Self-Made Majors and the Journey of Personalized Education

The Pioneer of Customized Education: Will Shortz

Will Shortz, a man synonymous with puzzles, has long been an inspiration for those pursuing unconventional career paths. At 9, Shortz crafted his first puzzle, a milestone that set him on a unique journey in the world of enigmatology. By 14, he was already a professional puzzle creator and, at 16, a regular contributor to Dell Puzzle Magazine.


Shortz’s academic journey took an intriguing turn during his time at Indiana University. Initially focused on economics, he shifted gears in his junior year, spurred by a childhood joke about majoring in puzzles. The discovery of the university’s individualized major program transformed this joke into a reality. Thus, enigmatology as a field of study was born. Shortz crafted his curriculum with courses like “History of American Word Puzzles Before the 1860s” and “Crossword Construction.” His pioneering effort culminated in a degree that directly fueled his career, leading him to become the esteemed editor of The New York Times Crossword.

The Resurgence of Self-Made Majors

Shortz’s story is not an isolated incident but a precursor to a growing trend in education. The notion of self-made majors, emerging in the 1960s, has seen a resurgence in recent years. Between 2019 and 2021, there was a 3% increase in graduates with individualized studies degrees. The appeal? These degrees are no longer just about niche specializations; they are a strategic response to an evolving job market.

Adaptability is key in an era where full-time jobs give way to gig economies and AI threatens millions of traditional roles. Employers now value individuality and flexibility, skills students believe are best demonstrated through a custom-crafted college degree.

Case Study: Oluwaseyi Onifade

Oluwaseyi Onifade’s story at Rochester Institution of Technology (RIT) illustrates this trend. Struggling to find a degree aligned with his interests in healthcare and biotechnology, Onifade crafted his degree in global health management and healthcare administration. His journey highlights the program’s flexibility but also the need for clarity in one’s career goals.

RIT’s School of Individualized Study (SOIS) typifies this educational shift, with a 45% enrollment increase from 2019 to 2021. The program caters to diverse student needs, ranging from interdisciplinary explorers to those pooling credits for graduation. Essential to this approach are courses like “Individuals and Society” and “Ethics in Leadership,” which equip students with adaptable skills for a changing job market.

The Future of Jobs and Customized Education

The World Economic Forum’s 2023 Future of Jobs report emphasizes the relevance of self-efficacy skills like resilience and agility. Ben Papernick, a seasoned recruiter, confirms this trend, noting a balance between subject expertise and resilience as crucial in the current job market.

However, colleges struggle to keep pace with emerging trends, often lagging behind workforce demands. This gap has led to a decline in the number of students working in industries related to their majors post-graduation. In response, institutions focus on teaching flexibility, a more feasible approach than overhauling entire degree programs.

Does It Work?

The success of individualized study programs heavily relies on student initiative and the support of faculty. While these programs offer interdisciplinary courses and leadership training, their effectiveness depends on the student’s goals and the faculty’s commitment to their interests.

Critics, however, point out potential pitfalls. The emphasis on flexibility can lead to an over-reliance on student-faculty relationships, and there’s a risk of faculty bias in course creation. Despite these challenges, many graduates succeed in the job market, leveraging their unique degrees to explore diverse career paths or pursue advanced education.

Adaptability as the New Normal

In today’s rapidly changing world, where job security is increasingly precarious, the ability to pivot is invaluable. Institutions like RIT and NYU are preparing students for this uncertainty. Whether students thrive or flounder in this environment is ultimately up to them. Customized degrees are not a one-size-fits-all solution, but they represent a significant shift in educational paradigms, acknowledging and adapting to the fluidity of the modern job market.

Insights and Concluding Thoughts on Customized College Degrees

The Impact of Customized Degrees on Career Paths

The rise of individualized study programs marks a significant shift in higher education, directly impacting career trajectories. Graduates from these programs often find themselves well-equipped for unique job opportunities that align closely with their personalized studies. For instance, at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, a significant percentage of graduates either proceed to advanced degrees or find their concentration closely linked to their career. Similarly, RIT graduates frequently enter tech and design fields or embark on entrepreneurial ventures, like sustainable chocolate production or textile-making.

The Role of Flexibility in Modern Education

The core principle behind these customized degrees is flexibility, a response to the precarious nature of today’s job market. This approach reflects a broader educational trend towards equipping students with adaptable skills rather than rigid, specialized knowledge. This shift is not just a reaction to the changing job landscape but a proactive measure to prepare students for an unpredictable future.

Challenges and Limitations

Despite the apparent advantages, the path to a customized degree is not without its challenges. The lack of a traditional academic track requires students to be more proactive and reliant on their relationships with faculty. This dependency can sometimes lead to inconsistencies in educational quality and may inadvertently foster an environment where faculty biases influence course content. This aspect requires careful consideration and oversight from educational institutions to ensure that the promise of diverse and inclusive learning is genuinely fulfilled.

The Bigger Picture: Education and Job Market Dynamics

The trend towards individualized study programs reflects the larger dynamics at play in the education sector and the job market. As technological advancements and economic shifts continue to reshape the professional landscape, the conventional education system finds itself under pressure to adapt. Colleges and universities are increasingly recognizing the need to offer more dynamic, flexible educational models that can keep pace with these changes.

Final Thoughts

Building your own major proves the evolving nature of education and work. It embodies a proactive approach to learning, where adaptability and personalization are highly important. However, it’s crucial to acknowledge that this approach may not suit everyone. It demands a high degree of self-motivation, clarity of purpose, and a supportive educational environment.


In conclusion, the rise of customized college degrees highlights a significant shift in educational paradigms, driven by the need to prepare students for a world where change is the only constant. While this approach offers numerous benefits, it also presents unique challenges that require careful navigation. Ultimately, the success of such programs hinges on institutions’ ability to provide a balanced, flexible, and inclusive educational experience that aligns with their students’ diverse needs and aspirations.


Today, the ability to adapt and reinvent oneself is more than just an academic exercise; it’s a vital skill for navigating the uncertainties of the future job market. As we witness the continued growth and evolution of customized degree programs, it’s clear that they represent not just a trend but a necessary response to the demands of a dynamic and ever-changing world.