Ad Hoc Majors
If you are a Weinberg student whose curricular interests are not served by the University's wide variety of majors and minors, you may consider an individualized course of study called an ad hoc major. Using already existing majors as formal models, you and the professors who agree to advise you can carve out a new major by putting together existing courses and special projects in new combinations which reflect your interests and talents.
The only limits are those of the curriculum itself and of the faculty. For example, a major in business and ethics might not be feasible because of a shortage of courses and professors with the appropriate expertise, whereas a major in computational chemistry might exploit some extraordinary strengths in the curriculum and the faculty. In this way students can take personal advantage of the best Northwestern has to offer.
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Weinberg College requires you to complete a major, a demonstration of competence in a coherent field of study. Most students complete this requirement in one of three ways:
- With a major in a traditional departmental, taking a set of courses designed to impart essential information, language, methods, and values.
- With a major in an interdisciplinary program which meets educational and scholarly needs not adequately addressed within the departmental structure. Majors in interdisciplinary programs such as American Studies, Cognitive Science, Environmental Sciences, and Latina and Latino Studies draw on courses from a range of departments and programs to provide this type of major.
- With a combination of a primary major and a second major or a minor, certificate, or concentration.
These three methods of specialization—departmental majors, interdisciplinary program majors, and combining a major with a second major and/or minor—serve the needs of most students. They generally have the great advantage of nearly universal recognition: no potential employers or graduate schools will need a special explanation if they see a major in mathematics or philosophy on your transcript. They are recognized and generally respected because they are designed by scholars committed to the integrity of their discipline.
A few students' curricular interests will not be met by these methods of specialization. Furthermore, there is a certain challenge and excitement to mapping your own course in a field which you define for yourself with the guidance of members of the faculty. There is also an element of risk, trial and error, and discovery which can be stimulating and educational in itself.
If you decide that you would like to design your own major, you will need to complete the following steps.
1. Discuss your proposal with your Weinberg College Adviser and with a professor with expertise in at least one of the disciplines included in your prospective field.
You may need to consult with a number of instructors. Among other things, you must determine whether Northwestern offers enough courses in your field(s) of interest to make up a program. Don't base your plans on courses which may be offered, or on the expertise of a single professor, or on the prospect of a string of independent studies. Your program should reflect existing and continuing curricular strengths. It should also be robust enough to survive the departure of any one professor.
You must determine that no existing major and no combination of major(s) and minor(s) can accommodate your special needs and that Northwestern has the courses and the faculty that your alternative major requires.
Once you have consulted with a faculty member who supports your proposal and is willing to serve as your adviser, you should schedule a meeting with Assistant Dean Mark Sheldon (email@example.com) to allow him to see and respond to your proposal (see below). This will provide you with feedback that might result in further revision, or additional information about the process as it goes forward. You can also meet with Dean Sheldon at the beginning of the process if you want, to discuss your initial thoughts about a possible ad-hoc major.
2. Petition the Curricular Review Committee for approval in a letter.
Petitions supported by faculty advisors are not approved automatically. They must be convincing in content and presentation to show that your proposal is intellectually rigorous and practically feasible.
Your ad hoc major proposal should have several sections:
- The first part of the ad hoc major proposal should describe the proposed area of focus in detail and provide essential information about the applicant and his or her reasons for proposing this major. The object is to persuade the committee that the proposal has been intelligently thought out and discussed with appropriate faculty advisors. Proposals that seem insufficiently justified or are poorly written, vague, or sloppily presented are less likely to receive favorable attention than proposals which are carefully prepared and easily read. Remember, the burden of proof is on you, and the committee doesn't have to approve anything. You should also indicate whether your plan is to complete both your ad hoc major and a standard Weinberg major and/or minor.
- The second section should list introductory-level courses for your major. Here, use as your model the courses listed in the "Prerequisites" or "Core" category of departmental programs in the Undergraduate Catalog. You can consult our major worksheet for more examples.
- The third section should list advanced courses, corresponding to the major and related course categories in the departmental programs listed in the Undergraduate Catalog.
- Finally, attach supporting letters from professors with whom you have consulted and who approve your program as submitted. One should be from the professor who has agreed to serve as your adviser for the major. Please include your graduation date.
More advice for a strong proposal:
- Distinguish with an asterisk the courses you have already taken, so that the committee can see how far you have already gone with your course of study.
- Suggest more courses in the lists of introductory and advanced courses than you actually plan to take, committing yourself to, say, "at least six of the following." Many applicants subdivide the advanced courses by department, proposing, for example, to take at least three out of five listed courses in history, to take at least four or five out of eight English courses, and so on. Subdividing in this way indicates more precisely how you intend to distribute your work, and providing options in each department protects you against closeouts, schedule conflicts, and other contingencies. Remember that you will be able to graduate only within the limits that are specified in your approved proposal. So, make it flexible.
- Generally, the more hard-nosed and comprehensive a proposal looks, the more likely it is to win approval. A proposal calling for 18 courses will be more persuasive than one calling for only 12.