Interdisciplinary Degrees - Pros & Cons
An interdisciplinary degree is one which covers more than one academic discipline; bringing together knowledge and working methods from multiple fields to give a broad perspective on a topic. Some common interdisciplinary topics include behavioural science, criminology, or mind and brain studies.
In each of these cases, the understanding of a complex topic such as human behaviour is studied through consideration of a range of fields: psychology, anthropology, sociology, the hard sciences, law, and so on. Recently it has become more common for universities to offer undergraduate courses which have an explicitly interdisciplinary focus. But what does this mean for students? What are the advantages and disadvantages of such a method of study? Read on to find out.
One of the great advantages of interdisciplinary study is that it exposes you to a wide range of ideas, methods, and theorists. In order to grasp a complex topic like human behaviour, it is helpful to understand as many perspectives as possible, which is the greatest strength of interdisciplinary study. Undergraduate interdisciplinary degrees can be an excellent fit for students who have not yet decided which discipline would best fit their interests and skills, as they can gain a basic understanding of the workings of a number of disciplines. They also suit those independently-minded students who have an imaginative and creative streak, who can bring together knowledge from disparate sources and synthesize it into a persuasive narrative or model.
Breadth versus depth
Studying small parts of a large number of fields gives students an understanding which is exceptionally broad. A solid interdisciplinary education equips students with the tools to benefit from the knowledge and perspectives of many fields, and enables them to communicate effectively with academics from different specialities. However, this breadth comes at the expense of depth. That is, students do not gain deep specialist knowledge in any one particular field. If you are very keen to go into a specific field of research – in the hard sciences, for example – you may be better served by a single discipline degree, which will ensure that you have all the specific knowledge and skills required to perform research in that field. Some institutions may not be as open to interdisciplinary qualifications as they are to single-discipline qualifications, particularly if they require specific technical skills, such as the requirements for lab skills, mathematics or programming skills in scientific research.
Learning and teaching styles
The pace of learning can be fast in interdisciplinary degrees – teaching can move from one topic to the next rather quickly as there is so much material to be covered. So this teaching style suits those students who adapt to new information quickly, and who might feel bored or restricted by a very narrow teaching focus. On the other hand, students who need more time to fully grasp the basics before they are confident in expressing themselves or forming arguments, may find that interdisciplinary teaching is hard to keep up with.
Assessment on interdisciplinary courses often takes the form of essay writing, requiring the ability to bring together knowledge and theories from more than one field to answer a complex question. This suits those students who are verbally fluent and confident in sharing their own ideas and thinking on their feet, who are able to communicate effectively and without jargon or overly technical language. The ability to write an essay which is comprehensible to people from a variety of educational backgrounds is extremely useful, both in academia and beyond, and will be well-trained by an interdisciplinary degree. However, remember that interdisciplinary education can also involve other forms of assessment such as exams, oral presentations or lab skills, so you must be prepared to adapt to the different requirements and norms of other fields, including the assessment methods.
Overall, interdisciplinary degrees can be exceptionally enjoyable and challenging for the open-minded and intellectually flexible student. If you're interesting in pursuing an interdisciplinary degree, check the latest and most exciting opportunities for study at undergraduate level and beyond.