Fascinating Interdisciplinary Degrees and Why You Should Choose One

The idea of dividing education into different subjects is a surprisingly recent one.

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Yes, it’s clear that reading and writing are separate skills from arithmetic, and as such can be taught separately. Other systems of education might add in rhetoric as another separate focus. But the array of subjects that we see today, where the sciences are separated out into Biology, Chemistry, Physics and further subdivisions besides, would have been alien to the ‘natural philosophers’ of the past. More strikingly, the modern dichotomy between science and religion would have seemed bizarre to pre-Enlightenment thinkers, who would have viewed both as similar and overlapping ways of learning more about the world we live in.

The "Renaissance man" would have been as well-versed in science as in literature.
The “Renaissance man” would have been as well-versed in science as in literature.

The current belief that education can or should be divided into discrete subjects might yet prove to be a historical anomaly. There’s a growing trend towards interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary degrees, where students study multiple subjects that might not be obviously related. Joint Honours degrees have been with us for a while, such as Business with a minor in a language, as have degrees that incorporate two closely related subjects, such as Mathematics and Statistics. But increasingly, subjects that complement one another but that aren’t as obviously related are available to study together. For instance, the universities of Birmingham, Leeds, Southampton, Edinburgh, Royal Holloway and Cardiff all offer some variation on Mathematics and Music. It’s long been known that musicians make good mathematicians, but now universities are encouraging their students to explore these overlaps and relationships between subjects more formally.
At Oxford Royale Summer Schools, we’re all in favour of looking at the way subjects interact and overlap with one another – that’s why two of our most popular courses, Broadening Horizons and New Perspectives, allow students to pick no fewer than three subjects to study, to benefit not only from the knowledge gained in each subject but also to learn from how they complement one another and overlap.
So what’s the point in interdisciplinary degrees? Here are some key reasons:

1. They don’t restrict you to a narrow field

It’s a truism that medical students mostly spend time with other medical students, and law students mostly spend time with other law students. In other subjects, students might socialise more broadly, but it’s entirely possible – for instance – for an English student at some universities to spend the entire final year of their degree focusing on literature from a single hundred-year period. This has its merits if expertise in a very narrow field is required, but the problems with this sort of academic tunnel vision are obvious.

Music and Mathematics intersect more closely than you might think...
Music and Mathematics intersect more closely than you might think.

On an interdisciplinary course, these problems don’t arise. For one thing, most interdisciplinary courses at UK universities are taught with a variety of different students from different subjects – so for the example of Mathematics and Music, a student might spend some time with students of Mathematics, some time with students of Music, and some time solely with their peers on the same course, studying points of overlap such as Fourier analysis. Whatever final-year specialism such a student might end up pursuing, they’ll have a valuable breadth of knowledge to accompany it.

2. See overlaps and synergies where others won’t

Academic tunnel vision can be such that a problem can have been solved in one subject, but the solution is ignored in another. For instance, Freudian psychoanalysis has been debunked, for the most part, in the academic study of Psychology. As a huge and influential movement in Psychology it isn’t ignored, but students of Psychology are well aware that Freudian approaches aren’t much used any more. By contrast, in English Literature, Freudian psychoanalysis is – if not practised gleefully – then certainly given a lot more credence than it is in Psychology.

"Take a seat on the couch, Herr Hamlet..."
“Take a seat on the couch, Herr Hamlet…”

There are countless more examples like this across academic fields, where students and scholars may simply be unaware of the progress that has been made in another discipline. This is even more the case where knowledge of both subjects is required in order to understand how a particular development or insight could be applied across the different fields. Students with interdisciplinary knowledge are invaluable in this context.

3. Gain unusual skills

There are vast numbers of Maths graduates. There are smaller, but still considerable numbers of Music graduates. But the Venn diagram overlap of people who have studied both is very, very small – and the same is true for a lot of multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary degrees. Even classic combinations such as Classics and English or History and a language are invariably studied less often than each subject on its own.
This means that if you focus on the overlaps we mentioned above, the skills and knowledge you acquire will be highly unusual – and that’s likely to stay the case even as multidisciplinary degrees become more popular, as universities will open up an ever-greater range of interesting and unusual combinations.

4. Expand your job opportunities

There are some vocational subjects in which it’s unwise to choose a multidisciplinary option. Half a Medicine degree will teach you some interesting things, certainly, but it won’t enable you to qualify as a doctor. There are joint honours options for subjects such as Law, but you’ll need to choose your modules carefully to ensure you’ve covered the right topics for a proper qualifying Law degree

Interdisciplinary skills make for a competitive job application.
Interdisciplinary skills make for a competitive job application.

But these examples are exceptions. An employer who specifies that applicants for a particular job should have a humanities degree is likely to be just as happy with someone who has studied English with Business as someone who has studied pure English, especially if business knowledge is also useful for the job. Studying more than one subject can come close to doubling your job prospects if you choose your subject wisely.

Which degree could you choose?

If you’re convinced that a multidisciplinary degree is right for you (perhaps you’ve attended Oxford Royale Summer Schools’s Broadening Horizons or New Perspectives course and enjoyed seeing how different subjects interact), then you’re probably wondering what sort of courses are available. From some of Britain’s top universities, we found the following:

1. Computer Science and Philosophy (Oxford)

You might think that hyper-rational, geeky computer science students and head-in-the-clouds philosophy students would never overlap. But these stereotypes don’t bear much resemblance to reality, and there is increasing crossover between the two subjects – for instance, both require a rational, logical approach to solving problems.

