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Designer Degrees

Campus | April 6, 2015

As career opportunities change along with our rapidly transforming and increasingly interconnected world, some students have adjusted their undergraduate studies by designing their own major. Tufts offers students the opportunity to create their own major through an interdisciplinary studies (IS) program. This program allows students to opt out of the typical major and minor structure and create a personal, narrowly focused course of study that encompasses several departments.

Junior Alexa Horwitz is using the interdisciplinary studies program to hone in on a distinct and contemporary topic. She has created a major that fuses psychology, sociology and communications to look at social identities in the modern age. Her academic curiosity lies in exploring how different social groups communicate using new media in the digital age.

IS students have advisors in each department included in their major. Horwitz has three advisors who not only help her compile relevant courses that count towards her major, but also offer her crucial opportunities to apply her studies to real world situations. She explained that instead of feeling alone in a void between majors, she has formed strong relationships with professors by working closely with them on various projects. She worked with professor Jennifer Burton in the drama department on a project concerning social media and also taught a Perspectives class called “From Ellen DeGeneres to Barack Obama” that explored how different groups are portrayed in media and the way this shapes social identities.

Horwitz feels very positively about Tufts’ interdisciplinary program. She believes that “Tufts has the resources and the faculty members” to support creative majors. “If you present an idea that they find is narrow focus[ed] enough and could not be achieved in a more traditional way, they will be supportive.” Horwitz feels that it takes a driven student to design his/her own major, but it is a helpful decision for those who want to hone in on a specific topic. She takes the classes that mean the most to her, and therefore believes that she is getting the most out of her Tufts education.

After she graduates, Horwitz wants to pursue a career at the intersection of new media, innovation and pop culture. Careers are changing dramatically with the acceleration of new technology and media and Horwitz sees this technological revolution as a game-changer in terms of employment. She explains, “Today when everything is more connected, we need to interpret with a range of different tools we learn in different subject areas.” IS students may be more prepared for real life applications in our connected world because they have molded their education around exploring and answering the most specific, relevant questions. Horwitz, for example, has grounded traditional liberal arts subjects in the modern issue of social identity. It will be interesting to see if this degree does in fact help her in the future or if it will limit her from having flexibility in her career path.

It is not just Horwitz who believes that interdisciplinary studies are relevant to modern problems and opportunities. A study done in 2013 by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that 92 percent of employers surveyed said that “innovation is essential” to their organization’s success and 95 percent would give hiring preference to a candidate that could contribute “innovation in the workplace.” It is important that Tufts offers students the ability to be innovative and current with their studies so that graduates can compete in the contemporary job market.

According to data provided by the College Board’s Annual Survey of Colleges, more than 150 schools have begun to offer “student-designed” majors in the past decade and there has been a 42 percent increase in the number of schools offering university-created interdisciplinary degrees. Julie Dobrow, Tufts’ interdisciplinary studies major committee chair, said that Tufts has mirrored this nationwide increase in interest. While there are typically around six students accepted as IS majors per year, this year has seen significantly more applicants. She believes this can be partially credited to a new website and on-campus events that have increased program visibility. “We have done a better job of explaining the major,” she says. Dobrow has a second theory, though: that the demographic of Tufts students has changed as admissions have become more selective. She believes that the quality of the students admitted are increasing each year, and that students are more creative and engaged in their studies than ever before. The number of students that are inclined to explore interdisciplinary studies is rising. Students may also realize that an IS major can propel them into specific fields that they are interested in and can be a useful marketing tool for applicants to grab the attention of future employers.

Dobrow expressed that IS students are some of the most driven and creative students at Tufts. Senior Sam Zollman has designed a major at the intersection of environmental studies, communication and media studies and child development. Specifically, he wants to explore how wecan use television to teach kids about environmental issues. Dobrow believes that IS students are “self-starters, organized, and have pushed their education out of the box.” If students can parlay what they have done as an IS major when talking to future employers, these qualities centered on self-motivation and creativity can be very attractive. “Those are the qualities that people really want to see in a potential employee,” Dobrow explained.

Dobrow was confident in the program’s ability to prepare IS graduates for success. Demi Marks, a recent graduate, designed a major that looked at the transition between a book and a screenplay. Her final project for her major was both a theoretical and practical thesis on her findings as well as a pitch. Walden Media was impressed by her work and decided to option to buy the rights to the script. Regardless if the deal goes through, Dobrow says, “her IS major led her to where she is now.” Marks is currently studying Media Law at UCLA.

While there have been examples of success through IS, the majors created could also be limiting to future job aspirations. Perhaps some students might find themselves without a direction with majors in such specialized, and rapidly changing, fields of study. IS majors can seem very attractive to some employers now, but it is not certain if these specific courses of study will be relevant in the long term.

A small but passionate group of Tufts students are designing their course of study in ways to address specific, modern questions. Interest in interdisciplinary studies is increasing in students and employers alike, who see innovation as impressive. It is “a more visible option for students than it used to be,” Dobrow says. IS students are driven to create their own path, and their path might be one that sets them apart and above others who are not as quick to adapt and innovate in this digital age.