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The phenomenon of changing careers has grown exponentially since the greedy 80’s got it started. More than likely, all those career shifters did not major in their new career. Does it matter that the new bank manager is a historian or that the new public relations manager has a degree in Ethnic Studies? Obviously not to their employers. So, if it is likely that in the future multiple career change will be the norm, what is the point of the currently narrow academic major?

Engineers need an appropriately narrow major in order to find their first job but soon enough they are doing something else; they become academic administrators, corporate officers, bureaucrats and entrepreneurs. Their degree may have “prepared” them for a life of linearity and an applications orientation, but all those geology courses the Petroleum Engineer had to take, do not help much when the subject moves into a career as a lobbyist. A teacher who must have a major in the subject she wants to teach, leaves the profession after three years (on average) and becomes a Life Coach. Haven’t seen a degree on Life Coaching yet.

Should we keep producing disciplinarily defined majors taking nearly all of the coursework within one discipline? Could we help students better if we prepared them for the predicted twenty-job and three-career future with a broader and interdisciplinary curriculum?

The Interdisciplinary BA is beginning to grow in all sorts of universities, in the U.S., Canada, Australia and the European Higher Education Area, spurred  by the Bologna Process. Once the homeless orphans of the academy, Interdisciplinary degrees are beginning to be accepted as the kind of broad preparation that Liberal Arts used to provide. But this trend may be conflicting with another trend. While some policymakers are promoting policies that call for cross-pollination of their disciplines, others are promoting a more narrow and occupationally-defined outcomes-based education, focused largely on the hypothetical first job.

This conflict seems to come from some policymakers focusing on the short term problem of a graduate finding a job for which they have been well prepared and others looking ahead a few decades, to what will happen after that first job. There’s also a difference (as it should be) between the focus of community colleges versus four-year colleges. The big push at the latter is for more interdisciplinary research, interdisciplinary publishing and globally-oriented degrees and at the former, a more responsive attitude toward employers.

University of Central Florida

Is the rise of the interdisciplinary degree good, bad or indifferent? I’ll give you some personal experience. When in high school my oldest son was ranked number one on his instrument, the bassoon, in statewide competition in Texas. He was admitted to the University of Texas at Austin with a scholarship in Music. Five years later he graduated as a Petroleum Engineer. What happened? The Music school wanted to control his curriculum and refused to give him credit for a course he had taken in advanced mathematics and so he walked across the campus to the Petroleum Engineering building, which did allow him to take music courses if he wanted to. But two years into his first job, he is heading into management, a profession in which he has not one college credit.

My youngest son wanted to be a Psychologist until he realized that the school he went to did not provide insight into the human mind, but training in the experimental method and statistical analysis, so he now has a degree in Asian studies and Japanese, and will soon move to Japan to work as a teacher.

I have a degree in economics but I teach organization and leadership in higher education and consult on institutional strategy. There isn’t one of my lawyer friends who is practicing law and my old doctor is now the owner of five restaurants.  My department’s administrator has a degree in computer science and the head of the place in which I exercise used to be a dentist. Nowhere in this list of arguably successful people is there a person who majored in what he or she is doing now.

Should this trend define what we do with students in college? Students are way ahead of us and are redefining themselves on their own. In my own campus 60% of the entering freshmen are “undeclared.” But this development is more than just manifested uncertainty, it is also an effort to prepare for variety. They seem to me to be searching for a passion to greet them with the next course and professor, and this may leave them with a broad education but without a major.

Northeastern University Interdisciplinary Studies

Soon we may see the following exchange. “So, young man” asks the HR person “What was your major in college? You seem to have left it out of your application.” You reply…”I majored in everything and nothing. I am interdisciplinary, global and adaptable to what the world will bring.”

The HR person smiles and says…“Young man, you are hired!”

But which department can handle such a degree? Interdisciplinary degrees today are housed in a Center or administered by the Provost’s office, which is both good and bad. Good in that it gives it a priority and visibility, bad in that it lacks the stability a department can give it.

Perhaps in the future there will be a new department, called “The Department of Future Uncertainty.”  A National Association of Future Uncertainty (NAFU) will soon follow and most certainly it will publish an online International Journal. If that’s the case, the BS in Future Uncertainty will come with a motto borrowed from Yogi Berra…”It is hard to make predictions, specially about the future.”