to think about what courses will provide you with the specific skills and knowledge you will need for your post-graduation plans.”