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No Major Too Minor

From toy design to fire science administration, highly specialized college majors get you on the fast track to your dream job

MIT, graduating class

Members of MIT's last graduating class of the century listen to commencement speakers in Cambridge on June 04, 1999.

Pam Berry/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Has the Ivory tower turned into a job-training center? If you graduate from high school knowing what career you want to pursue, somewhere in the U.S. there is a college that offers a highly focused major in your calling. Whether you think the intense specialization of undergraduates is good or bad, it is unquestionably a sign that colleges are waking up to the reality that students see them as a ticket to a plum job instead of as a haven for lofty discourse.

Many college counselors will tell you not to choose your school based on a single program, because, as Frederick Rugg, the author of Rugg’s Recommendations on the Colleges, says, “Many kids change their major atter a year or two.” But let’s say you know what you want to do after college. How can you find the dream major that’s going to help launch your career?

The College Board publishes an extensive listing of majors each year in The Index of Majors and Graduate Degrees. But books like this inevitably miss the more unusual majors. Check out the list below for a sampling.

Viticulture and Enology, A.K.A. Winemaking
University of California, Davis
“It’s a tricky major to explain to your parents,” says senior Chris Strathmeyer. Yes, there are dozens of wine tastings each month, and, yes, if you’re under twenty-one, you’re excluded (“It does suck to be an eighteen-year-old viticulture major,” says Strathmeyer). But there’s also a lot of science required: organic chemistry, microbiology and biochemistry, to name a few areas. It’s the most widely respected viticulture and enology department in the country; some job listings flat out state, “UC-Davis VEN grad required.” It’s also the oldest, founded first at UC-Berkeley by an act of the California legislature in 1880. One favorite class, VEN 198, better known as “the barbecue class,” features a lecture by a visiting winemaker, followed by a sampling of his product and a barbecue. Most students get internships at wineries, which helps with getting jobs after graduation, but it’s “a weird business,” according to Jim Wolpert, head of the department. Having a degree helps – you won’t have to start out as a “hose dragger” in a winery (think mailroom clerk) – but the education goes only so far: “You have to learn the art on your own.”

Adventure Recreation
Green Mountain College, Poultney, Vermont
This small “environmental liberal-arts college” just spawned something a little wild: Adventure Recreation. You learn paddling, mountaineering, diving and “adventure camping” (no RVs allowed here), as well as practical things like outdoor emergency care. Is it just for the super-outdoorsy and the ultrafit? Green Mountain’s Stephen Diehl says you “have to have a devotion to physical exercise” in order to be a major. On campus, you’ll see the adventure-rec majors setting up tents and loading canoes onto trailers to head for the river. This sounds like summer camp, and it is, sort of: You spend a lot of time outdoors camping and hiking. But about half of your courses are traditional liberal-arts classes, and you’re also working toward professional certification with groups like the American Canoe Association, the Professional Ski Instructors of America or the Professional Association of Dive Instructors. The program trains students to be river guides and to lead outdoor expeditions; a full-semester internship at a program like the National Outdoor Leadership School or Outward Bound is highly recommended.

Human-Computer Interaction
Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh
Could the title be any more geeky? In fact, says Russell Dicker (CMU ’98), among computer-science types an HCI major is considered “pretty sexy.” This interdisciplinary degree combines elements of computer programming, psychology, design and statistical analysis, and another major aside from HCI is required. Students from all disciplines apply to add HCI as a double major; last year, almost forty percent were turned away. Much of the work takes place in small groups that pool the students’ various skills with the aim of improving the interfaces between people and computers. HCI graduates go on to work in virtual-reality and Web startups as well as big software companies. According to Randy Pausch, associate professor of computer science, the major could produce “ten times as many students, and they would all be gobbled up by the industry.”

Toy Design
Fashion Institute of Technology, SUNY, New York
Judy Ellis, founder and head of the world’s first degree-offering toy-design program, says of the tough workload, “Our kids say we’re worse than medical school.” Most med students would debate that, but it is tough to get admitted here (of the 300 or so applicants each year, only 20 to 22 are accepted), and the course work is time-consuming. The grueling schedule includes weekend classes – all the students stay on campus for an intense prep course that readies them for internship interviews. Danny Vega, a ’99 graduate who recently worked on the X-Men toys for Marvel, says, “When you finally do graduate and get into the industry, it’s a break. It’s easier.” A focus on traditional as well as modern toy-designing techniques (like CID programs and rapid prototyping) – not to mention the department’s close ties to the industry – gives graduates an excellent placement rate into top toy-designing jobs.

Folklore and Mythology
Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Students in this tiny interdisciplinary honors program have written senior theses on subjects ranging from blues singing as an oral tradition to mushroom hunting, shamanism, witchcraft, seventeenth-century Native American texts and folk song as nuclear protest. Despite the esoteric sound of these topics, and although plenty of F&M students do go on to work in academia, other grads pursue more-prosaic fields, like journalism and law. It’s not for everyone, and you have to pass an interview. But as the chairman of the program, Professor Stephen Mitchell, says, “The student who knows that they have a particular interest is very well served.” Winnie Li, one of the two ’00 grads, says that students in the major “stand out as black sheep” in the career-oriented culture of Harvard, with jokes like, “Your parents pay $30,000 a year for you to get a degree in fairy tales?” abounding. But the F&Ms have the last laugh: The student-professor ratio is roughly one to two, students end up on a first-name basis with their instructors, and the intense nature of the tutorial system allows students to bury themselves in a variety of fields, including literature, ethnomusicology and anthropology.

