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California College Guide : Spreading Out : Advanced degrees: Narrow specialization is giving way to interdisciplinary studies that provide a broader background for dealing with real-world situations.

February 09, 1993|LARRY GORDON | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

When environmental consultant Lynn Creelman decided to go back to school for a doctorate, her first thought was to pursue a highly specialized degree in statistics or toxicology.

But the 34-year-old resident of Hermosa Beach eventually changed her mind, choosing a broader course of study that combines a dozen disciplines--including atmospheric sciences, civil engineering, sociology, economics, chemistry and urban planning.

"I really wanted a coherent look at the whole environmental area," said Creelman, now in her first year of study in UCLA's environmental science and engineering program.

The proliferation of such interdisciplinary graduate degree programs signals a growing belief among educators that complicated, real-world problems demand broader-based training and study.

"You can't do it with just one discipline any more," said Albert Winer, director of the UCLA program, one of the first graduate programs to mix disciplines when it was founded 20 years ago.

Across the nation, graduate schools are increasingly moving away from extreme specialization and offering master's and doctoral degrees that marry disciplines, such as management and philosophy, physics and religion, economics and history, psychology and biology.

"Many employers are emphasizing more generic skills and are less concerned with specialties," said Clifton Conrad, a professor of higher education at the University of Wisconsin who has written a national study of master's degree programs. "The problems people face in the workplace are by and large interdisciplinary problems that require multiple points of view."

Although he could offer no solid statistics, Conrad estimated that interdisciplinary programs awarded about 5% of the 320,000 master's degrees from all American universities last year. Despite some resistance from tradition-bound institutions, the number of graduate students crossing departmental lines will increase sharply during the 1990s, he said.

Calling interdisciplinary programs "the wave of the future," Barbara Solomon, dean of USC's graduate school, said environment, multiculturalism, communications and international relations are among the fields particularly ripe for cooperation across old scholarly fences.

At USC, an interdisciplinary graduate program in neuroscience includes courses in psychology, biology, computer science and electrical engineering systems; a USC doctorate in "political economy and public policy" requires classes in economics, international relations and political science, as well as some specially designed courses that combine those areas.

Traditionally, graduate students who are interested in economic policy were forced into a regimen of highly mathematical studies, said Farideh Motamedi, associate director of the USC program in political economy. But "there are certain aspects of human behavior that do not lend themselves to mathematical equations," she said.

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To be sure, interdisciplinary studies are not completely new. Reflecting the counterculture during the Vietnam War, undergraduate programs in American studies, women's issues, and ethnic studies became fashionable on many campuses. Some of those programs shriveled in the more career-conscious 1980s.

Now, interdisciplinary programs increasingly are on the masters' and doctoral degree level, and tend to be more utilitarian.

"I think increasingly people will look to universities as a source of ideas, helping to develop the technologies we need to restore the economic health of the state and nation and to address complex social problems," said Claudia Mitchell-Kernan, UCLA's vice chancellor and dean for graduate studies. "Universities will be looking more outwardly than in the past."

Such outward turning will require more interdisciplinary programs like UCLA's environmental science and engineering doctorate, Mitchell-Kernan said.

The program, founded by Nobel laureate chemist Willard Libby, requires an internship in government or industry, with dissertations based on research and experience at those posts. Current projects include working on electric vehicles for the state Air Resources Board and on battery recycling for the state Environmental Protection Agency, as well as helping to clean up contaminants in San Diego Bay for National Steel and Shipbuilding Co.

Creelman, the first-year student at UCLA, said she may do her dissertation on toxic cleanups at the local consulting company where she now works part time. Or she may seek an internship at the United Nations, the World Bank or another agency on development issues in the Third World or American Indian lands. Meanwhile, she is taking courses in the law, geography and chemical engineering departments.

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