What Is Interdisciplinary Studies?

Interdisciplinary studies unites distinct subject areas to gain new perspectives. As a major, it allows students to pursue unique, hybrid degrees.

portrait of Anne Dennon
by Anne Dennon

Published on April 22, 2022

Edited by Hannah Muniz
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What Is Interdisciplinary Studies?
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Interdisciplinary studies isn't so much a what as it is a where. Wherever two or more subject areas meet, you have interdisciplinary studies.

Some interdisciplinary studies fields have grown into distinct disciplines of their own. Gender studies, for example, which is taught in liberal arts departments in U.S. colleges nationwide, developed out of women's studies.

Other newer interdisciplinary fields are starting down the same path of becoming full-fledged academic subjects. One fast-growing example is public health and climate change.

Interdisciplinary thought may seem like a recent innovation, but cross-pollinating between subjects is as old as academics themselves. The ancient Greeks roamed across philosophy, history, medicine, and drama, applying ideas found in one area of study to another.

As an academic strategy, interdisciplinary studies helps break down communication barriers between fields. As a major, interdisciplinary studies allows college students to pursue creative answers and advance thought by investigating a concept using multiple areas of expertise.

What Is an Interdisciplinary Studies Degree?

The popularity of interdisciplinary degrees has ballooned in recent decades. Beginning in the early 1970s, the number of interdisciplinary bachelor's degrees awarded annually in the U.S. rose from 7,000 to 30,000 through 2005.

Interdisciplinary studies may appeal to students whose passions aren't reflected in the majors offered by their school. It might also resonate with students looking to carve out their own niche by taking a more experimental, self-directed approach to higher education.

At many U.S. colleges, students who want to tackle a subject area on the borderlands of multiple disciplines have the option to major in interdisciplinary studies or choose from existing interdisciplinary programs.

Similarly, some schools permit students to build their own degree based on their interests and career plans. These programs may be named "interdisciplinary," "integrative," "independent," or "design your own," though the terms are not always interchangeable.

Under the interdisciplinary studies model, students typically choose two or three disciplines, working with advisors and professors to define the structure of their program.

What Are Some Examples of Interdisciplinary Programs?

Some schools invite students to create their own totally unique degree plan, while others offer innovative combinations of existing majors.

Here are some examples of colleges with renowned interdisciplinary programs:

4 Alternatives to an Interdisciplinary Studies Degree

Although an interdisciplinary program offers many benefits, it also runs the risk of providing an education that's too narrow. An interdisciplinary studies degree could back you into a corner if your interests shift down the road — which happens frequently among students.

A 2020 BestColleges survey found that the majority of college graduates would change their major if they could go back.

If the "choose your own adventure" part of interdisciplinary studies sounds more exciting than the idea of forging connections between subject areas, you might prefer a different type of degree track.

Here are four alternatives to an interdisciplinary studies degree.

1. Integrative Studies Degree

Some colleges offer degrees in integrative studies. Whereas interdisciplinary studies focuses on the overlap between subjects, integrative or integrated studies homes in on one subject area and draws on one or more secondary subjects for support.

Integrative studies programs may emphasize experiential learning beyond the classroom, such as internships, study abroad experiences, and community engagement.

2. Double (or Triple) Major

Another option is to double major. While an interdisciplinary studies degree splits the credit requirements for a bachelor's between two or more subjects, a double major requires students to earn full credits for two different majors.

Students may select their own majors or enroll in double majors already plotted out by the school. The double major ultimately leads to a single degree with specializations in two (related or unrelated) subjects.

Triple majors are also possible, though doubling or tripling major requirements has drawbacks. Aside from a stacked course load and heightened stress, there's less time for intellectual exploration.

3. Dual Degree

A dual degree, or double degree, allows you to study two (usually related) fields of study at the same time. Unlike a double major, however, a dual degree means you'll graduate with two separate degrees, such as a BA and a BFA or a BS and an MS.

Many universities maintain established dual-degree programs. For example, the University of Pennsylvania offers dual degrees in separate but allied fields like international studies and business, and management and technology.

Because you'll be earning two degrees, this type of program usually lasts a minimum of five years for undergraduates. The time and financial commitment of a dual degree can deter some students from pursuing this option.

4. General Studies

Another degree option similar to interdisciplinary studies is general studies. While interdisciplinary studies intentionally combines two or more degree areas, general studies allow students to earn credits from an array of disciplines without the pressure to establish cohesion between them.

The shortcoming of a general studies degree is one that also dogs interdisciplinary studies: Neither may build enough expertise in any single subject to make graduates strong candidates for future jobs or graduate programs.

What Are Interdisciplinary Studies Jobs?

The best reason for pursuing interdisciplinary studies is that you have a career in mind, and the trajectory for that career would be best charted by a self-designed degree.

Maybe you dream of making underwater documentaries — your interdisciplinary studies degree could combine marine biology with media studies, video production, or journalism.

Or perhaps you want to make a difference in political or nonprofit realms. An interdisciplinary approach to sociology, public health, communication, and a number of other subjects could help you hone the fundamental skills you need to get started.

Combining multiple interests to create your perfect major doesn't necessarily need to ladder up to a specific career niche. In many fields, the interdisciplinary studies graduate will stand out for their ability to think broadly and wear many hats. Many interdisciplinary studies grads find their place in management and administration.

Another popular career track for interdisciplinary studies majors is education. Many interdisciplinary studies graduates teach at the elementary, middle school, and high school levels or work as education administrators and counselors.

Some education roles require a master's degree, but a bachelor's in interdisciplinary studies can help you develop expertise in the subject(s) you wish to teach.

Researchers, writers, and journalists also need to be familiar with many subject areas. The same is true for people planning to be entrepreneurs.

Forging a unique area of expertise early on in your college career can set you up for success, as well as demonstrating to future employers that you have a highly developed, enduring passion for your field.

If you're confused about how to choose a college major and feel like picking a major is causing a lot of stress, this guide can help. Around 1 in 3 college students changes their major. But does it make sense to switch? Our tips, questions, and resources can help you decide. Some college majors are more popular than others due to their high earning potential and strong job prospects. Learn what the top 10 majors are in this guide.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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