Individual majors pose job-search troubles

Individualized studies offer students freedom, but aren’t always accepted in the job market.

Hilary Dickinson

Kaitlin Frick’s family didn’t understand her major. They wanted her to have a simple major, such as law or medicine.

Instead, she created her own.

“I had a lot of skeptical family members that said, ‘What? You’re creating your own major?’ They didn’t think it was quite as valid as other majors,” she said.

Frick, who graduated in spring 2007, was one of the 200 to 250 students who create their own majors in the Individualized Degree Programs in the College of Liberal Arts each year, a number that has remained fairly consistent for the past five to 10 years.

But while many students support the programs because of the freedom they offer, some think it’s not as effective because employers haven’t heard of it.

The individually designed interdepartmental major started in the 1940s, and the bachelor of individualized studies degree began in 1978; both allow students to tailor courses to their interests and goals.

IDIM majors create a theme of classes from three or more CLA departments, and the BIS degree consists of three areas of study in different schools.

But Ryan Flaherty, a spring 2007 University alumnus, said three months of searching for a job after college with his BIS degree of architectural studies, design and psychology yielded no responses from employers.

“They probably took a look at my résumé and were confused and didn’t know what the degree was and threw it away, I’m guessing,” he said. “I found that not being concentrated in any one area set me back trying to get into one specific area or another.”

Liz Reich, an office manager and human resources representative at Infinite Campus, a company that provides technology to schools, said while an applicant’s personality traits and eagerness can matter, his or her major does hold weight.

“For the most part, the one majoring in one area would go to the top of the pile because they would have an obvious interest,” she said, “and it’s something that comes easily, so they wouldn’t need as much training.”

But Dana Zimmermann, a senior human resources representative at Benfield, a reinsurance and risk management company, said if all three areas are relevant to the company, an individualized degree could work.

The range of skills Flaherty learned helped him eventually get a job, he said, because his director of communications position at a technical association requires him to know “a piece of everything.”

Morgan Tsan, a junior studying urban studies, geography and housing studies who wants a career in social justice, said she likes learning about more topics.

“I feel like individualized studies give me broader expertise on areas because they’re all connected,” Tsan, who wants to help the homeless find affordable housing, said.

Frick, however, said she has worried students who specialized in arts administration, one of her three areas of study, may be more qualified than her.

“But I reminded myself I was taking classes I wanted to take, and I was where I wanted to be,” she said.

She is now a program assistant at a nonprofit arts organization, but she credits her internship with the organization for her getting the job.

However, some jobs are better suited for students who pursue one area of study, said Donna Bennett, a consultant for organizational effectiveness from the Office of Human Resources at the University. Some of these include computer analyst, legal, medical, accounting, information technology and engineering careers, she said.

Rebecca Rassier, the coordinator of the individualized degree programs in CLA, said the programs are sometimes a “backup plan” for students if they didn’t get accepted into another major.

“But most students were just looking for something else that matches their goals and strengths,” she said.

A student can finish his or her Individualized Degree Program in four years, but it can also depend on the student, as in any major, she said.

Students in these programs must get approval from an adviser or faculty member in each area of study, and submit a proposal explaining their interests and goals, Rassier said.

In this respect, students in IDP programs have an advantage over those in standard majors because their goals are clearer to them, she said.

“Employers were very intrigued and interested in my major, but I had to make sure I really prepared myself ahead of time about what I did to make sure I was getting my message across in the right way,” Frick said.