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11th May 2016

The interdisciplinary opportunity

Countless studies have shown that international students expect study abroad to lead to better employment outcomes and that students' choice of where and what to study is greatly influenced by career considerations. For example, a 2015 study of how students interpret international university rankings found that students often look beyond the ranking tables for additional indicators to guide their school selection, and that employability and employment outcomes were the dominant considerations among the study respondents. In another 2014 survey of 45,000 prospective international students, 90% cited employment outcomes – whether at home or in their intended destination country – as a primary driver of their interest in study abroad. A further example from 2015 finds that employability is also a major decision driver for postgraduate applicants, with nearly two-thirds of master’s candidates indicating their primary motivation for further study is to progress in their current career, to improve their employment prospects more generally, or to enter a particular profession. Indeed, demand for study abroad in some of the biggest emerging markets, such as India or Vietnam, is driven, at least in part, by real concerns over employment outcomes for graduates of local institutions. Today, the desire for improved career prospects is driving the increasing popularity of interdisciplinary departments and programmes. These are defined variously by different academics, but perhaps most straightforwardly by Jeffrey Koseff, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, who sums them up as "multiple disciplines blending together to produce a new discipline aimed at solving an issue." Between 2006/7 and 2012/13, the number of degrees conferred in interdisciplinary programmes in the US grew by 42% amid a labour market context where an increasing number of professions and industries require highly adaptable employees with a broader skill set, and where students are looking for a competitive edge in the job hunt.

The context for change

Students today are living at a time in history when:

  • Workers – especially millennials – are staying for shorter amounts of time in one job, necessitating a wider, evolving set of capabilities to facilitate the evolution of their careers.
  • Start-up culture and entrepreneurialism have emerged as important markers and elements of the global economy – and they are driven as much by personal interest, passion, and collaboration as by discrete skill sets.
  • Research and action on the most pressing issues of our times (e.g., climate change, the race for more sustainable technologies, cyber-security, and health epidemics) requires expertise from a diverse range of disciplines.

In 2013, vice-chancellor of the University of Southhampton Don Nutbeam wrote in The Guardian, "The conventional career ladder [for graduates] is likely to be replaced by a career 'lattice,' which may involve moving upwards or laterally, and possibly stopping and starting in new directions as the employment landscape changes." In his article, Mr Nutbeam encouraged universities to speed up the normally gradual evolution of their curricula to a pace more suited to the realities of today’s research and industrial marketplace. And now, we are seeing more institutions responding to this idea with interdisciplinary departments and programmes springing up to complement, or serve as alternatives to, single- or dual-focus degrees. For example:

  • The University of Manchester’s University College of Interdisciplinary Learning organises its complementary course units into the following broad themes: Culture & Community, Global Challenges, Languages & Global Citizenship, Professional Skills & Business Expertise, Science & Society, and Sustainability.
  • At Wheaton College in Illinois, students in the Interdisciplinary Studies Major choose a "guiding directive" encapsulating the overall mission of the degree. To do so they identify a question, problem, and theme they will explore through the programme, then work with their advisors to assemble an individualised curriculum. The major also encourages study abroad and internship components.
  • At Queensland University of Technology, Master of Creative Industries students develop an entrepreneurial approach to creative industries and learn how different creative disciplines intersect and inform one another. They are able to try out a range of creative forms as opposed to spending all their time on only one artistic area.

Interdisciplinary programmes such as these often nurture students’ capacity for critical thinking and collaboration, both of which are skills that are much in demand by employers today. Governments, too, are increasingly interested in interdisciplinary learning. As one example, the European Union’s Modernising Universities initiative calls for universities to "redefine their education and research priorities by focusing more on research fields than scientific disciplines" and to ensure that graduates' qualifications align with the labour market." The Modernising Universities agenda recognises that such an evolution will entail universities “revising their structures and organisations (staff management, evaluation, funding, teaching, etc.)."

What interdisciplinary means to students

The age-old "forest versus trees" metaphor has been used to explain the advantages of interdisciplinary learning over single-focus learning. W. James Jacob has written:

"While disciplinary experts are essential for understanding particular ways of knowing within specific fields of study, their perspectives in addressing larger and more complex issues is often limited. Interdisciplinary approaches take a much broader view of the entire landscape, first by surveying the forest and afterwards drawing upon various tree experts depending on the needs, contexts and circumstances."

Researchers have found that students graduate from interdisciplinary programmes with abilities suited to a quickly changing world and marketplace. These abilities include:

  • Considering concepts and ideas from multiple disciplines for a wider understanding of a problem;
  • Understanding that there are multiple "truths" and factors underpinning a problem;
  • Balancing and integrating conflicting insights from several disciplines;
  • Maintaining confidence in the face of challenges.

Such abilities match up with recent research showing that students want to develop “soft skills” to apply in their eventual jobs. In fact, 93% of 27,000 students from 22 countries surveyed by Laureate International Universities and Zogby Analytics said that "colleges and universities should focus on teaching soft skills like accountability, nimbleness, negotiation, networking, collaboration and communication."

Collaboration is key

The idea of students with one set of interests and talents working with other students, professors, and professionals with completely different skills sets and perspectives is a cornerstone of interdisciplinary learning. For example, design students working with information technology specialists to increase the visual impact of a project; engineers working with psychology majors in pursuit of work spaces that foster employee wellbeing; climate change scientists working with history and geography students focusing on Antarctica. These three examples alone illustrate the potential of a "forest" rather than "tree" approach to graduating students armed with the critical thinking skills, collaborative mindsets, and adaptability so required by today’s rapidly changing economies and labour markets. Students and employers alike are sending strong signals to educators that the marketplace highly values more varied and multi-dimensional skill sets for graduates. And many institutions are taking up this challenge by expanding options for interdisciplinary study. Going forward, we may well find that such programming figures even more prominently as a source of competitive advantage for institutions and schools.

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