Understanding Types of Graduate Programs

Most graduate programs are based within individual departments at a university and focus upon a highly specific academic field of study. This makes a lot of sense because we attend graduate school to specialize in a given academic field.

However, three common types of graduate programs —Interdisciplinary, Interdepartmental and Umbrella, let’s call them the I.I.U. programs– have broader academic structure. The I.I.U. graduate programs tend to be larger as they bring together more faculty and students on the basis of shared thematic interests.

For students, I.I.U. programs can sometimes offer a wider breadth in both curriculum and research opportunities compared to traditional departmental-based programs. For universities, I.I.U. programs function mostly to foster the collaborative environments that drive  more innovation and research.

As research revenue grows  more resources are available to fund more graduate student slots. I.I.U. programs also allow for more efficient use of resources for administration and student support, like offering a variety of strong career guidance initiatives.

I.I.U’s can differ from departmental programs culturally.  Since more people are generally involved in I.I.U.’s the difference is not unlike preferring a town to a city, or working at a small company rather than one larger.

However, it is important to recognize that, as great as this all seems, what matters most to a prospect is fit. Effective I.I.U. programs won’t be better than a traditional departmental-based programs if they fail to deliver everything the right student wants and needs to become expert in a field of study. What is more important than size and complexity is whether or not everybody plays well together. Are the seminars well-attended? Is the oversight of candidates managed well?

And before we get too far, let’s recognize the first interdisciplinary graduate program is actually a fairly traditional concept—we can think of the graduate colleges of Arts & Sciences that are present on virtually all major campuses as the prototype for an interdisciplinary learning environment.

Here is a quick Gradschoolmatch guide to understanding the three different types of graduate programs, including some examples of I.I.U. programs using our site to reach out to you and help you discover your own path.

Interdisciplinary Graduate Programs

In the orthodox view an interdisciplinary program is one that offers a course of studies that combine truly distinct academic disciplines. Some examples would include, law and medicine, or journalism and computer science, or business and engineering. At a typical university, each of these aforementioned disciplines would have their own school or college. Therefore any interdisciplinary program would bridge very distinct academic, educational and administrative units.

Interdepartmental Graduate Programs

As the name implies, interdepartmental programs are constructed by faculty coming together from many different departments.  Interdepartmental programs are a type of interdisciplinary program when, at one extreme, they are comprised of faculty only from departments within a single school or college. For example, when the faculty from various basic science and clinical departments within a medical school create a common graduate program, it would be interdepartmental.

It is not uncommon for programs that are interdepartmental, by this restricted definition, to brand themselves as interdisciplinary.  In part this comes from thinking of distinct academic fields as separate disciplines, even when more closely related to each other than some other field at a different school or college within the university. For example, at one time the classic medical school departments of anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, pharmacology and microbiology where considered separate disciplines. Today, they operate more like concentrations under a common discipline called biomedical science.

Umbrella Graduate Programs

Programs that are brand themselves as Umbrella use the term more often to imply a method of how students enter and are moved onto specialization tracks. Umbrella programs are those interdisciplinary or interdepartmental programs in which all new students enter undifferentiated as to specialization.  They only choose a concentration at some point, usually a semester or a year after starting a core curriculum common along with all others in the program. Once specialized, students join a distinct program for a specific theme under the umbrella, which provides the research, curriculum and community support.

Examples of Interdiscplinary, Interdepartmental and Umbrella Programs on Gradschoolmatch.com

Masters of Urban Studies Program- Fordham University

In this program, students gain exposure to a variety of disciplines of urban studies, from public policy to journalism. After completing three core courses, students select seven electives that match their interests to determine an area of focus for thesis and field work.

Learn more about Masters programs in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Fordham University in our recent spotlight feature.

Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Biomedical and Biological Sciences- Vanderbilt University

This unique, collaborative program gives students a holistic overview of the biomedical field during the first year, while allowing them to concurrently take electives. In the second year of the program, students select one of 11 distinct fields of training to complete their graduate education, ranging from pharmacology to human genetics.

Learn more about the IGP at Vanderbilt University in our latest spotlight feature.

Masters in Planning and International Affairs- Florida State University

This joint degree program at FSU combines International Affairs with Regional and Urban Planning, offering students the opportunity to concurrently earn two Master’s degrees.  The International Affairs department, one of two core departments in the degree program, overlaps with 10 different programs on campus, ranging from Anthropology to Philosophy.

Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences- UT Southwestern

At UT Southwestern, students enter the Division of Basic Science, which is an umbrella for 10 Ph.D. programs. With some of the top faculty in the country, UT Southwestern’s programs in biomedical science offer top-notch research opportunities in fields like cancer biology, neuroscience, and immunology.

Masters of Molecular Biosciences- Washington State University

This umbrella program, which is housed in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State, joins together degree programs in Molecular Biosciences, Immunology and Infectious Disease, and Neuroscience. Students are able to design their own academic program, with the ability to work with almost 50 different faculty members across 3 discipline-specific tracks.

Masters of Fine Arts in Visual Communication Design- Jacksonville State University

Students in this MFA program have two options: they can either concentrate in one specific discipline within Visual Communication, or complete an individually crafted interdisciplinary program of study under the same umbrella.

Interested in learning more about these types of graduate programs? Check out over 38,000 programs on our platform!

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Program Spotlight: Vanderbilt’s Biomedical Graduate Program

One of the nation’s leading biomedical graduate programs, the Vanderbilt Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Biomedical and Biological Sciences is designed to build successful, well-rounded leaders in science.

Under an umbrella of 11 different graduate programs, ranging from cancer biology to pharmacology, students are able to lay a foundation of more generalized coursework before selecting a specialized field of study.

Learn more about Vanderbilt’s Biomedical Graduate Program from Assistant Director Beth Bowman.

GSM: Briefly describe your role with Vanderbilt and some of your main objectives.

Beth: I am an Assistant Professor of Medical Education at Vanderbilt University and I have two major roles: Assistant Director of Biomedical Graduate Studies and co-Director of the Vanderbilt Summer Science Academy for undergraduate research. While my main job is to inform students about our graduate programs and recruit them to Vanderbilt, my passion is for helping educate students about the graduate school experience and how to make themselves competitive applicants. I want to be a resource for students hoping to make the transition from undergraduate to graduate education so that the important decisions they make during this time are well-informed and sophisticated.

GSM: What tools does the biomedical sciences program currently utilize to recruit students?

Beth: Most of our current recruiting is done through online, regional, and national graduate school fairs and our own online interest form. I contact students individually who either attend our booth at graduate school fairs or who complete this form to discuss their interests and how our program fits with their specific needs. My approach is much more focused on personalized attention than mass communication, a reflection of our programs’ attention to individual student success.

GSM: How useful is Gradschoolmatch to you and your program as a recruiting tool?

Beth: While I have only been using Gradschoolmatch for a short period of time, I have definitely found it to be useful for recruiting. I love the chance to learn a little bit about students, determine what they are seeking in a graduate program, and establish a connection before I tell them about our program. It seems like a much more personal approach that fits in well with my recruiting strategy.

GSM: Your program is considered an umbrella program. Can you describe how umbrella programs work, and how they differ from more traditional interdepartmental programs?

Beth: Traditional interdepartmental programs are typically smaller programs centered on a specific subject (i.e. Cancer Biology, Microbiology and Immunology, or Cell Biology) within the biological or biomedical sciences. While the faculty part of this type of program may come from different academic departments, they are still focused on the specific subject within that program. In contrast to this, umbrella programs commonly have a broader span, typically across the majority of biological or biomedical sciences departments at a specific institution.

For example, the IGP umbrella program spans 11 of our biomedical science departments. After gaining foundational training their first year in an umbrella setting, students will join a specific department or program when they choose their thesis mentor. Thus, unlike interdepartmental programs where students choose their subject up front, the goal of umbrella programs is to provide more choice and strong foundational training before specialization.

The 11 programs within the IGP
The 11 programs within the IGP umbrella program

The IGP program was founded for two specific reasons: 1) There really are no longer clear distinctions between biomedical science research fields; thus we believe all first year graduate students should get a broad foundation across these disciplines and strong training in critical thinking skills. While we group first year students together, we still value the importance of small group discussions and we balance larger didactic lectures with small, discussion-based coursework. 2) Many incoming students either don’t know specifically what they want to study or switch their interest during their first year of graduate work. We find that even students with a very specific initial interest will join a lab studying a different subject. Thus, rather than limiting students to faculty within one subject, we give students the flexibility to explore any laboratory, no matter what specific field the lab studies.

GSM: Why would a student benefit from choosing an umbrella program, and what type of student would be most successful?

