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What Is an Interdisciplinary Studies Degree?

majors
liberal arts
Last updated on September 3, 2020

Interdisciplinary studies may be ideal for independent international students who want to chart their own paths, both for their studies and future careers.

Three students on laptops sitting at a classroom table.

Combining two or more areas of study, interdisciplinary studies programs give undergraduate or graduate students more flexibility in choosing their coursework. If you know exactly what you want to do or want to explore how your different interests connect, you may find pursuing an interdisciplinary studies degree is the best way to meet your personal and professional goals. And because interdisciplinary studies are structured in a similar way to how we work in the real world, these university degree programs can set you up for success in a variety of career paths.

What is an interdisciplinary studies degree?

Interdisciplinary studies degree programs combine two or more traditional academic courses of study into a more personalized major. Unlike a liberal arts degree where you will study a wide variety of subjects, an interdisciplinary degree allows students to explore a more focused topic that crosses into multiple fields. 

For example, if you want to work in corporate sustainability, you will want your coursework to cover topics that span a variety of academic departments, such as business, science, and ethics. Or maybe you love writing and learning languages. An interdisciplinary studies degree allows you to concentrate in multiple areas that will better prepare you for the career you want to pursue. The added flexibility is ideal for students who have multiple interests they want to combine into one specialization. 

Some colleges, like Auburn University at Montgomery, allow students to design a major themselves with the help of an advisor. This allows you to tailor your coursework even if your school does not offer an interdisciplinary studies degree path that matches your goals and interests. Most programs still have a core curriculum that you must complete in order to graduate, in addition to major-specific electives.

This ability to “customize” your course of study is becoming more popular: there were more than 100,000 interdisciplinary degrees awarded in 2017—an increase of more than 2%, according to Data USA. University of Central Florida and Auburn University, both Shorelight partner universities, are two of the schools with the most degrees awarded in general interdisciplinary studies. In fact, 10% of the University of Central Florida’s degrees are in general interdisciplinary studies, the highest percentage compared to any other school.

Examples of interdisciplinary majors

There are numerous paths you can pursue with an interdisciplinary studies degree. For example, the University of Central Florida offers 7,000 possible combinations with its interdisciplinary studies program, and the school requires students to study three complementary disciplines.

Here are some examples of interdisciplinary studies majors:

International business: combines business fundamentals with a deep understanding of economic, political, social, and cultural issues around the world. You may also learn a second language, take geography classes, and improve communication skills. An international business major or focus combines:

  • Business: marketing, finance, economics, management, accounting

  • International studies: international relations, anthropology, political science, religious studies

Human biology: looks at humans from all angles. Beyond biology and sociology, you may take courses spanning language, philosophy, history, religion, and art. A human biology major or focus combines:

  • Biology: genetics, evolutionary biology, bioethics

  • Sociology: gender roles, mass media, global health and disease

Gender studies: explores how gender roles have evolved, how they influence people across cultures, and how roles differ from place to place. A gender studies major or focus may combine:

  • Literature: queer literature, literature by women, authors of the developing world

  • History: women in Japan, modern England, pre-colonial Africa

  • Psychology: perception and sensation, personality, learning, social psychology

Global studies: focuses on how current issues impact different cultures and nations in an increasingly globalized world, as well as how these issues impact their own area. A global studies major or focus may combine:

  • Business: international economics, business operations, finance

  • Political science: comparative politics, international relations, public policy

  • Anthropology: language and culture, human evolution, archaeology

What are interdisciplinary studies degree pros and cons?

Earning an interdisciplinary studies degree takes dedication and focus, particularly for students who choose to design a major themselves. You may need to put more effort toward planning your coursework compared to your peers in traditional majors who have a curriculum clearly laid out for them.

However, with a little advanced planning and a lot of drive, you can pursue a tailored education that aligns with your goals. Your course of study will look more like the work you plan to do after graduation, too, as most careers demand knowledge and skills that cross into multiple areas. 

So, when you build your own interdisciplinary major, you will become an expert in skills such as: 

  • Analysis: making connections between your different fields of study

  • Critical thinking: developing expertise in multiple areas while being able to think more broadly about a given topic

  • Being resourceful: innovating creative solutions, exploring new ideas, and finding different ways of tackling old challenges

What does it mean to earn a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies?

As an undergraduate pursuing an interdisciplinary studies degree, you will earn one of three degrees: bachelor of arts (BA), bachelor of fine arts (BFA), or bachelor of science (BS). BA degrees are for students pursuing multiple humanities and liberal arts-based concentrations, whereas BS degrees are awarded to students who combine science with fields like business or the humanities. BFA degrees cover the performing arts.

While single-subject majors focus your studies in only one area, an interdisciplinary studies degree allows you to combine two or more areas of study. However, it is not the same thing as a double major. With a double major, you study two different subjects on their own and graduate with one degree. 

