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Interdisciplinary university programs: Part 1


My most recent blog posting was about teaching a diversity of students, with a variety of backgrounds. Today I’m going to chat about the opposite situation … when it is not the student body, but the department, that is diverse.

I am part of the Natural Resources Institute at the University of Manitoba. Our raison d’être is to produce graduates with broad backgrounds in a number of components important to making real-world environmental management and conservation decisions. While each student has a focal area for their research, they are also all educated in topics as diverse as ecology, conservation, economics, law, policy, and human dimensions of natural resources management.

Generally, I’m strongly in favour of this approach. When I completed my Masters, I felt completely unprepared to make management decisions, because my education had been focused on biology. Unless someone wanted to hire me to conserve turtle evolutionary pressures … I could probably have handled that one. That type of job seemed to be surprisingly thin on the ground, though.

Today, an interdisciplinary background is necessary for many fields, not just environmental management. Teachers need to know about science, project managers need to know about psychology and economics, engineers need to know about environmental conservation. As the international economic situation continues to be volatile, an interdisciplinary education has become even more important, as it facilitates employees abilities to adapt, collaborate, innovate, and ultimately contribute to the success of their employers. During my Masters, I would have benefited from learning how biological theory and knowledge could fit into and influence real-world management decisions; thus, I value the fact that my students will learn to embed their research in the context of our culture. The fact that my graduates have gone on to work as policy analysts, biologists, academics, and consultants attests to the breadth of options that their interdisciplinary background has given them.

As a result of the increasing need for an interdisciplinary approach to problem solving, interdisciplinary graduate programs are popping up all over Canada. In addition to the University of Manitoba, the universities of British Columbia, Calgary, Memorial, York, and many others have all developed interdisciplinary graduate programs. It seems to be part of human nature that these programs are sometimes viewed with distrust by some traditional, discipline-focused academics. However, their ubiquity attests to the demand for bringing a broader perspective to specific academic questions.

Of course, all choices have tradeoffs. My students spend more time debating about the big-picture stuff, like social policies and quantitative versus qualitative research methods, than they do about which indices are most suitable for describing landscape structure. That means that if they have to make decisions about what indices to apply in their research, they might have to do more reading and research, and they might have a relatively small support group who can help them make that particular decision. In addition, they also work hard, completing up to 8 graduate courses and writing an academic research proposal in the first 8 months of their graduate program. After all, if your education is going to be interdisciplinary, you’re going to have to take a bunch of courses in a diversity of, ahh, disciplines. While the length of time it takes for students to complete their degree is equivalent to the average for our faculty, I personally think that the work required to do so is simply more than the work required for other Masters programs. They get more out of it, but they have to put more into it, too.

Next time I post a blog, in more or less 3 weeks, I’ll talk more about the challenges and advantages of working as a professor in an interdisciplinary academic unit.

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