With permission of the departments concerned, it is possible for a student to plan an individualized special major that includes closely related work in one or more departments.
Regularized Special Majors:
In some areas, such as biochemistry or psychobiology, in which special majors are done frequently, the departments and programs involved provide recommended programs. These regularized special majors are described in the relevant department sections of the catalog or in material available from department chairs.
General guidelines for Special Majors:
A special major is expected to be integrated in the sense that it specifies a field of learning (not necessarily conventional) or topic or problems for sustained inquiry that crosses departmental boundaries, or it may be treated as a subfield within the normal departmental major. Special majors consist of at least 10 credits and normally of no more than 12 credits. Students with special majors normally complete a minimum of six courses in the primary department or program, omitting some of the breadth requirements of the major field. However, course requirements central to systematic understanding of the major field may not be waived. Students with special majors must complete the major comprehensive requirement, which may consist of a thesis or other written research projects designed to integrate the work across departmental boundaries, or a comprehensive examination. By extension, special majors may be formulated as joint majors between two departments, normally with at least 5 credits in each department and 11 in both departments. The departments involved collaborate in advising and in the comprehensive examination. Students are not allowed to pursue more than one individualized special major.
From the Registrar - notes on Special majoring
The Special Major Application form provides structure and helps students organize their special major:
Special Major form (PDF)
The 20 course rule: The 20 course rule (requiring 20 credits outside the major) is automatically fulfilled by special majors through meeting the 32 credit degree requirement and at the same time fulfilling the defined 10-12 credits required for the special majors. The defined list of special major courses becomes the list to be counted as "inside the major," and the maximum permitted is 12 credits, so 32 minus 12 is 20 for all special majors. (Note that this approach to the 20 course rule is different from the approach for regular majors, where students need 20 credits with subjects that are different from, that is, "outside," their major subject.
The 20 credits can come from all kinds of degree-applicable credit
AP credit counts (outside your major subject)
Transfer credit counts (outside your major)
Half-credit courses count (outside your major)
For double majors, the 20 course credit rule is calculated as if you had only one major
You only have to complete the rule once, from the perspective of either one of your majors (not both)
The senior comprehensive requirement: All majors, including special majors, must fulfill a comprehensive requirement to graduate (or earn a degree with honors). The "comp" for course special majors is usually similar to the one fulfilled by regular majors in the department of the special major's Faculty Adviser. Careful planning of the senior comprehensive must be done with the faculty adviser, who has responsibility for certifying fulfillment of the comprehensive requirement and of the special major.
Double counting limits: If a student has two majors and one is an interdisciplinary special major, no more than 2 credits may be double counted with the student’s other major. The rules against double counting in the minor also pertain, see the overlap rule. Overlap Checksheet (PDF)
No special minors: Special minors are not permitted at Swarthmore.
Only one individualized special major: Students may have up to two majors, only one of which may be an individualized special major. With the normal departmental approvals, the other one (or both) may be a regularized special major, such as biochemistry or neuroscience.
Honors Minor arising from the Course Second Special Major :
In the case where an Honors student does a special major in course as a second major, the Honors minor (which cannot be exactly the same as the course special major because there are no Honors special minors) must come from one of the main departments used in the student's special course major. Normally the student must complete the requirements for the Honors minor in that department. Students should confer with the Honors Coordinator about this.
Students in this situation have two majors and the honors minor, and have no other minor, in keeping with the major/minor limitations for honors.
Special Majoring in Honors
Summary of rules for individualized special majors in honors:
All the rules for special majors above pertain, (note that going through honor examinations normally fulfills the major comprehensive requirement).
Individualized honors special majors need four special major preparations spanning at least two departments or programs
Individualized honors special majors will not have an honors minor
Work with the Honors Coordinator as your Coordinating Faculty Advisor
Any optional minor must be in course (not honors), so you must fulfill the course minor requirements
Any optional second major must be in course (not honors), so you must fulfill the course comprehensive and major requirements, and it must be a regular major or regularized special major (not an individualized special major)
There are special rules for theses and orals, see below
Summary of rules for regularized special majors in honors:
The rules for regularized special majors (such as biochemistry or psychobiology) are the same as for individualized special majors except that in rare cases regularized interdisciplinary special majors may, with special departmental approval, have a minor in honors, and so prepare only three preparations in the major and one in the minor. In these cases, the honors minor is the first minor, and any optional second minor would be in course or if the student wants to optionally major in the honors minor subject, there can be no second minor and the student must must satisfy all the course major requirements for the second course major, including the course comprehensive.
Honors special major programs must be approved by all
participating departments. Individualized Honors special major programs require the
approval of all departments involved in the program and of the honors
Students who design their own individualized special major
Honors programs (not those in college sponsored programs such as
Bioanthropology) must include work in four related preparations in the
major from at least two departments or academic programs. Individualized honors
special major programs do not include a separate minor. The student's advisor(s)
for a special major will be chosen from those participating departments
and will in most cases be coordinated by the College Honors Coordinator.
The Honors Coordinator will supply the chairs of the relevant
departments with the "Instructions to External Examiners" to be included
in the examiners' packets and any other necessary information.
college sponsored interdisciplinary majors (such as Asian Studies) which
require four preparations for the major may also, with permission of
their major department, prepare a minor for external evaluation by
selecting one of the four preparations in the major and, with the
permission of the department in which it is offered, then completing the
requirements for that department's minor, including the external
evaluation. This option is also available to regularized special majors
(those whose requirements are set by departments or programs) if they
In the case where an Honors student does a special major in course
as a second major, the Honors minor (which cannot be exactly the same
as the course special major because there are no Honors special
minors) must be the same as one of the main departments used in the
student's special course major. Normally the student must complete
the requirements for the Honors minor in that department. Students
should confer with the Honors Coordinator about this.
Honors special majors must either (1) write a
thesis drawing upon their cross-disciplinary work--the thesis will be
examined by examiners in different fields; or (2) have a panel oral
examination which presents the opportunity for cross-disciplinary
discussion. The Honors Special Major thesis will normally be read by
examiners in at least two departments in the Honors Special Major
program (these may or may not be the examiners of the preparations).
Honors Special Majors will follow the SHS activity and portfolio
procedures of the various departments whose offerings they use as
preparations in their programs. Honors Special majors must choose either
to be examined in their oral exams by a panel of all four examiners
(total examination time of 90-120 minutes) or to have individual oral
exams and a thesis exam given by at least two examiners who represent
different departments in the student's program (these may or may not be
the student's preparation examiners). The choice of the examination
mode should be made in consultation with department advisors,
preparation instructors, and the Honors Coordinator.