You also graduate with one degree when pursuing interdisciplinary studies, but the goal is to gain a deeper understanding of how your areas of study connect. For example, instead of studying business and international relations separately, an interdisciplinary studies program like international business lets you study where these ideas intersect and overlap. You may learn how selling a product in the US is different from Japan, instead of learning about topics like sales and cultural differences each on their own.

Some universities may have majors that fall under a department of interdisciplinary studies. For example, the University of South Carolina offers an international business major. If your specific major is available—great! That means the university has an understanding of how topics that interest you are interconnected. 

However, a different college may not offer a major in international business. So, at the schools where the specific major you want is unavailable, you may find an interdisciplinary studies major is a better option. This allows you to work with an advisor to plan coursework that will meet your academic and career goals. No matter what, you will want to connect with your advisors and professors to ensure you are making the necessary connections between subjects.

Sample interdisciplinary studies bachelor’s degree program for undergraduates

  • Core curriculum: courses you must take in the humanities, mathematics, history, and social sciences

  • Major electives: courses that fit under one of your chosen areas of study

  • Free electives: courses outside your chosen areas of study

  • Thesis: a final paper, typically required in order to graduate—and your opportunity to prove an idea through research that draws on all your fields of study

  • Capstone project: a final project that also may be required in order to graduate, that demonstrates your knowledge of all your fields of study

Internships may also help you explore the various ways your degree may translate into a career. Depending on the experience, it may confirm that you are on the right track with your course of study, or it may help you determine which additional classes you need to take to pursue the career you want.

Exploring the intersection of multiple fields means you may know exactly the type of career you want to go into after graduation. If, for example, you realize you want to become a physician, you may want to continue your education in graduate school. For others, the interdisciplinary degree may have given you all the skills you need to pursue the career you want. Talk with your advisor to understand what, if any, additional schooling you need to pursue your career.

What does it mean to earn a master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies?

As a graduate student pursuing an interdisciplinary studies degree, you will earn either a master of arts in interdisciplinary studies (MAIS) or master of science in interdisciplinary studies (MSIS or just MS). Similar to their bachelor’s degree counterparts, MAIS degrees are awarded to students studying topics in the humanities, while MSIS degrees combine areas of study in science and may include a humanities component.

While these are less common than bachelor’s degrees, master in interdisciplinary studies degrees are a way for graduate students to develop their own degree program. Generally, in these cases, students are not looking for specialized training or their career goals do not line up neatly with an already established course of study.

For example, the University of Dayton offers a master of science in education, interdisciplinary educational studies, allowing students to pursue coursework in the School of Education and Health Sciences and at least one department outside the school. Students looking to earn a State of Ohio license in visual arts or music education take this course of study, combining education studies with their studies in the arts. 

Sample interdisciplinary studies master’s degree program for graduate students

  • Core coursework: courses across two or three fields of study

  • Thesis: a final paper, typically required for graduation, that integrates work from all fields of study through systematic research

  • Capstone project: a final project, often required for graduation—and your opportunity to explore a new area that connects all your fields of study

  • Defense of thesis: present your work to a committee

What are common interdisciplinary studies jobs?

You can pursue nearly any career with an interdisciplinary studies degree. Of course, the courses you take and the concentrations you choose may impact the type of careers and jobs you pursue after graduation. 

For example, if you chose an interdisciplinary major like human biology, you could become a physician’s assistant or decide to pursue additional schooling to become a surgeon. But you could just as easily pursue journalism, law, environmental studies, and more.

Need inspiration on the opportunities available with an interdisciplinary major? CollegeBoard allows you to search various majors and see the kinds of jobs they could help you pursue.

Some of the most common careers for students who earn an interdisciplinary studies degree include:

  • Dieticians and nutritionists

  • Elementary and middle school teachers

  • Managers

  • Physicians

  • Registered nurses

Strong reading comprehension, writing, and active listening are the top three skills for people with an interdisciplinary studies degree, according to analysis from Data USA. 

In 2017, the average salary for employees with interdisciplinary studies degree was more than $79,000, according to Data USA. Of course, salaries will vary depending on your job. For example, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, physicians and surgeons earned median pay of $208,000 in 2018, whereas middle school teachers earned median pay of $58,600.

Finally, international students attending Shorelight partner universities have the opportunity to participate in the Career Accelerator program. Further developing your professional skills through career workshops and networking events, the program connects you with a dedicated advisor who offers you personalized guidance and connects you with internship and career opportunities at top companies.

No matter your interests or career goals, pursuing an interdisciplinary studies degree is a way to customize your college coursework, ensuring you take classes that align with your interests. As you study different topics and how they connect, you may discover new opportunities. Your possibilities are only limited by your imagination!

Learn more about Shorelight’s Academic Support services