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What is Interdisciplinary Studies?

March 25, 2021 | Staff Writers

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Colleges offer many disciplines to choose from when it comes to your major and making that choice can be daunting. Are you getting ready to start your post-secondary education, but can’t narrow down what you want to study? Maybe you’re interested in both arts and science but can’t decide between the two. If your interests lie in more than one subject, and you have an idea of how you can connect those two subjects, then interdisciplinary studies might be for you.

Interdisciplinary studies is a major that allows you to study two or more subjects at the same time and in dialogue with one another. The flexibility that this degree option provides helps you navigate your studies to suit your interests and career goals. Whether you’re looking at getting a college-level degree or continuing your studies into your masters, you’ll want to consider choosing an interdisciplinary studies degree.

Read on to learn more about interdisciplinary studies, the benefits of this type of program, and what schools offer this option.

Understanding Interdisciplinary Studies

The scope of interdisciplinary studies is endless– this degree is meant to cross boundaries. There are many disciplines to combine to complete your degree, and it all depends on your interests and career goals.

Most colleges allow you to choose two or more disciplines and combine them into a one-degree program. There may be some restrictions and requirements for the courses you take, but, essentially, you design your program and guide yourself through your studies with help from academic advisors.

Interdisciplinary Studies vs. Double Major

You may hear about students completing a dual degree or double major in two disciplines. While this option is similar to interdisciplinary studies, it lacks some aspects that make interdisciplinary studies a unique option.

While in a double major, you’ll be able to study two disciplines, you will most likely not be required to think about each in dialogue with one another. Although universities have guidelines to assist students with dual majors, your main focus is to complete each major in the traditional path, not to intersect them. Even if you do end up attempting to cross over your two chosen disciplines, your school may not have the proper interdisciplinary structure in place to support you throughout your studies.

Double majors are also usually restricted to two disciplines, whereas interdisciplinary studies can incorporate multiple disciplines depending on the school you choose.

What academic disciplines are typically included in interdisciplinary studies?

Depending on the school you decide to attend, you can integrate almost any academic discipline into an interdisciplinary studies degree. An interdisciplinary degree usually consists of subjects from the humanities, sciences, social Sciences, or creative and performing arts.

Here are some common subjects students decide to combine to create their interdisciplinary program:

● Anthropology

● Biology

● Business

● Communications

● Environmental Studies

● English

● Foreign Languages

● General Science

● History

● Mathematics

● Political Science

● Psychology

You can choose any two (or more) of these traditional disciplines and create your interdisciplinary program. For example, you can combine psychology and English to study something like the evolution of mental health in the United States, as seen through American literature. Another example is combining political science and environmental studies to study what policies can be put in place to prevent global warming.

Even after choosing your disciplines, you’ll want to narrow down your interests to a singular focus that incorporates and works for both of the fields of study you choose. Work on creating a plan with your advisor, and be sure to stick to it!

How do an interdisciplinary studies major work?

The way an interdisciplinary studies major works varies by school. Most schools have a fixed number of disciplines that they allow to participate in interdisciplinary studies, while others let you combine disciplines from almost any field of study. Some schools allow you to choose two areas to combine into an interdisciplinary degree, while others permit you to include more than two.

Once you choose your two (or more) disciplines, then you are expected to create your program combining those disciplines. The interdisciplinary option allows flexibility, so you should take advantage of this freedom and create something that caters to your future career goals.

Although it seems like you’ll be expected to study more, interdisciplinary studies degrees typically take four years, just like any other major. If you’re pursuing an undergraduate degree, you may have to produce a final research paper or thesis at the end of your studies. In graduate studies, the likelihood of completing a thesis at the end of your degree is pretty likely.

What are the purposes of an interdisciplinary study major?

Not only will interdisciplinary studies give you the flexibility in choosing what you want to study, but by cross-referencing multiple disciplines, you are growing your critical thinking skills in a way that a traditional degree would not.

If you have a certain career path that you want to follow, pursuing an interdisciplinary degree might be the first step. The more specific your career is, the more useful an interdisciplinary degree may prove to be. For example, if you aspire to be a political journalist, an interdisciplinary program combining political science and communications will prepare you for that. If you want to work in an area like healthcare ethics, a program that combines healthcare administration and ethics is ideal.

