by Stella Kounelaki Gryllos – Guest Author

Pick and choose. Mix and match. Select from a list of course offerings and design your own degree. Pick your major and pick a minor. And they can be very different.

In some sense, higher education has always been about freedom of choice and expression.

But you do not get to pick your graduation title.

Degree titles are set. You are a mathematics, mechanical engineering, economics, linguistics, or philosophy graduate. Sometimes Master’s and PhD titles can get a little more specific or creative, like “Industrial and Labor Relations” or “Information Security Policy and Management,” but again they are not made-to-order.

So, what if you have specialized in geometry and you want to tell the world about it? What if you care deeply about sustainable design and you want that to stand out for anyone glancing over your resume? What if you’ve majored in economics, minored in music, but in reality you’ve studied the economics of music?

How do you tell your story to the world?

The online way

Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs) are one way to go about doing that.

MOOCs offer a flexible way of arriving at your own mix of coursework — pre- or post- graduation. With MOOCs, you receive certification for the courses that you have successfully completed, so that you can showcase those on your profile on paper and online.

Data show that MOOCs are particularly popular among college students and recent graduates. One recent study by HarvardX and MITx (available here) finds that the majority of MOOC participants are in their 20s and have a bachelor’s degree.

The same study identifies computer science courses as the ‘hubs’ of MOOC curriculum. This makes sense since programming and data science are becoming the new literacy in the labor market. You can now graduate as an English literature major and, if you need web development skills, you can pick those up online later.

And, while computer science courses are particularly popular, courses in STEM, social science, and the humanities are widely offered. Take courses in history and show the world that, apart from a math major, you have an aptitude for global affairs and diplomacy. Study global health and epidemiology and give your international relations degree a healthcare twist.

The on-campus way

A more traditional, low-tech way of picking up new skills in college is student clubs. For decades, student clubs have been the way to personalize the college experience.

Like MOOCs, student clubs offer learning opportunities beyond the formal curriculum. You can be a math major by day and driver of the college ambulance by night. You can be a bioengineering PhD student in the lab by day and a science policy expert participating in high-profile on campus events in the evenings.

Also like MOOCs, student clubs are a great way to earn titles for your resume. Throw one in and your resume looks entirely different from that of a colleague who also majored in civil engineering but wasn’t the president of the Venture Capital and Private Equity Club.

Listening to students

I interviewed 86 ΜΙΤ students of all levels (Bachelor’s, Master’s, PhD) who actively participated in student clubs in eight professional areas: computing, education, energy, entrepreneurship, healthcare, international development, public service, and space.[1]

I found that students join student clubs seeking four main add-ons to their formal coursework:

1. Hands-on technical work. There’s the listing of courses and grades and there’s the actually having built something. For an undergraduate student majoring in electrical engineering, participation in the Solar Electric Vehicle Team allows him to say: “I majored in electrical engineering. I am interested in vehicles: cars, aircraft, spacecraft. And, I’ve built a solar electric vehicle.” That’s a pretty big deal for a 22-year-old embarking in a career in engineering.

2. Specialization in a field of interest. “I will graduate with a PhD in Mechanical Engineering and that’s great, but where does it say “wind”?” This is what I hear a PhD student in mechanical engineering with a passion for wind energy say. Joining the Wind Energy Projects in Action was a turning point. Through the club, he worked on wind energy projects, such as feasibility studies for wind turbines on the MIT campus and in Boston. He was even featured on a radio show! His work with the club gets him the ‘wind energy expert’ title he needed to advance his career.

3. Track record in public service. How does one combine traditional professions with a career in public service? The path to becoming a doctor is long, but more or less defined. Becoming a doctor with an emphasis on public service though — how does one become that? Joining a service club on campus is one way to start. “I do not see myself becoming the type of physician who sees patients 9 to 5 everyday,” a pre-med student shared with me and noted that the work he does with a club that offers STEM outreach classes to local high school students (called “InnoWorks”) is very meaningful as he works to combine a medical career with service.

4. Experience in entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship can be risky business. Any opportunity to get experience with starting up a venture in a protected environment is highly sought after. This is the experience of three undergraduates who set up a club that ran mobile technology camps in India. They named it the “Indian Mobile Initiative” and ran it like a non-profit startup. Their MIT affiliation was crucial in helping them get it off the ground. It gave them access to MIT funds and resources in India. Now, they get to be “co-founders” of a successful organization, a qualification many would envy as they look to pursue entrepreneurial careers.

These and many more stories of students kicking off highly personalized careers through clubs can be deeply insightful for what students need.

MOOCs do great with building knowledge. But what about project-based growth? Listening to students can help formulate new ideas for how to serve them even closer to their needs.

[1] This piece is based on unpublished data from Stella’s doctoral research. Her dissertation can be accessed here.

About the Author

Stella Kounelaki Gryllos
Stella Kounelaki Gryllos, works on making education meaningful through technology and innovative program design. She holds a PhD from the MIT Sloan School of Management. Check out her blog here.