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.