An interdisciplinary studies degree provides a great foundation for teachers, who often teach more than one subject at a time. Interdisciplinary studies can prepare teachers to be well-rounded and gives them different methods of explaining course material to their students.

Studying more than one discipline may sound like a challenge, but it’s a challenge well worth it if you get to create your program and study what you want.

Guide to Interdisciplinary Studies

Everyone’s reasons for choosing interdisciplinary studies are different. Before you choose a school, make sure that this degree program is right for you. The right program can help an individual reach their academic or career goals and challenge them. Above all, pursuing an interdisciplinary degree can be a great learning experience.

Here are some questions to ask yourself before pursuing an interdisciplinary studies degree:

● Do you know what disciplines that you want to study?

● Are you prepared to have to write a thesis?

● How will you cover the cost? Will you require financial aid?

● Where do you want to end up in your career?

If you still find yourself unsure after answering these questions, read on to see how an interdisciplinary studies degree can benefit you.

What are the benefits of choosing an interdisciplinary studies program?

There are several benefits to choosing an interdisciplinary program:

You get to study what you want

Traditional degree programs usually have set guidelines and may require you to take courses that have nothing to do with your interests to fulfill requirements. With traditional degree programs, the school has already done all the planning for you. You may get to pick an elective here and there, but you don’t have a lot of flexibility.

In interdisciplinary studies, you get to put together your program by combining different existing majors, meaning you have a greater say in what courses you want to take (the level of flexibility depends on the school you attend).

You don’t have to choose between your interests

Many new college students don’t know what they want to major in their first year. Sometimes these students truly have no idea what interests them, but often it’s because they have interests in more than one discipline and need to narrow it down to one. With interdisciplinary studies, students who have interests in multiple disciplines can combine them to create a unique program suitable to them.

You’ll meet more like-minded people

Interdisciplinary study usually means that you will be a part of at least two different disciplines. Within each, you will meet a variety of people with whom you will frequently collaborate. You may find you bring a different point of view due to the interdisciplinary nature of your studies. Your additional knowledge and unique analysis may prove invaluable at times and bring new insight for your peers who are only studying a part of what you are.

How does an interdisciplinary approach improve critical thinking?

Due to the nature of interdisciplinary studies, there will be a lot of overlap in your studies that you will have to figure out and make sense of. You will have to relate all of your courses to each other and cohesively think about them. The more unrelated your two disciplines seem the more that your critical thinking skills will be challenged.

Problem-solving is a skill that you will develop during your studies. You may face several problems during your degree, and you will be forced to solve those problems with help from your advisors.

If you are required to complete a thesis at the end of your degree, it may seem overwhelming. A good approach is to think about how your courses intersect and what the result of that is. Your critical thinking will guide you through your interdisciplinary studies degree and will also be greatly improved at the end.

Even if you attend a school with an interdisciplinary studies structure in place, some of your professors may not fully understand your needs as an interdisciplinary student. They may not even understand what you’re studying, which will require you to explain your program to them – be prepared to do this often. However, explaining what you’re studying and why you’re studying the disciplines you chose greatly adds to the development of your critical thinking skills.

You’ll also have to become an expert at explaining your degree after you complete it. Some employers may not immediately understand the benefits of an interdisciplinary studies degree, so you might have to break it down for them. However, having explained your program while you were in school, you should be a pro by this point!

Interdisciplinary students become great thinkers, and that’s what the world needs to solve the most complex problems.

How does an interdisciplinary approach encourage creativity?

The fact that you’re interested in pursuing an interdisciplinary program means that you have no desire to follow traditional paths – you want to create your own. Designing your interdisciplinary program requires a level of creativity from the beginning, and this will continue throughout your degree.

If you’re interested in interdisciplinary studies, then you’re probably already at least a little creative. You don’t have to be in what are traditionally considered to be creative fields, such as liberal arts; an interdisciplinary program that focuses on two sciences can still require a certain level of creativity to make it work.

