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So long, computer science Chaos Studies is the hot new college degree

Tiffany Ng   

So long, computer science — Chaos Studies is the hot new college degree

Will Shortz always knew he wanted to make puzzles. He made his first puzzle at age 9, sold his first puzzle professionally at 14, and became a regular contributor to the Dell Puzzle Magazine at 16.

Once in college at Indiana University, Shortz completed all the major requirements for a degree in economics. But in his junior year, he decided to pivot. "I remember joking about majoring in puzzles as a kid, never imagining that such a thing was possible until my mom discovered the individualized major program," Shortz said. So instead of settling for a degree that was adjacent to his goals, he created his own: enigmatology.

After taking courses he made up himself — History of American Word Puzzles Before the 1860s, 20th-Century Puzzles, and Crossword Construction among them — Shortz graduated in 1974 with a degree in puzzles. And it paid off: He's now the long-time editor of The New York Times Crossword.

Shortz has also been a poster child for the build-your-own-major movement: the idea that a unique degree can lead to success. But while self-made majors have been around since the 1960s, we're currently experiencing a resurgence. Between 2019 and 2021, there was a 3% increase in the number of students graduating with individualized studies degrees. And 19% more students graduated with interdisciplinary degrees in the 2020-2021 academic year than did a decade ago, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. With majors like Chaos, Human Computer Interaction, and Architecture and Food Theory, students aren't just crafting these degrees for fun. Where customized majors used to be about specialization, today, for many young people, forging a unique educational route is about adapting to a constantly transforming job market.

As full-time jobs are replaced by contract gigs, side hustles have become increasingly necessary to get ahead financially. Meanwhile, as artificial intelligence threatens to upend roughly 300 million jobs, employers are placing a premium on individuality and flexibility. Increasingly, the ability to pivot is a must-have for workers to survive. And a growing number of students believe the best way to show self-motivation and creativity is a personally crafted college degree.

Flexibility is the new major

During his junior year at the Rochester Institution of Technology, Oluwaseyi Onifade was struggling to find a degree that perfectly fit his interest in healthcare and biotechnology. After speaking with his dean, Onifade learned about RIT's School of Individualized Study, which allowed him to combine courses in business administration and public health to create his own field of study — all while encouraging him to take classes outside these fields that might be relevant to his career interests.

Onifade, who plans to graduate with a custom-made degree in global health management and healthcare administration at the end of this school year, said he liked the flexible nature of the program and felt that pursuing his own major nurtured skills directly applicable to his interests. He also said the program can be a double-edged sword. "Don't come to a school like this if you don't know what you want," Onifade said. "I feel like my own boss, but sometimes a boss can't get everything right."

One of the craziest parts of the system is that we expect 17-year-olds to know what they want to do with the rest of their lives.

RIT's customized program has seen an explosion in students over the past few years — enrollment in the program grew 45% from 2019 to 2021. James Hall, the executive director of the school explained there are three main types of students entering RIT's SOIS program: students who want to explore less traditionally congruent academic interests, students pursuing a hyper-specific area of study, and students that are just looking to pool their credits in order to graduate.

Students get to pick and choose courses from across departments to curate their major, but they're also required to take a handful of standardized courses that offer a foundation for their learning — classes "that can adapt to evolving career fields," as the school site advertises. One course, Individuals and Society, aims to "take a student's interests into the workforce" by teaching them how to "reflect and market themselves," Makini Beck, the professor who teaches the course, said. Another course, Ethics in Leadership, helps students examine current societal dilemmas faced by business leaders.

Through these courses, SOIS helps students prepare for a long career of networking, learning, and adapting. "One of the craziest parts of the system is that we expect 17-year-olds to know what they want to do with the rest of their lives," Hall told me. By equipping students with the skills they need to adapt to an evolving economy, the logic goes, they will be better prepared for their career. "Continuous learning is the reality we all live with now," Hall said.

Onifade echoed that: "The program is not just about being in college, it's about what happens after." Even as a student, he's felt that impact already, saying the courses he took that taught collaboration skills gave him a leg up in his various work experiences.

An eye on the future

In many ways, the rise of build-your-own majors is a logical response to a job market that prioritizes self-invention — and self-reinvention. According to the World Economic Forum's 2023 Future of Jobs report, employers said they anticipated 23% of jobs to be disrupted in the next five years. As a result, employers rated self-efficacy skills — such as resilience, flexibility, and agility — among the top-three most important skills for workers. Ben Papernick, a recruiter with over 15 years of experience in tech and marketing, said he looks for candidates who demonstrate a balance between subject expertise and resilience.

