Are Interdisciplinary Degree Majors the Key to Job Security?

Posted By Terri Williams on June 9, 2017 at 9:30 am
Are Interdisciplinary Degree Majors the Key to Job Security?

The pathway to success is paved with more than a little advice. Students, job candidates and employees need public speaking skills, and they also need to learn the craft of salesmanship. In addition, some experts predict that regardless of college major, everyone needs coding skills. Finance and accounting majors need big data analysis skills. If this is starting to sound like a potpourri of requirements, well, that’s the point. In the future, success at work will be characterized by the ability to excel in more than one discipline or area – and an interdisciplinary degree could be vital.

Pasi Lautala, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Rail Transportation Institute at Michigan Tech, tells GoodCall®, “If interdisciplinary was a novelty in the past, today it’s becoming a standard.” In fact, Lautala says it should be the expected norm, since it’s rare for anything to be developed or completed under a single disciplinary.

“We’re witnessing that first hand in the development of 21st century transportation, where automated vehicles, trains, drones, etcetera, are all dependent on the interdisciplinary components, such as intelligent transportation systems infrastructure, alternative power and propulsion systems and constant communication/information exchange between vehicles and infrastructure.”

As a result, Lautala says, “Civil, mechanical, electrical, and even materials engineers are all under the same umbrella.”

Interdisciplinary degree programs

To meet the needs of the changing workforce, some colleges have started offering interdisciplinary degree programs. M. Stephanie Murray, Ph.D., director and academic adviser and associate teaching professor in the BXA Intercollege Degree Programs at Carnegie Mellon University, tells GoodCall® that students there combine a concentration in the College of Fine Arts with an academic discipline.

“Some of our most popular combinations are psychology and design, biology and music, and computer science and art, but we have all kinds of interesting combinations, like math and dramaturgy, statistics and art, and environmental studies and architecture.” At CMU, these four-year programs result in a bachelor’s degree in one of three combinations: humanities and arts, science and arts, or computer science and arts.

 “The curriculum is balanced between the two areas of concentration, giving students the opportunity to find the intersections of the two areas,” Murray explains. “We also include BXA-specific courses at the first-year, junior, and senior levels where students gain the critical and theoretical vocabulary for talking about the kind of work they do and projects where they use that knowledge to make things that can only happen at the intersection of their disciplines.”

Rochester Institute of Technology also offers interdisciplinary programs. Sandy Baldwin will be chairing the digital humanities and social sciences program there this coming year. The digital humanities and social sciences interdisciplinary degree combines information science and the liberal arts.

Baldwin tells GoodCall® that there’s an advantage to combining digital technology with such subjects as art, history, political science, and linguistics. “People have to work on teams, and a digital humanities major who has that range of experiences can work on a very small team at a museum or start up design company, or they can work a large computer company.” He explains that the goal is not to educate students to be specialists but to make sure they have enough knowledge to make valuable contributions to the organization.

At Purdue University, 85% of the enrollees in interdisciplinary degree programs are grad students. Purdue has a long list of interdisciplinary degree programs to choose from, including the African-American studies, American studies, biomedical sciences, comparative literature, computation life sciences, computational science and engineering, ecological sciences and engineering. Other interdisciplinary programs include food science, gerontology, information security, ingestive behavior, life sciences, linguistics, nutrition, philosophy and literature, public health graduate program, women’s studies, and an independent interdisciplinary graduate program.

Dr. Colleen L. Gabauer is the managing director in the Office of Interdisciplinary Graduate Programs at The Graduate School at Purdue University. Gabauer tells GoodCall® that these offerings are growing in popularity and from 2006 to 2016, enrollment in interdisciplinary graduate programs increased from 484 to 788 students.

What are the advantages of interdisciplinary degree programs?

While the concept of interdisciplinary degree programs sounds interesting, are there real-world advantages to this approach? According to Gabauer, “When students gain an understanding across disciplinary cultures, they will be prepared, capable and comfortable when collaborating with others, which is crucial for career success.”

Murray adds, “The majority of our students go on to work in areas that take advantage of both their aesthetic and technical training as well as their academic background, in roles ranging from consulting to research to communications.”

And, this wealth of knowledge can prove beneficial in jobs of the future. Hans Hanson, founder and CEO of College Logic, explains that students must study forward instead of studying backward. “Studying forward refers to studying for jobs of the 2020s, while studying backward refers to studying for jobs from the 1990s – like most college students are still doing.” And Hanson warns that studying backward tends to result in underperforming career earnings.

“The new high-wage job calls on college students to study multiple disciplines, such as combining a science with engineering; law with business; information systems with healthcare; computer science with new media and technology; applied mathematics with engineering; environmental science with law; education with social media, business with social sciences, and so forth,” Hanson says.

The ability to do so presents new opportunities for young workers. “An interesting component to growth-jobs is that they are not occupied by 45-year-olds that have been there for twenty years and are planning to be there another twenty years,”

Old job classifications have more competition for fewer openings, driving down salaries, Hanson explains. But new college grads with the right education to fit the needs of the organization will find new job growth opportunities. “Accordingly, the starting pay is typically much higher, up to $40,000 per year higher with substantial room to climb,” Hanson concludes.

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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