Might the ancient study of Philosophy hold an integral place in the modern world?
Might the ancient study of Philosophy hold an integral place in the modern world?

These two subjects are increasingly beginning to influence one another, as well. Think about a self-driving car in a scenario where an accident is unavoidable. Imagine it has a choice between hitting the carload of people who caused the accident, who have a 40% chance each of being killed, or an elderly lady on the street, who stands a 90% chance of being killed. The decision of how to program the car starts with Philosophy, and ends with Computer Science – and as automation plays an increasing role in our society, more and more of these overlaps will emerge.

2. Physics and Music Performance (Imperial)

As we discussed above, Mathematics and Music is an increasingly popular combination. But to our knowledge, Physics and Music Performance is a combination offered only by Imperial (in conjunction with the Royal College of Music). Like many multidisciplinary degrees, it’s less half-and-half than two degrees at the same time, so students looking at this option should be prepared for a high workload. And Imperial generously make the offer than students who don’t get accepted into Music Performance by the Royal College of Music will still be considered for more standard Physics courses.

3. Theatre and Performance Studies and Global Sustainable Development (Warwick)

The key disadvantage of this course is the amount of space that the name would take up on your CV. More so than some of the other courses on this list, it marries two subjects that have a lot of overlap in terms of the interests of their students, especially considering the use of theatre and performance to highlight global political issues. As the course description puts it, “your passion for Performance Studies will be applied to answering the Big Questions of our time” – and you’ll have access to Warwick’s excellent theatre facilities to boot.

Whilst it does incorporate elements of the farming industry, Land Economy is much more than a degree for farmers.
Whilst it does incorporate elements of the farming industry, Land Economy is much more than a degree for farmers.

4. Land Economy (Cambridge)

Interdisciplinary degrees aren’t all new and shiny with “and” or “with” in the title; Cambridge’s Land Economy degree dates back around 100 years. It covers law, economics, business regulation, sustainability, international development and a few more topics besides to address a wide range of issues relating to the natural and built environment. The name ‘land economy’ makes this sound like it might be a degree for farmers but students pursue careers relating to any of the topics it covers, and it has one of the highest graduate employment rates of any subject taught at Cambridge, a university which is not exactly known for poor graduate employment rates.

5. Psychology, Philosophy and Linguistics (Oxford)

Oxford’s interdisciplinary degree of Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) is well-known, not least because significant swathes of the British government studied it. Psychology, Philosophy and Linguistics, less so, but perhaps it should, because this course offers a fascinating insight into the inner works of the human mind, our ethics and how we communicate – and the ample overlap between the three subjects must provide valuable areas to explore. Students taking this course should be wary of one hazard of multidisciplinary courses; it can be the first step towards becoming a Chartered Psychologist, but only if Psychology makes up at least 50% of the modules chosen.

HSPS students can specialise in a mind-boggling range of fields.
HSPS students can specialise in a mind-boggling range of fields.

6. Human, Social and Political Sciences (Cambridge)

Another fascinating interdisciplinary degree from the University of Cambridge is Human, Social and Political Sciences. This offers students in their first year the chance to choose between courses as diverse as Akkadian Language, Biological Anthropology, and Cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia. Second year students then choose to follow one of seven tracks in order to pursue a specialism within these diverse fields, thereby enabling them to gain the benefits of an interdisciplinary degree while ultimately finishing their course with the focus of a conventional degree.

7. Bioscience with Entrepreneurship (Lancaster)

This multidisciplinary degree sounds worryingly like the opening of a dystopian science fiction novel, with students gaining the skills not only to create deadly organisms but also the entrepreneurial know-how to spread them around the planet as quickly as possible. In the real world, the combination makes sense given that scientists are increasingly required to have commercial awareness, and advances in technology mean that scientific research will no longer be confined to multinationals but could also be carried out within the context of a start-up. Bioscience with entrepreneurship prepares students for both of these eventualities.

8. Criminology and Education (Cardiff)

The fascinating overlaps between these two subjects are obvious right away: students might investigate the early years interventions that help prevent children going on to have a criminal record, or, on the other side of the coin, look at how prison education systems can help prevent reoffending. If you’re interested in looking in detail at some of the forces that shape our society (and what we can do to improve them), this degree offers intriguing possibilities, and could be the foundation for a great career in the public or charitable sector.

Theology and Oriental studies can offer a refreshingly new perspective on world religion.
Theology and Oriental studies can offer a refreshingly new perspective on world religion.

9. Theology and Oriental Studies (Oxford)

As the course description has it, “to engage with all the different aspects of the course, you have to be something of a historian and a philosopher, a textual and literary critic, and a linguist” – and if this article has whet your appetite for interdisciplinary degrees, then that should sound very promising indeed. This course looks at the world’s major religions, their primary languages and the cultures in which they operate from a perspective that is likely to be new to many students in the Western world.

10. Architectural and Interdisciplinary Studies (UCL)

Is this the ultimate interdisciplinary degree? Architecture can have relationships with many different subject areas, such as Sociology, Criminology, Art History, History, Anthropology and others besides, but UCL have here chosen to make all of these options available under the banner of Interdisciplinary Studies. Interdisciplinary Studies has proven popular in American universities but is relatively new as a subject in its own right in British universities, especially at undergraduate level. If you want your university course to be at the cutting edge of a new field this might be the one for you.

Image credits: revision notes; renaissance carvings; microphone; hamlet; keyboard; geese on a farm; abu simbel; buddha statue