Degree program allows students to tailor a major to fit their interests

By Emily Duke '16
June 11, 2014

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Turfgrass science. Golf management. Immunology and infectious disease. Medieval studies. Wildlife and fisheries science. Organizational leadership. With more than 160 majors and hundreds more minors on the books, it seems as though everyone can find something right for them at Penn State.

Well, almost everyone. Each year, as many as 100 students find themselves on an academic road that is a bit more unique.

For those students, there is the bachelor of philosophy (B.Phil), a little-known program that allows students to “work with a faculty mentor to develop an individually tailored undergraduate major that enables them to pursue academic and artistic discovery unavailable through traditional majors and program concentrations,” according to the program’s website.

“It’s really incredible to have completely designed my own education,” said Kate Ortbal, who completed a B.Phil and graduated this May with honors through Penn State's Schreyer Honors College.

Brendan Tomoschuk, another Schreyer Scholar who graduated in May, was originally pursuing general science but had a more specialized field in mind. The B.Phil program allowed him to turn his “crazy idea of a major” into a reality.

“I was very interested in pursuing a path in neurolinguistics, but there wasn’t a single major that catered to what I wanted to do,” Tomoschuk said. “It’s hard to know what you’re interested in and see that it doesn’t fit with one of the majors that Penn State has to offer.”

A professor told him about the bachelor of philosophy, and Tomoschuk’s plan began to take off.

“Because I was interested in this, I worked with an adviser to pick out the different classes that would help to build a foundation — psychology, linguistics, neuroscience, physics, math,” Tomoschuk said. “Then, I had to write an application and sit down with a couple of advisers in the program and explain why my major was necessary. It was important to express why I couldn’t just major in psychology or science — why that wasn’t enough.”

Tomoschuk wanted to specifically focus on the cognitive science behind language acquisition. While a psychology degree would have allowed him to take courses in cognitive psychology, he would have had to take a variety of other types as well, and would not have had such a focused scope of learning.

For Ortbal, the inspiration for her focus on social entrepreneurship came after traveling to the Global Health and Innovation Conference with Penn State’s Global Water Brigades chapter.

“The main goal of social entrepreneurship is to create social value, but there’s also an emphasis on profitability and scalability,” Ortbal said. “I loved this model and couldn’t find a major at Penn State that focused on it, so I knew that if I wanted to be able to do exactly what I wanted, I would have to make my own curriculum.”

Mary Beth Spang, a Schreyer Scholar planning to graduate in May 2015, is pursuing a bachelor of philosophy in linguistics in addition to bachelor of arts degrees in English and Spanish in the College of the Liberal Arts.

“I'm a passionate student, and it was very difficult to choose just one area of study to focus on in college,” Spang said. “The B.Phil program allowed me to follow my passion for linguistics while also satisfying my other academic interests.”

According to Richard Stoller, coordinator of academic advising and international programs for the Schreyer Honors College and the honors adviser to students pursuing a B.Phil as their singular degree, many of the B.Phil programs tend to be focused around a few specific concentrations.

“The most common interests for students to pursue with a bachelor of philosophy are linguistics, cognitive sciences or international development, since Penn State doesn’t have those majors,” Stoller said.

The level of interest in an academic area has even led to the creation of new permanent academic programs.

“Back in the late 1990s, students were using the B.Phil to design majors for neuroscience,” Stoller said. “Penn State picked up on this and added a program for it, so it can be helpful in that way too.”

Students do not have to be Schreyer Scholars to apply for the program. According to Stoller, of the approximately 500 Schreyer Scholars earning degrees each year, fewer than six graduate with a B.Phil. Of all undergraduates graduating from Penn State in a given year, no more than 10 will have earned the B.Phil degree.

“The B.Phil is something that many students imagine they will do, but few students actually pursue,” Stoller said. “Most are not aware of the opportunity. It’s not so much a ‘create-your-own-major’ but more that we want to be supportive of students and what they pursue academically.”

B.Phil students must fulfill a requirement of completing a capstone project upon graduation. For Scholars, this is in addition to the honors thesis.

When it comes to interviews or graduate school applications, the B.Phil requires a little bit more explanation than a traditional bachelor of arts or bachelor of science.

“When I was applying to a graduate school, I had to make it clear that I designed my own program for neurolinguistics so that I could take all of the courses that I wanted to,” Tomoschuk said. “It’s more about how you explain it and market yourself when you’re looking for post-graduate options.”

This has also presented a challenge for Spang while working on her honors thesis in her B.Phil in linguistics.

“What I learned is that many professors and staff members don't actually know what a B.Phil is, and that's definitely a challenge when you're trying to work around graduation and honors requirements,” Spang said.

For Tomoschuk, everything came together. In April, he rang the Schreyer Honors College’s famous gong, a tradition signifying completion of his honors thesis in neurolinguistics. This fall, he will begin a Ph.D. program for psychology and linguistics at the University of California, San Diego.

“I think the biggest challenge for me along the way was that there was a lack of camaraderie,” Tomoschuk said. “In most majors you have the same classes with the same people over and over, and I sort of found myself isolated in some classes. You don’t have people who are complaining about the neuroscience exam and the linguistics exam that are both on the same day. For that to be the biggest annoyance is evident of how worth it the extra work for the B.Phil truly was.”

For Ortbal, it was people — namely academic advisers and faculty members — who made the difference in her pursuit of a degree.

“I knew what I wanted to learn,” she said. “This gave me a opportunity to meet the people who could make that happen.” 

  • Mary Beth Spang-B.Phil research in Colombia

    Mary Beth Spang, second from right, is pictured with members of the research team she worked with in Palenque, Colombia. The team was led by Dr. John Lipski, left, the Edwin Erie Sparks Professor of Spanish and Linguistics in the College of the Liberal Arts. Also pictured are graduate student Lauren Perrotti and undergraduates Danny Magerman and Melinda Dennis. Spang's research in Colombia is the basis of her honors thesis and her capstone project to complete a bachelor of philosophy degree.

    IMAGE: Photo provided
  • Mary Beth Spang-B.Phil research in Colombia

    Mary Beth Spang, right, accompanied by a guide, prepares to travel from Palenque, Colombia, to outlying villages to conduct research interviews. Spang said motorcycles were the easiest and least expensive mode of transportation in Palenque and on the unpaved roads outside of the town. Spang was in Colombia conducting research that will be part of her honors thesis and bachelor of philosophy capstone project.

    IMAGE: Photo provided
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Last Updated June 11, 2014