In Defense of Interdisciplinary Studies

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Raisa stood at the front entrance to Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
Raisa stood at the front entrance to Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

Graduate study is never an easy task to complete. But there is another conundrum preceding it: choosing what major or program to pursue. Traditionally, people choose to attend the same program that they took for undergrad, but the idea to shift to a new field of study is not a new thing. In fact, interdisciplinary studies have become increasingly popular nowadays. That is what Raisa Nabila, a graduate student at Cornell University, believes. In this article, she is keen to share her thoughts on why we should start valuing those who choose to learn interdisciplinary studies and become generalists.

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When I was researching Master’s programs back in 2017, my Mom, who was doing a Ph.D. herself, insisted that I should pick a Master’s degree that is linear with my Bachelor’s degree.

“Otherwise, it would be difficult for you to be a Professor in Indonesia,” she said.

She went on to explain that if I want to work in academia in Indonesia, I should not deviate from a “straight” path of having the same major from Bachelor’s to Ph.D., because that is how things work in Indonesia.

Fortunately, Indonesia’s Ministry of Education got rid of the linearity rule in 2018. I also ended up choosing a Master’s degree program that only overlaps a little bit with my Bachelor’s degree. However, I cannot help thinking of my mother’s advice. Why is linearity still highly valued when the world is becoming more uncertain and fast-moving?

An article from The Guardian in January 2018 predicted that the university of the future will become more interdisciplinary. The writer, a dean of management and law at the University of Bradford School of Management, argued that traditional departmental structures are preventing research and education from evolving as ideas do not fit neatly into disciplinary boxes.

Do we really need to pursue the same major as what we did during undergrad for our graduate study?
Do we really need to pursue the same major as what we did during undergrad for our graduate study?

I cannot help agreeing with that statement. My current program at Cornell University, a Master’s in Industrial and Labor Relations, is an interdisciplinary program itself and I have benefited so much from its approach. The major combines the study of management, law, psychology, and economics into one program. For example, even though my concentration is in Human Resources and Management, I also have to study Labor Relations and Labor Law so I can understand issues from workers’ perspectives, not only from businesses’ or shareholders’ perspectives.

It was indeed a challenging learning experience. As I had my undergraduate degree in business and marketing, labor relations and labor law are new to me. I did not have pre-existing knowledge in those areas within Indonesia’s context, let alone within U.S.’s context. I had to learn basic law terms. I had to learn about the civil rights movement and compare collective bargaining agreements in various countries. I was not the only one having difficulty in classes. A lot of my peers, both domestic and international students, also came from business or psychology major with little knowledge of these topics.

A lot of people also asked me, “Isn’t it weird that your program combines both left and right perspectives?”. They were referring to the opposing ideologies of U.S. politics and how a university program is often shaped by either ideology. I explained to them that it is indeed weird and confusing, but in a good way. I think the world has had enough of unethical business people who put profit over everything and ignore social issues. My program makes sure that its alumni, despite working for big corporations, would value justice and fairness for the working class.

School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University, New York, United States
Ives Hall at Cornell University during a cloudy day.

Hence, despite the learning challenge, the struggle was worth the lessons. Had I taken an MBA or a pure management major linear to my undergraduate study, I would have missed learning about workers’ rights and the long fight people have gone through to earn them. I would probably become a highly educated person with little awareness about the social responsibility that my profession entails.

Another example would be how, amidst the emerging challenge of climate change, universities start to design programs such as Sustainability Management or Sustainability Studies. These programs often combine both natural science and social science perspectives. The alumni are expected to understand the threat of climate change both in terms of science and policy. This way, when they become environmental leaders or decision-makers, they would have a holistic view of the issue.

After graduation, I still plan to work in human resources. However, now I am looking at my profession with a pair of fresh eyes. There is so much a human resources professional can do more than just making people happy and performing at work. Through HR work alone, we could lift people out of poverty, create safe space within workplaces, and help families thrive by designing family-friendly work policies.

Despite the struggle, the learning experience from my decision shifting to a completely new field is invaluable.
Despite the struggle, the learning experience from my decision to shift to a completely new field is invaluable.

In the past, the world used to value people who can master more than one subject: Leonardo da Vinci, Al-Biruni, Benjamin Franklin. We used to call them the Renaissance man or the polymath. With industrialization, we have been pushed to specialize in one thing and to make a career out of that specialty. This was not wrong as this was also what the world needed.

However, as the world’s issues are becoming more complex and multidimensional, it is about time we go back to valuing a generalist as high as we value a specialist. It is about time we advocate for a more cross-cutting approach to education. With these examples, I would champion the case for interdisciplinary studies and for more Indonesians to choose interdisciplinary programs in their education.

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Photo credit: Joshua Hoehnex_)

Also read“Know Your Purpose”: Raisa Nabila’s Graduate Studies Reflection So Far

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