Beth: Any student interested in biomedical research, whether they are undecided in their research interest or if they have a very specific thesis project in mind, would benefit from an umbrella program. One of the biggest goals is to expose burgeoning scientific leaders to the broad array of biomedical research disciplines. Because there are no longer clear boundaries between scientific disciplines, a scientist’s research can take him or her along many paths, often outside of the specific field in which he or she started. To successfully “follow the science”, a broad foundation in biomedical science is essential. Thus, the biggest benefit of training in an umbrella program is the strong science tool kit developed, filled with skills and knowledge that scientists can access when needed.

GSM: What are some of the unique strengths of your program at Vanderbilt?

Beth: Vanderbilt has two unique strengths that truly set it apart from other biomedical graduate programs: Support for graduate students in the lab and out of the lab. Vanderbilt is well known as a friendly, collaborative research institute that fosters relationships between investigators across disciplines. Additionally, to support research on campus, we have a large number of excellent core facilities and shared resources. These provide cutting edge scientific services, enabling access to high-end equipment, advanced techniques and specialized expertise for all Vanderbilt investigators. A full listing of these resources can be found here.

Support outside the lab includes an excellent Office of Career Development that is available to graduate students. Our goal is for our graduate students to be happy and productive in their research pursuits in the laboratory while also becoming educated and experienced in the many different career paths of biomedical PhD scientists. This Office of Career Development provides career and professional development services and enrichment activities for School of Medicine PhD students, including assistance on choosing a mentor, resume writing, grant writing, job search strategies, and experiences for different career paths.

Additionally, through a grant from the NIH, we also have a program called ASPIRE (Augmenting Scholar Preparation and Integration with Research-Related Endeavors) that helps students transition efficiently to research and research-related careers in both academic and nonacademic venues.

biomedical graduate program vanderbilt aspire
The Vanderbilt ASPIRE program was established in 2013 to empower and prepare biomedical sciences PhD students and postdoctoral scholars to make well-informed career decisions.

GSM: What are some typical career paths for students following graduation?

Beth: Immediately after graduate training, most of our students (about ¾) continue their research careers in postdoctoral fellowships either in nationally recognized industry or academia institutions. The remainder immediately pursue careers as Faculty members at Research I institutions or 4-year colleges, Research scientists in industry or the government, Scientific writers, or Patent lawyers.

GSM: What is some advice you would give to prospective students for your program?

Beth: My biggest piece of advice for students is to get research experience at a top-tier research institution as early as possible. This is for several reasons. 1) Getting accepted into an excellent graduate program is continually getting more competitive and requires extensive research experience. Even a stellar academic record, including a 4.0 and perfect GRE scores, will not get you into a great biomedical graduate program if you do not have legitimate research experience. 2) Experience at a research-intensive institution will give you an immersive view of what graduate school will be like. Working at a research-intensive institute is very different from the research done at a primarily undergraduate institute not only because of the environment, but also because of the resources available to students. Overall, it is more representative of research done during graduate school. Additionally, working at one of these institutes will also give you a chance to speak with people who either have gone through graduate school or who are currently going through graduate school. 3) Most importantly, this experience will show you if you actually like doing the type of work you will be doing as a graduate student.

Graduate school is not simply a continuation of undergraduate-style education. You will be learning how to think critically, analyze problems, persevere through failure, interpret data, design experiments, evaluate the literature, overcome roadblocks, etc. In other words, you are not simply “learning more about science”…you are becoming a forward scientific thinker. This type of critical thinking and boundary pushing is not meant for everyone, and that’s okay! Make sure it is right for you. Spending enough time on an intensive project will give you a clear idea if graduate school is your path.

GSM: What does the path to application look like for prospective students? Where is the best place for them to get more information?

Beth: Our application opens August 1st and closes January 15th each year. We also have a priority deadline of December 1st, which is when we start focusing on reviewing applications. We require a Statement of Purpose, unofficial transcript, general GRE scores, a record of research history, and 3 letters of recommendation. We review every application personally, looking at the applicant holistically and individually.

For the IGP program, the most important part of the application is the previous research experience and success in this experience. Thus, we spend the most time focused on the parts of the application that relate to this, especially including the student’s record of research experience and letters of recommendation. We do not have specific academic score cut offs, though we would like to see that students would be successful in our graduate-level coursework. In general, we recommend that students get as much research experience as possible, preferably at a research-intensive institution, before applying to graduate school. For more information, students can either email me directly or they can navigate to our website.


For more information on Vanderbilt’s Biomedical Graduate Program, visit their program profile on Gradschoolmatch.

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