How Interdisciplinary Studies Majors Work

Which college to attend and what to major in are two of the most significant questions prospective students must answer. These decisions can have a long-term impact on future earnings and life after graduation.

But college applicants undecided on a major should understand that they may not necessarily have to pick just one. While students can double major at many schools, there is another way to incorporate multiple disciplines into one curriculum: the interdisciplinary studies degree.

“If we can think about this as marrying two traditional departments together and working at the intersection, that’s what interdisciplinary studies is,” says Jane Mangan, a professor and director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies at Davidson College in North Carolina.

[Read: What a College Major Is and How It Can Shape Your Future.]

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the term interdisciplinary as “involving two or more academic, scientific, or artistic disciplines.” One of many examples of such a program is merging psychology with the arts to create a unique interdisciplinary undergraduate degree program. Such a program may combine using visual arts in therapeutic treatment, bringing two different academic worlds together under the same umbrella.

Understanding the Interdisciplinary Approach

By its very name, an interdisciplinary studies program suggests that students will learn a variety of academic topics and approaches.

But one key component is intentionality. Students shouldn’t expect to stitch together random courses into an interdisciplinary studies degree, says Jennifer Dellner, a professor at Ocean County College in New Jersey and president of the Association for Interdisciplinary Studies.

“You have advisers, you have a program that has a structure that allows you to think about what you’re doing,” Dellner says. “You can often help (students) put those courses together in a meaningful way that aim toward the interests that they have, and the career possibilities that they’re thinking about.”

Mangan offers an example of Russian studies and political science as a way that students can tie subjects together. Studying in a specialized field such as Russian studies will likely be strengthened with a political science component, considering the long-running geopolitical tensions between Russia and the U.S.

“When I talk to students who want to do these majors, they are interested in learning from different areas of expertise, perhaps because it helps them think about problem-solving in a new way,” Mangan says.

[Read: 10 Things to Know About Selecting a College Major.]

“They are trained, in a sense, to switch disciplinary languages,” adds Dellner.

Davidson has a dedicated Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, which means students can take interdisciplinary majors already offered or work with faculty to design their own.

“For a center-established major, a curriculum has been approved by the Educational Policy Committee and it’s gone to the faculty for discussion and a full vote,” Mangan explains. “Students who apply for that major have a standard sense of what it is that they’ll be doing in that major. Student-designed majors are a little bit different in the sense that these might be a bit more experimental.”

Claire Brantley, a senior at Davidson, is bringing together multiple fields of study to earn an interdisciplinary studies degree.

She worked with a professor to capture her interests in multiple academic fields in a global public policy major, housed in the college’s Center for Interdisciplinary Studies. She describes her major as a mix of sociology, ethics, political science and anthropology.

“It was a process of finding courses that combined the disciplines I was interested in and coming up with that set list,” Brantley says.

In her self-designed program, Brantley works with advisers from multiple departments and must complete a research project prior to graduation.

“The beauty of an interdisciplinary studies major is you have many options,” she says.

Interdisciplinary Studies: Myths and Misunderstandings

Though advocates for interdisciplinary studies are quick to point to the flexibility of such a program, students shouldn’t always think of it as a way to design their own major. While that is an option at some colleges, such as Davidson, other programs may be more rigid, meaning that offerings will vary by institution.

Students should understand the options available at individual colleges, experts say.

[Read: U.S. News Guide to College Majors.]

Students also should understand the difference between an interdisciplinary studies degree and a general studies degree.

The latter, Dellner explains, is often aimed at students who may have a high number of college credits but have not earned a degree. A general studies degree typically can pull those scattered credits together and help a student graduate.

Deciding on Interdisciplinary Studies as a Major

For Brantley, the end goal for her degree is a career in academia. But options vary.

Brantley encourages prospective students to ask themselves two questions: “What kind of career options are available for students who major in interdisciplinary studies? And then what are your career interests after graduation?”

Mangan notes that many students who go the interdisciplinary studies route don’t necessarily enroll at Davidson thinking of that major as an option. “Oftentimes, this is something that students become interested in once they’re on campus.”

Interdisciplinary studies programs can be vulnerable to campus budget cuts, says Dellner, explaining that such programs are occasionally in the crosshairs of college administrators when looking to trim expenses and meet financial goals.

Even so, Dellner foresees good years ahead for interdisciplinary studies programs.

“In the future, I think we’ll see more configurations of things like interdisciplinary studies,” she says. “Because the world’s problems are complex, and people want to think about them in interdisciplinary ways.”

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More from U.S. News

Consider an Online Bachelor’s Degree in Interdisciplinary Studies

How to Manage a Double Major

What a College Minor Is and Why It Matters

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