How Interdisciplinary Studies Programs Work

Once you’ve decided that you want to pursue an interdisciplinary studies program, you’re ready to figure out what school you want to attend and what you need to apply to that school.

Here are some tips before you begin looking into schools:

● Start looking at schools and programs at least a year before you plan on starting your degree. Most schools have an application deadline that ranges from early November to late January, so make sure you have everything ready in time!

● Have an idea of how your two (or more) chosen disciplines will relate to one another, and determine how flexible you’re willing to be with your chosen fields of study. You may not find a school that will let you incorporate the exact disciplines you desire to study. Having alternative disciplines ready will help you find a school much easier.

● Choose fields of study that you’re passionate about, not just because you think they go together well. You’ll have a hard time studying something you have no interest in for four years!

● Make sure the school you choose has a good track record when it comes to interdisciplinary studies success – Ivy League schools are not necessarily the best choice in this case!

● Make sure your desired school has good professors and advisors that are willing to help you. They may not understand your program at first, but you look for professors and advisors who are open to learning with you and who will guide you throughout your studies.

What are the educational requirements for an interdisciplinary studies program?

In general, education requirements for an interdisciplinary studies program are comparable to those of other undergraduate programs. You will most likely be required to meet the entry requirements for all of the disciplines that are included in your interdisciplinary studies program.

For example, if your interdisciplinary program combines biology and gender studies, make sure that your math and science admission marks are high enough as well as your English marks. You also want to verify that you have completed all prerequisite courses for both of your programs of study.

Some general requirements include:

● A high school diploma for undergraduate studies

● A completed bachelor’s degree for graduate studies

● A good GPA

● English language level

Most schools in the United States do not require you to declare a major in your freshman year. You may wait until your second year, which gives you. a little more time to figure things out. The requirements vary by school and change from year to year, so make sure to keep up to date with the requirements of each school you’re interested in.

Which schools offer interdisciplinary studies programs?

Many schools in the United States offer interdisciplinary studies as an undergraduate, so you’ll most likely find a school that offers this option near you. However, not all schools that offer interdisciplinary studies have a quality program, even if it’s an Ivy League school. Many state schools have good interdisciplinary studies programs, and the smaller size of the school means that students get more time with their professors.

Here are some of the best schools to pursue interdisciplinary studies.

Best Schools for Undergraduate Interdisciplinary Studies

1. University of California – Berkeley

2. University of California – San Diego

3. Columbia University – Teachers College

4. Bowling Green State University

5. University of Virginia

6. Purdue University

7. University of Connecticut

8. State University of New York (SUNY)

9. Tufts University

10. University of Florida

Best Schools for Graduate Interdisciplinary Studies

For those who are interested in completing a master’s degree or Ph.D. in interdisciplinary studies, there are many schools to choose from, including:

1. New York University

2. Brown University

3. University of Maryland

4. University of Maine

5. Southern Utah University 

Best Online Universities for Interdisciplinary Studies

As online learning is increasing in popularity, many schools offer online interdisciplinary studies courses and degrees:

1. University of Maine

2. Western New Mexico University

3. Florida International University

4. University of Toledo

Let’s take a closer look at some of the top interdisciplinary studies programs in the United States.

University of California – Berkeley

U of C Berkley’s interdisciplinary studies field (ISF) has ranked the top personalized major offered at US universities and colleges. The program includes courses from social sciences, humanities, professional schools/colleges, and the required ISF courses. Although it seems the school has an already defined interdisciplinary studies program in place, it is more of a set of guidelines; the school gives students the freedom to customize their research program.

One unique aspect of ISF is that the program requires students to create a program that encompasses three academic disciplines, not the usual minimum of two. They encourage uniqueness and will not approve your chosen major if it too closely resembles one of the majors already available at the school. ISF is a research-driven program, so at the end of their studies, students must complete a capstone project or write a 40-page senior thesis.

Purdue University

Purdue’s School of Interdisciplinary Studies allows students to combine programs from the College of Liberal Arts. They also claim to value a multidisciplinary approach–where students from multiple disciplines collaborate, and a transdisciplinary approach–where a new framework is created beyond the original discipline.

