I am in the process of designing a major. However, I am worried that using a self-designed major can make an application look bad. As it stands, this potential major is about 70% computer science classes, 30% psychology and neuroscience classes. As such, this leads me to the questions:

  • Are these self-designed majors seen as "weird" or simply unacceptable?
  • In general, are self-designed majors unattractive for graduate admissions?
  • For computer science specifically, do majors matter?
  • 2
    Not trying to deter your goals, but why not just go with a tried and true major (Computer Science?) and do independent studies in your other interests? Feb 4, 2013 at 6:20
  • As currently written, the question is a bit too specific to your personal situation.
    – JeffE
    Feb 4, 2013 at 6:57
  • @AustinHenley, thank you for your reply. That is the other option I was considering, and given Amy's answer, it's probably what I'll end up doing.
    – geetar
    Feb 4, 2013 at 8:40
  • @geetar how realistic is it for you to pursue a CS degree with a minor in psych or vice versa? Or, how many psych/cogsci classes can you fit in while you pursue a CS major (declaring a minor may help you get into upper divisions courses, and you don't have to finish it!). That will give you some interesting things to talk about in your applications, and I think would cover the bases as far as concerns about CS foundations.
    – Amy
    Feb 4, 2013 at 23:22
  • @Amy A CS major with a CogSci minor is definitely feasible, and that's probably what I'll be going with. I asked this question primarily because for the classes that wouldn't be in the self-designed major, but in the CS major, the instructors were terribly bad. "Terribly bad" as in they neglect their students, or they admit they don't fully understand what they're teaching, and compensate for that by making the class stupidly easy. If they're going to do that, I might as well take a summer class elsewhere instead, and study other things in college.
    – geetar
    Feb 5, 2013 at 20:57

6 Answers 6


The disadvantage of having a "made it myself" degree is that in situations in which you are being compared with your peers (i.e. graduate admissions), you are comparing apples to oranges, and the admissions committee only know apples. A committee sees two applicants with CS degrees, even if they come from different universities, they can be somewhat certain that both have covered a certain number of bases. In these situations, your degree compared to a CS degree can look like 70% of a degree vs. 100%, even if you have a higher GPA (and this may read as "they have a higher GPA because they took psych classes instead of Operating Systems, Databases, Compilers, Networks, Computer Architecture, and Theory of Computation").

Admissions committees are less concerned with whether you took classes "related to your interests" than whether or not you passed or exceeded the same thresholds as your peers. If you're worried that people wont give your transcript a good look, most won't (especially if you end up entering the workforce). Don't get a degree in anything that will take more than 30 seconds to explain.

Look at all of the people who are doing the work that you some day want to do. Look at all the professors that you might someday want to work with. What did they get their degrees in? (here's a not-so-big secret: most professors hire students who remind them of themselves)

Get in touch with professors at research universities, admission committees, grad students, and get their opinions. Ask "What are you looking for in an incoming student?" People will be pretty forthcoming with you. Ask your professors if they have any contacts at research universities that you could talk with. Also, your professors all got into grad school - ask them how they did it. Find the youngest ones, they'll have the best idea what admissions are like these days.

  • 5
    What did they get their degrees in? — Not so fast. Just on my hallway, there are computer science professors with undergrad degrees in mathematics, electrical engineering, industrial engineering, and linguistics instead of computer science. Even my department head does not have a CS degree.
    – JeffE
    Feb 4, 2013 at 22:20
  • @JeffE - Does anyone in your department have a bachelor's degree in interdisciplinary studies? That was my point.
    – Amy
    Feb 4, 2013 at 23:01
  • 1
    Honestly, I've never heard of a "bachelor's degree in interdisciplinary studies". But the ex-linguistics major advises ex-EE majors, and the ex-EE major advises ex-math majors, and so on.... Professors don't just hire students who remind them of themselves.
    – JeffE
    Feb 5, 2013 at 5:10
  • Are these self-designed majors seen as "weird" or simply unacceptable?
  • In general, are self-designed majors unattractive for graduate admissions?
  • For computer science specifically, do majors matter?

Having a self-designed major is definitely not a problem for graduate admissions in computer science. We don't care what your major is; that's a stupid administrative hurdle. We only care what you've done.

On the other hand, an undergraduate transcript that does not cover the foundations of a computer science major might be a problem. My department commonly admits graduate students with non-CS undergraduate degrees, but if they haven't taken at least the core of a computer science degree and a few advanced CS classes, we're more likely to admit them to one of our master's programs instead of to the PhD program directly.

Your transcript will look different to different departments. The mixed major you describe might actually give you a slight advantage in departments with research programs in HCI and/or some branches of AI, or with interdisciplinary programs in (say) psychophysics or cognitive science. It might also hurt you at departments without researchers in those areas.

But the real issue, at least for PhD admissions, is whether the admissions committee is convinced that you have strong potential for research in computer science. At the top CS departments, what classes you've taken really a second-order concern (unless your grades are bad or there are glaring gaps). Your research potential and experience, as described in your statement and recommendation letters, are much more significant. If an applicant has a strong research record, and their research interests match our faculty, we may admit them without even looking at their transcript.


If you intend to go into an interdisciplinary grad program, it may actually help your chances of being admitted. For example, my Ph.D. is in Human-Computer Interaction and Computer Engineering. My research had a heavy psychology component. A hint of neuroscience in my background would have certainly benefited me. In HCI, the combination of CS, Psychology, and Neuroscience could make you a quite attractive candidate. Importantly though, it depends if you see yourself applying to one of the truly interdisciplinary programs vs. just applying to a CS program to research HCI. There may be other interdisciplinary programs out there as well that would be interested in such a combination, though HCI seems to be a fairly perfect fit with that background.

The concern I would have is that you are still early in your academic career and your grad school plans may change by the time you are done earning this degree. In this case, a traditional major would probably be a better choice. Keep in mind there are also options for double majors and minors that are well-known degrees as opposed to a build-your-own degree.


I believe this would hurt your chances. From the point of view of the admissions committee, there's no guarantee that the 70% of CS (or 30% of psych/neuro classes) that you chose to include in your custom major covers everything you'll need in graduate school, and you may have large holes in your fundamentals that would give you a distinct disadvantage.

A much better approach would be to simply choose a standard major and fill all your electives with a concentration of psychology and neuroscience courses. This would still give you multifaceted knowledge while still providing the admissions group a way of measuring you against your peers.


If you're at a school where self-designed majors are fairly common, there may be records of what sorts of jobs people with self-designed majors have gotten (and whether/where they went to grad school).


I'm just a grad student with no real insight into admissions processes, but I do believe that this wouldn't hurt you if you wanted to go into cognitive neuroscience. The reason is that neuroscience is such a multidisciplinary field that everyone eventually needs to learn something outside their field. Having that hurdle out of the way before beginning graduate studies would be seen as a plus (in my opinion), but it would be wise describe the combination of courses a bit in your letter of motivation.

Extrapolating from this, perhaps self-designed majors are less of a problem in multidisciplinary fields.

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