Forensic Identification
West Virginia University, Morgantown, West Virginia
Founded as a joint venture with the FBI, this program is intended to prepare students to work for the FBI, CIA, DEA, Secret Service and other law-enforcement agencies. You graduate with a B.S., and within the major you sample different disciplines: DNA testing taught by medical-school faculty, crime-scene photography from creative-arts professors, plus digital finger-print identification using computer technology. One of the most gruesome (and coolest) parts of the campus is the “Crime Scene House,” an actual house used as a lab. There are removable carpets soaked with blood, as well as “a ceiling fan that changes the flow of blood spatter,” says Dr. Michael T. Yura, program director. Traditionally, students wanting to go into law enforcement major in criminal justice, but this degree has a much more scientific and technological bent – it’s not about the court system or the psychology of the criminal.

Marriage and Family Studies
Allentown College of St. Francis DeSales, Center Valley, Pennsylvania
Marriage is surely an important subject, but “we don’t treat it as something that’s worthy of learning about, and then we just assume that we know how to do it,” says Dr. Brian Kane, an associate professor of theology who heads the Marriage and Family Studies program. This program has about ten students, and the classes address marriage and the family from many disciplines. Most students intend to work in counseling, social work or religious education after graduation. But don’t crack any MRS-degree jokes – no men have ever signed up for the major.

Leadership Studies
University of Richmond, Richmond, Virginia
On the face of it, you might expect the Jepson School of Leadership Studies to attract a band of insufferable, ambitious, squeaky-clean class presidents gunning for political office. But John Renehan, ’00, dismisses this notion. He admits that while he was an undergrad, the heads of the campus Republican and Democratic student groups were both leadership majors, but he also points out the school’s emphasis on community service as an aspect of leadership. So while many graduates go on to business, consulting, teaching and government jobs after graduation, some also join the Peace Corps. Plus, as Renehan learned, you use leadership skills for some pretty prosaic ends: He recently used tactics from a conflict-resolution class while negotiating a lease with his landlord. Assistant Professor Douglas Hicks sees the mission of the program this way: “We do serious intellectual work and prepare people for lives of service. We want to get people out into the community to lead. Students read Aristotle’s Ethics and apply it to their lives.”

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York
This new program just accepted its first freshmen last year, and already other schools such as the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia have started similar programs. What is bioinformatics? “The use of information technology to analyze biological data,” says Susan Smith, a clinical assistant professor of bioinformatics at RPI. Since the advent of things like the Human Genome Project, scientists have needed to manipulate massive amounts of information using database software and data-mining techniques. The degree is perfect for the student who wants to cash in on the biotech gravy train without having to learn too much heavy science.

Fire Science Administration
Salem State College, Salem, Massachusetts
This degree is for someone who wants to be a fire chief. An associate degree is a prerequisite. You learn about the fundamentals of fire behavior, fire-detection and suppressant systems, ventilation techniques, hydraulics, the chemistry of hazardous materials, and fire-science administration and leadership. Although it isn’t required to work in a fire department, having the degree speeds your rise up the administrative ladder. And where else can you learn about the psychology of juvenile arsonists?

Model Making
Bemidji State University, Bemidji, Minnesota
If you’ve ever had a craving to build huge dinosaurs like those in the American Museum of Natural History, start here. This degree will also help you break into fields like architectural-model making, industrial prototyping and the creation of special effects for films.

Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia
This B.A. in business administration also has courses in e-technology or e-marketing thrown in. Currently it’s only a concentration, but starting in the fall of 2001, it will be a free-standing major.

Aerospace Engineering Information Technology
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston
Rocket science + computer science = a degree that will take you to the bank at Mach one. You have to be prepared to take classes in differential equations and probabilistic systems analysis straight out of high school – and have to want to design the software systems that control rockets and airplanes.

Economic Crime Investigation
Hilbert College, Hamburg, New York
Only when you’re studying white-collar crime can a class in “forensic accounting” come in handy. This is for students who want to bust the future Michael Milkens of the world.

Figure-Skating Science
University of Delaware, Newark, Delaware
The home of the Fightin’ Blue Hens offers a B.S. in exercise and sports science, with a concentration in figure-skating science for skaters who want to learn how to coach.

Biological Basis for Behavior
University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
Look for ways to crack the code of animal and human behavior from both neurological and psychological points of view. The classes sound fascinating: “Smell and Taste,” “Biological Basis of Social Behavior,” “Body-Fluid Regulations” (are these last two taught in conjunction?). And you just know all the stoners sign up for “Drugs, Brain and Mind.”

Popular Culture
Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio
Spend your undergraduate years watching even more TV than you did in high school. For this major, you take classes in popular film, popular literature, popular music and television. The department has been around since 1973, and is (unsurprisingly) quite popular. But it’s not as fluffy as you think – there’s a lot of heavy theory to be extracted from all those episodes of The Brady Bunch.

Turf-Grass Science
Purdue University, Lafayette, Indiana
Want to manage golf courses and athletic fields? This degree gives you some agricultural know-how and some business savvy, as well as a required class titled “Woody Ornamental Plants,” all of which should help you nail down that groundskeeper position.

Some of these highly specialized degrees – model-making, for example – seem to run counter to the original idea of what an undergraduate education was all about: giving students a broad knowledge base. Now undergraduates can spend all four years in a topic so narrow, it formerly would have been a subfield in a graduate program or a division of a vocational school. Is this a bad thing? Students don’t seem to think so, because the focused skills they’ve picked up make finding jobs after graduation much easier. 

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