Purdue’s School of Interdisciplinary Studies offers majors in the following areas:

● Comparative Literature

● Film and Video Studies

● Global Studies

● Jewish Studies

● Linguistics

● Medieval and Renaissance Studies

● Religious Studies

● Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies

One interdisciplinary studies program that they promote is American Studies. In this program, students learn and study America as “a place, a political and social idea, a set of values and traditions, and a people.”

The school also offers four graduate degrees.

Tufts University

Tufts University’s interdisciplinary studies program is extremely versatile. Tufts has a Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, where it claims to be committed to interdisciplinary works across its schools, departments, and programs. The interdisciplinary major at Tufts requires students to choose at least two disciplines from the following areas:

● Social Sciences

● Arts

● Humanities

● Natural Sciences

● Quantitative Studies

● Engineering

Some examples of past topics chosen by students include:

● Defining Somali Womanhood through Multimedia Narratives

● Digital Media: Film & Media Studies, Computer Science, and English

● Bio Dramatics: Biology, Drama and Communications

Tufts requires their interdisciplinary studies students to regularly meet with an advisory committee. Students must complete a senior-year thesis project.

No matter what school you decide to attend for your interdisciplinary studies degree, you are bound to gain a lot of knowledge and develop new ways of thinking. You’ll leave university with a new interdisciplinary perspective that you’ll be able to use to solve complex problems in the world.

How can you strengthen your application to an interdisciplinary studies program?

When it comes to applying to a school with an interdisciplinary program, already knowing what disciplines you want to study is a good start. If you’re asked to write a personal statement on why you want to attend your desired school, you’ll want to remember these tips:

● Have your two (or more) disciplines already picked out.

● Explain how your disciplines relate to each other, or how you plan on combining them to create a cohesive and coherent program.

● Outline exactly how you foresee your course of study going. You should have already done your research into each discipline’s required courses and the school’s prerequisites.

If you keep these points in mind, your application should stand out. You want to convince your school that you aren’t just studying two disciplines; you want to demonstrate that you have a vision of how you will carry out your program and where you expect it to lead you in the future.

What to look for in an interdisciplinary studies program

Starting your research on interdisciplinary studies programs may feel overwhelming, but if you know what it is that you want to study, it becomes a lot simpler. Check out the Bureau of Labor to view statistics on interdisciplinary studies, including the most popular majors and distribution of workers who hold interdisciplinary studies degrees.

What should you consider when choosing an interdisciplinary studies program?

There are many things to consider when choosing an interdisciplinary studies program:

● Are you looking to pursue a bachelor’s degree or a graduate degree?

● How many areas of interest do you have?

● What are your areas of interest? Are you able to combine them into one cohesive program?

● What do you want to do after you finish your degree?

How should you choose the components of your interdisciplinary studies degree?

When choosing the components of your interdisciplinary studies program (i.e., your courses) you generally have a good level of freedom. Most schools have a set of core courses that they require all of their students to take, but outside of that, students can customize their major the way that they please.

However, if the school you choose has a set framework for their interdisciplinary studies students, you’ll want to make sure that the school allows you to include all of the disciplines that you’re interested in. For example, some schools restrict their interdisciplinary programs to liberal arts disciplines, so if you were hoping to include biology in your interdisciplinary program, you’ll have to consider another school.

What should you avoid when choosing an interdisciplinary studies program?

Avoid attending schools that do not already have an interdisciplinary studies program in place. In many schools, you will be able to study more than one discipline at a time, but schools that do not have a specific interdisciplinary option will not provide the same level of support as the ones that do.

The Takeaway

A degree in interdisciplinary studies isn’t necessarily for those who can’t decide between two disciplines. An interdisciplinary studies degree is for those who have more than one interest and want to combine those interests to study them in conversation with each other. Do your research to figure out what it is you want to study, then find a school that will enable your success in your chosen fields.

This degree option may seem like it will be a lot of work, and we don’t want to dismiss that. Programs like this are a lot of work. But it’s worth it to be able to study what you love and have more control over where your future career might lead you.

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