"I look for people that are ambitious, who have drive. Do they have the hard skills that we're looking for? But more importantly, do you have the soft skills?" he said. Papernick said students who created their own majors were off to an impressive start. "If you take the time, do the research, put a master plan together and complete them with merit — hats off to you. It shows versatility and eagerness to learn."

While flexibility is key to stay on top of a churning job market, colleges haven't been able to move fast enough to keep up with emerging trends. The number of students working in an industry closely related to their major four years after graduation dropped 8 percentage points between 1997 and 2012, the National Center for Education Statistics reported. Considering that it can take six years and $2.2 million for a college to develop a single degree program, it makes sense that schools are trying to keep up with evolving workforce demands by teaching students flexibility instead of pivoting entire degree programs.

If you take the time, do the research, put a master plan together and complete them with merit — hats off to you.

In 2020, RIT renamed its individualized major the New Economy major and highlighted the need for students to "adapt to evolving career fields." The same year, Genesee Community College in Western New York announced a new Individualized Studies Degree in Applied Science, which was tailor-made to help students "stay abreast of industry trends, technology changes, and job forecasts." In the 2021-2022 academic year, the University of Texas at Austin handed out 114 bachelor's degrees in individualized studies, an increase of 41% from the previous year; and at institutions that don't traditionally offer individualized-study programs, such as the University of Southern California, students are going out of their way to create their own majors.

Adopting a rather divergent approach to the same goal, New York University's Gallatin School of Individualized Studies frames its approach as honing the "management of knowledge." It differs from RIT by offering interdisciplinary seminars rather than skill-based courses, including classes like Baseball as a Road to God, Ethics for Dissenters, and Life Among Machines. Peter Rajsingh, a former Gallatin adjunct professor, firmly believes that by teaching students to draw on useful ideas from different areas of study, Gallatin helps students navigate unfamiliar situations and become more open-minded, making them more agile in the workforce.

Kahrej Ahluwalia, who recently graduated from Gallatin with a concentration in Human-Computer Interaction, applied because of his appetite for flexible learning and a "directional sense of interest in a blend of digital technology, philosophy, and psychology." His time at Gallatin helped him land on a more focused discipline while allowing him flexibility, he said.

As an international growth associate for an e-commerce startup, Ahluwalia said that his day-to-day involves responding to different market indicators to identify big-picture trends. At Gallatin, he said he learned to "navigate through ambiguity, be adaptable to change, and ultimately create structure where it doesn't exist" — skills particularly relevant to his job.

So … does it work?

Individualized-study programs are designed to help students who are open to and actively seek help. In other words: You reap what you sow. For all the interdisciplinary courses and leadership and collaboration seminars offered, the "success" of an individualized education boils down to what each student's goals are and whether faculty truly operate in a student's best interest.

When describing the merits of these programs, faculty were also quick to point out their limitations. The focus on flexibility and the lack of a traditional major track, for instance, leaves students more reliant on their relationship with professors and other school staff. Rajsingh said that very little guidance was given to faculty when crafting courses at Gallatin. Flexibility can empower educators to be creative with their approach, but Rajsingh said it also leaves ample room for bias. Rather than crafting courses that truly explore diverse ideas that challenge students, he said faculty members often end up serving only the "optics of diversity" while furthering their own intellectual agenda.

In general, graduates are finding the approach successful. Either they land a unique job based on their customized degree or they maintain the flexibility to explore diverse career paths. At Gallatin, 51% of graduates go on to seek advanced degrees and 80% said their Gallatin concentration is connected to their current or past work. At RIT, 85% of graduates immediately enter the workforce, mostly in fields related to tech and design. Students at RIT are also turning their degrees into unique opportunities, such as building their own businesses in fields like textile-making or sustainable chocolate production.

Building your own major is not for everyone, but it's a sign that precarity is the new norm. Students who graduate with unique degrees that they designed themselves gain the ability to pivot. And in today's environment of rapid change and AI-induced job insecurity, resilience in the form of flexibility is key. Schools like RIT and NYU are working to prepare students for uncertainty. Students, then, decide whether to sink or swim.

Tiffany Ng is a freelance tech and culture writer based in New York.