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Special Majors

General Information


With permission of the departments and/or programs concerned, it is possible for a student to plan an individualized special major that includes closely related work in one or more departments.  See more about this in the "Details from the Registrar" section below.


In some areas, such as educational studies, medical anthropology, biochemistry or neuroscience, 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.


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.

Details from the Registrar

Individualized special majors require significant planning, many approvals, and almost inevitably change over time which then require more approvals, more signatures, etc. All this work may feel excessive, but it is important on many levels. Requiring the signatures is a way to get you to have the meetings that help you get the advising you need to successfully complete the special major. The fact that you will construct and probably later re-construct the special major is hard work indeed. Please expect and forgive that you really will have to complete the special major form again, meeting with faculty and collecting signatures again, every time you change your individualized special major.

The Special Major Application form provides structure and helps students organize their special major: Special Major form [pdf]

For both regularized and individual special majors:

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.

Planning a Special Major

Get Help Planning:

  • Sophomores: During Sophomore Planning in the Spring Semester, you should attend the info session about individualized special majors, talk with professors to get advice and complete the Individualized Special Major Form.
  • Honors Program: Contact the Honors Program director for questions related to Honors Special Majors.

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.

From the Honors Handbook [pdf]

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 coordinator.

Students who design their own individualized special major Honors programs 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.

Some 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 are interdisciplinary.

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