An academic major is a curricular component that enables students to make an in-depth inquiry into a discipline or a professional field of study. It is organized around a specific set of goals and objectives that are accomplished through an ordered series of courses whose connections define an internal structure. It is intended to provide study in depth, which leads to knowledge and understanding in the discipline or field of study. A major that focuses on a discipline draws its courses predominantly from one department. One that encompasses a professional field of study or is interdisciplinary usually obtains its courses from more than one department.
The number of credit hours in a major and its organizational structure will vary, depending on whether it aims at disciplinary or professional preparation. A disciplinary major consists of thirty to forty-two credit hours. Due to the demands of accrediting agencies, certification requirements, and professional competence, a professional major normally ranges from thirty to fifty-five credit hours. In both cases, a major includes a logically ordered core of required courses, which provides general direction for students' study, and a series of electives, which gives a degree of flexibility to the program. At least 15 hours of the course work in a major is at the upper division level (300 or above).
Departments have the responsibility for administering all majors within their unit and for approving particular programs of study and appropriate course substitutions for students. Those departments involved with interdisciplinary majors perform the same functions as individual departments. Courses taken to fulfill other academic requirements, e.g., minors and areas of specialization, may ordinarily also be used in the major without reducing the minimum number of hours required for a degree. However, no student may declare a major and a minor in the same discipline of field of study.
The most important feature of a major is study in depth. A major introduces students to a discipline or field of study through a foundation of theory and method, which serves as a basis for further study. It exposes them to the gamut of topics examined and the analytical devices used in the study of the subject. It contains a series of courses that presume advancing levels of knowledge and understanding. At its completion, it has a means of assessing students' mastery of the subject such as, a project, an internship, a thesis, or a comprehensive examination. Study in depth provides students with an understanding of the fundamental problems and arguments of a discipline or field of study, as well as their limits. It affords them practice with the tools of the subject, introduces them to its historical and philosophical foundations, and gives them a clear sense of its boundaries and its effectiveness as a means for understanding or serving human society.