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A Major or Minor Question

All PostsNewsA Major or Minor Question

Yonatan Gazit, May Tay

Infographic by Christopher Khew

Four years ago, Samuel Lum ’17 was interning at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. The experience made him realise the central role of finance in businesses, and inspired an academic interest in the field, which he now hopes to pursue as a minor. Students like Lum with alternative academic interests are not uncommon at Yale-NUS. They run the gamut from those with more niche academic interests to others set on particular graduate courses, such as Engineering or Medicine.

By the end of their second year at Yale-NUS, students get their pick of 14 majors, from Anthropology to Urban Studies. These 14 majors are intended to cover between them an array of standard majors, such as Economics, and broader, interdisciplinary majors, such as Arts & Humanities and Environmental Studies. While most students will find their major and minor interests among these 14 choices, others with different interests will have to seek out their own academic pathways.

As a new college, the number of possible majors at Yale-NUS is inevitably fewer than the number at more established colleges and universities. There are currently 82 possible majors at Yale College, and 65 for undergraduates at NUS.

The way Yale-NUS accommodates the various interests of its student body is through a division system. Most universities and colleges adopt a departmental system. “[Sometimes] it’s the same courses all over again, and you get into serious inefficiency,” explained Dean of Faculty, Charles Bailyn. He explains with an example, “Both in Chemistry and Physics, there’s an important course in thermodynamics, but it’s usually taught differently in both departments. It’s interesting to think about why thermodynamics is taught twice at all universities … but I think it certainly creates a kind of redundancy within the system.”

“[At Yale-NUS] we only have divisions. One of the things that that allows you to do is to have broader majors. Some of our majors are typical departmental subject matter, like economics and psychology, but [others] are broader … Physical Sciences is an example,” said Dean Bailyn. Another motivation for the division system is the interest in crafting a more holistic intellectual experience for students. “Departments are important for graduate education, but from an undergrad point of view it is just not the case that most economics majors are going to be economists, nor history majors historians. If [you are] trying to [create] … an in-depth intellectual experience for the sake of having an in-depth intellectual experience rather than perpetuating a next generation of professors of the exact same discipline, then it looks a little different.”

Students who want to explore alternative or niche ideas for their major pathways or minors should speak to relevant faculty who can assist them with planning an appropriate set of courses. Within the current academic framework, these students will have to craft their own pathways through existing majors. For instance, a student looking to focus on dance will do so through the Dance Arts pathway through the Arts and Humanities major. Where possible, students can supplement their academic experiences with relevant electives at NUS, independent study modules, or summer programs. Over the past summer, 30 students from the Class of 2017 attended Yale Summer Sessions. Including those 30, a total of 51 students attended summer courses with transferrable credits through CIPE opportunities, according to CIPE.

Creating new majors is not a feasible option in the near future, for the college is relatively committed to building up existing majors. A new major would need to be approved by five academic committees, according to Dean Bailyn.

Mentors will be important for students seeking specific academic pathways. At Yale-NUS, all students are assigned an academic advisor in their freshman year. After they declare their major, respective major advisors and Heads of Study will feature more prominently in the advising process. “A lot of the faculty are also very willing to talk to students who have … interests in common with them, whether or not they are their official advisor,” said Dean Bailyn. “We’ve got a decent faculty student ratio so there are opportunities for everyone to have these conversations.”

While the general framework is in place, details on many specific pathways remain to be defined. A pertinent concern among the student body is that relevant decisions and faculty hirings will be made only a long time from now, leaving students with less time to explore more fields of study. However, there is a chance students may not need to worry as much after all. “A lot of the faculty hiring over the next six months … is to make sure that the classes we need to teach at the time we need to teach them to get them through their pathways that we think students will want, are actually taught,” informed Dean Bailyn.

In building a new college, the student body, faculty, administration and staff have to work closely in order to strengthen the college’s curriculum and policies. Time and patience is needed, but more importantly, so is communication and mutual understanding.

A Minor Interest

A glimpse into a few students’ alternative ideas for minors

Gender Studies:

Sheryl Foo ’17 finds Gender Studies a fascinating field of study. “Personally, I am interested in critical social theories, and gender comes naturally as it governs many fundamental social institutions,” she said. “Last semester, I helped craft a 2 MC course on gender studies facilitated by Professor Rebecca Tannenbaum. I did so because I was frustrated at the lack of gender coverage in our CSI course. It was a very fruitful learning journey and I found it one of my favorite classes last year even though it was only 2MC.”

Theatre Studies / Creative Writing:

Sherlyn Goh ’17 discovered an interest in theatre studies after taking an introductory theatre studies elective at NUS. “I really like the creative writing process, the analyzing and directing of plays,” she shared. “However, there are no theatre instructors or courses at Yale-NUS, nor clear instructions on the requisite electives for each major … In the course description for the Arts & Humanities major, it states … we have to take 1 critical approach course and 2 studio courses. Does my creative non-fiction writing course count as a studio course? Is it even a course under the Arts major? I’m worried about having to take many other arts-related electives for the major that are not directly related to my areas of interest.”

Paving the Way to Graduate School


To Aaron Kurzak ’17, an understanding of mechanical engineering is crucial in the renewable energy sector, which he hopes to enter in the future. “The engineering degree at NUS normally requires students to follow a very rigorous curriculum, and it might become difficult to select very specific classes for a minor,” said Kurzak. “That said, Yale-NUS has been extremely supportive so far. Vice-Rector Eduardo Lage-Otero consulted the [NUS] Faculty of Engineering … and assured me I’d be able to take classes with them.”

Although Engineering is not offered as a major in Yale-NUS, the advice from Head of Study of the Physical Sciences Professor Kang Hway Chuan is that students should speak with him or other science division faculty should they seek to fulfill general requirements for Engineering-related graduate studies. “What is needed for engineering grad school varies from place to place, and also from one discipline in engineering to another, so this needs some working out. I think (interested students and relevant faculty) need to strap down and work out the most suitable pathway. The earlier this is done, the better,” he added.


Medical school is on the cards for Jay Lusk ’18. “Statistically, international applicants to US medical schools have a difficult time being admitted,” he said. “Yale-NUS needs to make sure that pre-medical students are advised early and can begin planning for the future sooner rather than later. [The college has to] ensure that prospective medical applicants are well-qualified in the subject areas that medical schools require for admission.”

At this point in time, there is no pre-med advisor in the college. However, according to a draft document on medical school advice for Yale-NUS students, those interested in North American post-graduate medical schools or the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School are urged to visit the Association of American Medical Colleges and Duke-NUS websites for advice and information. The document will be disseminated to the student body once it is ready.

Associate Professor of Science Neil Clarke, who taught at the John Hopkins School of Medicine previously, cautions against anxiety over fulfilling prerequisites, “Students are often under the impression that they need to have specific majors to go to medical school. 60% of graduate medical school students did not major in a science at all. Of course, you still need to have taken some college-level science courses and passed the MCAT. Even so, the MCAT is changing right now to reflect the fact that you do not need to have had a highly specialized background in science in order to do medicine.” Professor Clarke suggests CIPE could work with students with medical school aspirations.

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