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Independent Major

Cornell University Cornell University College of Arts and Sciences Cornell University

College of Arts and Sciences, Liberal Arts at Cornell University

Independent Major Program

In order to earn an A.B. degree from the College of Arts and Sciences, students must complete a major — a sequence of courses, graduated in sophistication, in one field, and usually in one department. Completing a major should help you gain the intellectual maturity — creative, critical, and skeptical acumen — that comes from disciplined, intensive work in one subject. You may choose one of the established majors in the college, or you may work out your own major through the Independent Major Program.

Independent majors involve interdisciplinary work; some established majors do, too. In fact, at an advanced level, every subject and every professional field, involves interdisciplinary work. The departmental structure reflects this interaction to some degree: some departments cross-list courses, or accept courses from other departments toward the major. Some majors, such as Africana studies, archaeology, Asian studies, biology and society, religious studies, science & technology studies, and feminist, gender and sexuality studies are interdisciplinary by their very nature. You should design an independent major only if your interests do not fit comfortably into any existing department or major.

You work out a proposal for an independent major with the help of faculty and the director of the Independent Major Program. A special board of faculty members reviews your proposal for final approval. The board considers whether the plan brings a particular subject into clear focus, whether the range of courses is sufficiently inclusive, and whether, in pursuing the program, you are likely to acquire the methodological and critical skills students acquire in the departmental majors. A rule of thumb is to include 8–10 courses at the 300 level or above; most independent majors include more.

After your program is approved, you will be expected to stick to it, although course substitutions caused by changes in the college's curriculum and your increasingly focused interests are not unusual. Any substantial changes should be discussed with the director of the Independent Major Program.

Preparing an application for an independent major is not an easy task. It requires a clear idea of what you want to study. It also requires a great deal of time to locate appropriate courses and appropriate people to help you. You may talk with a half-dozen professors before you finally settle on an advisor. After a proposal is submitted, you may be asked to refine it further. If your proposal is approved, you are likely to find your major more demanding than the usual departmental major. You are also likely to find it deeply exciting and satisfying.

Contact Information

James Finlay
G-55 Goldwin Smith Hall

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