Specialization vs Interdisciplinarity

Jack (or Jill) of all trades…master of none? I’ve struggled with this concept for a long time now. I’ve always loved learning lots of different things and initially feared that grad school would mean super specialization. And to an extent this is true. To earn a doctor of philosophy (PhD) degree, a student must demonstrate a superior knowledge in an area of study. A dissertation should be research on a new area and the PhD should be the resident expert. I’ve heard that as a PhD student you go from “scared to death to worked to death to bored to death”. While this is clearly hyperbole, it demonstrates the initial nervousness, intermediate workload, and final expertise of the PhD process. In the end, you’ll know your problem area and data better than anyone else, including your adviser. At this point you are specialized. You’re deep in the rabbit hole and have a unique view of your work…and it’s exciting because it’s new and ground-breaking, however specific it might be.

That being said, I don’t think this means interdisciplinarity is out the door. (Not sure that interdisciplinarity is a word but you know what I mean.) More than likely you used skills and expertise from a variety of disciplines in your PhD problem solving approach. Considering I’m a biomedical engineer, and biomedical engineering is an inherently interdisciplinary major, I may have some bias. My classes have always integrated fundamental engineering with biology. Now my PhD research involves lots of coding and data analytics in conjunction with knowledge of human cognition and physiology.  So maybe interdisciplinarity is more difficult to find in other majors, but I bet it’s there. And it’s becoming even more commonplace in university settings, which I think is great. Working with an interdisciplinary team means more and different perspectives on the same problem which leads to innovative solutions.

I wonder, has this value on interdisciplinarity reached K-12 education? My classes throughout high school were mostly segmented and independent. Granted I’ve mostly been talking about interdisciplinarity in research rather than teaching, but I imagine similar principles would apply to learning. Making connections between classes was and is one of my favorite things. Realizing that acceleration is the derivative of velocity in calculus class one day (right across the hall from physics) was mind-blowing! How can we integrate (pun intended) more of these moments into education? Technology education seems like a good, and relatively easy, place to start. It’s not hard to imagine an art or drama class merging with instruction on 3D CAD modeling and computer programming. Check out the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT) at Virginia Tech and see some of the exciting ways VT students and faculty are combining knowledge across disciplines.

My other thought is whether or not this value on interdisciplinarity is predominately American? Many other countries have students choose a specific path early on in their education. While these streams are present, to a certain extent, in American high schools (I’m thinking about the Governor’s School for Science and Technology and School of the Arts offered to students in my high school), the system is not as centralized. Are our primary and secondary education systems discouraging interdisciplinarity and does this vary by country? These are my thoughts, I’d love to hear yours. Comment below.

2 thoughts on “Specialization vs Interdisciplinarity”

  1. To me it’s harder for the US K-12 system to use an interdisciplinary approach because students are still developing during this period. Not to say that development doesn’t happen throughout college, because it definitely does during undergrad, but middle school and high school are especially difficult due to hormones and everything else running a muck. In my mind these years of schooling are there to provide the foundation knowledge so that once we get more specialized into at least general fields that we can make these connections that cross topic boundaries.


  2. I believe that having experience in a specific area so you can be value added when solving problems is important. That is why I look for people with “time in the trenches” when reviewing resumes. But true innovation occurs when people with different perspectives, different experiences, different skill sets come together to solve a problem that impacts all of them in some form. The willingness to work in a collaborative environment and to learn from each other is just as important!


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