Interdisciplinary Degree Programs

19 May 2008 at 10:05 am 11 comments

| Peter Klein |

ANAKIN: How do you know the ways of the Force?
PALPATINE: My mentor taught me everything about the Force . . . even the nature of the dark side.

One of the great things about being Oliver Williamson’s PhD student is that he encouraged us to read widely outside our core discipline. His “Economics of Institutions” course included materials from political science, business history, cognitive science, and even . . . sociology! So while my primary training was in economics, I was exposed to some of the best thinkers in the “contiguous disciplines.” I even know about the dark side.

Nonetheless, I was enrolled in a traditional degree program and was credentialed in an established discipline (economics). Recently I’ve been talking to colleagues in several departments about the possibility of creating a truly interdisciplinary social-science degree program, one that would train students in two or more disciplines organized around core subject areas like organizational studies, entrepreneurship, regional development, and the like. This sort of curriculum has obvious potential advantages in fostering intellectual breadth, developing critical thinking skills, and encouraging relevance and accessibility beyond a handful of specialists. On the other hand, there are many potential hazards. The training may be broad but not deep; opportunities for narrow, technical advances may be missed; students may struggle to find academic placements; and so on.

I’d like to hear from readers who have experience with, or informed opinions on, such interdisciplinary programs. The best-known is probably Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, which included T. S. Eliot, F. A. Hayek, Allan Bloom, Saul Bellow, Hannah Arendt, and Leo Strauss on its faculty and produced outstanding graduates such as Ralph Raico and Ronald Hamowy. Arizona State’s School of Global Studies is a more recent example. Vanderbilt recently started a PhD program in law and economics. What are some other programs I should be studying?

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Education, Methods/Methodology/Theory of Science.

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11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Megan  |  19 May 2008 at 12:57 pm

    I had a miserable time in an interdisciplinary graduate program, and do not recommend them.

  • 2. david  |  19 May 2008 at 1:49 pm

    The Department of Engineering & Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon has a Ph.D. program and also a second undergraduate major. The common ground is decision analysis and the treatment of uncertainty. Most of the faculty are 50-50 in EPP and one other department.

  • 3. hexodus  |  19 May 2008 at 1:49 pm

    Great topic. I am currently an undergraduate in the UCLA Global Studies program, which I find fascinating. It is very interdisciplinary, with professors from many different social sciences teaching the courses along with a variety of guest speakers.

    I have often been concerned that what the program has in breadth, it may lack in depth. However, I feel that having ideas across a variety of fields helps to see the big picture, and also helps one to home in on interests more confidently.

  • 4. david  |  19 May 2008 at 1:50 pm

    My HTML skills are not what they might be:

  • 5. Michael Powell  |  19 May 2008 at 1:52 pm

    Caltech’s social science PhD program would be worth taking a look at, I believe. Its focus is different, of course, but I am under the impression that it is a top notch interdisciplinary program.

  • 6. VK  |  19 May 2008 at 2:31 pm

    The program at which I am a PhD Candidate views economics in a rather general way.

    Also the International “Max Planck Research School on Adapting Behavior in a Fundamentally Uncertain World” worths a look.

  • 7. fabiorojas  |  19 May 2008 at 3:25 pm

    Hi, Peter. This is your letter from the Dark Side. As you well know, I am quite knowledgeable about one type of interdisciplinary program – ethnic studies – but I have examined formally and informally other sorts of programs. A few comments:

    – Anecdotally, IS programs have high variance. For every Cal Tech social science, you have many others that simply fail to land people jobs. Chicago social thought, CMU decision sciences, Santa Cruz His Con, etc. All have great faculty, but they have very spotty placement.

    -Cal Tech works because it is actually a disciplinary program. The curriculum is essentially applied micro-economics. People get jobs in either econ programs or other econ friendly programs, like policy, business, and politics. I have never seen a Cal Tech graduate truly jump into “hostile” territory like political theory or cultural anthropology. Basically, it’s just a highly technical econ program with more of a policy tilt.

    – Informally, I’ve been told that interdisciplinary programs only work for a small minority of students. Most students need the social and intellectual structure of a discipline. A small handful thrive in the free form structure.

    – Perhaps the most successful IS ethnic studies program is Berkeley, which has a pretty darned good placement record. The reason it works is that people have to do “double duty” graduate work. Not only do they have to take topical courses, but they are also required to take traditional course work. for example, one person who did the IS ethnic studies courses but then tacked on an entire sequence of sociology and ethnography. Result? Award winning books, but geez, it took forever – yet they were amazingly well trained.

    – Another good example is the interdisciplinary logic PhD program in Berkeley. You have to do the course work in math AND philosophy. It’s a killer program and few graduate. But those who do seem to succeed.

    So here’s what I say. There are two successful models of interdisciplinary graduate programs.

    1. The disciplinary program in disguise. Basically, you just set up a slightly modified core from a regular discipline. But create electives and faculties who go beyond the traditional boundaries. But there is always a core referent discipline.

    2. The double-PhD model. Technically, you only get 1 PhD, but you make grad students do the entire training in more than one field (math and philosophy; ethnic studies and history; medicine and chemistry; etc).

    It also helps to have many faculty with strong disciplinary backgrounds, but broad interests. If you have people who actively reject disciplines (UCSC HisCon) then they simply won’t do the training grad students need so they publish books and articles.


  • 8. Josh  |  19 May 2008 at 4:53 pm

    I’m in a IS grad program now:

    We fall under the broad but not deep category. I actually just had a meeting with some people today about adding more economic theory, but I don’t think they were taking well to it. Also, there’s the fact that they’re all a bunch of communists.

    Despite all this, I’m still thinking about going for a PhD in urban studies. Any recommendations for this?

  • 9. Rafe  |  19 May 2008 at 10:39 pm

    In the best of all worlds it would not be necessary to have interdisciplinary programs at all. Eveyone could start off in a good solid discipline and then follow problems wherever they lead, by reading, taking courses in other disciplines and talking to people in other buildings on the campus, depending on the way the project develops. People who do not have enough interest or initiative to do that kind of thing will not be saved merely by puting them into courses where they get a bit of this and that in the hope that good things will happen.

  • 10. David Hoopes  |  22 May 2008 at 8:42 pm

    I think those of us who have Ph.D.s in “Strategy” or “Organization Studies” also fall into the inter-disciplinary study category. I went to UCLA because the Strategy and Organization department had people like Ouchi and Rumelt in it. So my committee had two sociologists, one member trained as an economist, one with a Ph.D. in operations research who published in econ and OR journals, and one “strategy” person. I guess I’ve gotten along okay. But, I often wish I had taken a lot more economics (which was my plan when I got there). Also, there were pretty nasty politics there that I think the breadth of faculty expertise made worse. You can hear horror stories of students of professor X getting hammered by professor Y. Though I would guess that happens in all types of departments.

  • 11. Henning Reschke  |  8 June 2008 at 6:20 pm

    Interesting topic, just a short remark:

    I studied a economics for a degree – often dreadfully wrong (pseudo-psychological) theory and and taught myself in an interdisciplinary choice of courses and seminars where I could pick them up before and during my economics and business PhD.

    I think interdisciplinary programs can be intellectually challenging and stimulating as one learns a lot about different perspectives – there is just not one way of seeing the world.

    However, that’s also what makes these programs dangerous for one’s career. There is no way to go back to one-sided solutions afterwards – particularly if you point to problems of one-sided thinking, which is often not people want to hear / read / talk about. Admittedly it is *not* easy to present several interrelated perspectives clearly, so more effort is necessary in finding a clear presentation.

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