Q&A: How do interdisciplinary degree programmes equip students for the workplace? | Top Universities

Q&A: How do interdisciplinary degree programmes equip students for the workplace?

By Chloe Lane

Updated April 18, 2023 Updated April 18, 2023

Sponsored by Zayed University 

Interdisciplinary degree programmes help students develop a diverse and wide-ranging set of skills from different disciplines. Students will then go on to apply these skills in practical ways to solve real business and societal problems. 

Zayed University has recently announced several new interdisciplinary programmes, which integrate real-world experience from the outset. Designed by the university’s faculty, these programmes aim to prepare graduates to become the leaders, thinkers and doers of the future through active learning and industry-based challenges.  

TopUniversities spoke to Professor Paul Hopkinson, Dean of the College of Interdisciplinary Studies at Zayed University, about how these types of pioneering degree programmes can help students advance in their careers: 

How is the interdisciplinary approach offered in Zayed University’s programmes? 

At Zayed University, we have four interdisciplinary programmes: business transformation, social innovation, competition systems, and sustainability.  

Within these majors, there are 16 specialisations that enable students to get the kind of broad interdisciplinary knowledge as well as specific expertise. 

The programmes are designed to be intentionally interdisciplinary. Rather than allow students to combine different majors and minors and leave it for the students to make connections and links between them, we structure our programmes in a way that students acquire a set of foundational, interdisciplinary skills alongside disciplinary knowledge and then create opportunities for student to apply what they learnt to real world challenges in the classroom and beyond. 

The first year focuses on developing a set of core skills which encompass creative and critical thinking, and effective communication and interaction. Students start by developing those core skills which they’ll use throughout the remainder of the programme. There's a set of learning outcomes that are developed in the first year and built on in each subsequent year. 

There are four main pillars to ZU’s interdisciplinary education: 

  • Intentionally designed interdisciplinary programmes: Encompassing foundational skills, and combining majors and concentrations, these degrees are aligned to solve societal challenges rather than being based on traditional disciplines. 
  • Fully active learning, aided by technology: Students are taught via an online, interactive classroom, where they are required to keep their cameras on for exercises and activities. Instructors will be able to view the analytics of how each student is performing, in their responses to polls and questions and other interactive exercises. 
  • Practical learning: The active learning sessions are followed up with labs, where we're asking students to apply what they learned in classes to practical, real-world problems.  
  • Engaging with industry: From the first day of the programme, students will work with external partners on real-world projects. This will be done in teams and the students will work on the project for the duration of the summer, before reporting back on their progress. These projects are completed in addition to the curriculum. 

Why is interdisciplinary learning important, particularly in preparing students for their careers? 

The fundamental reason interdisciplinary learning is important is that many of the problems that we face in the world today demand interdisciplinary solutions. 

If you look at challenges like climate change and digital transformation, these things require ways of working and devising solutions that cut across traditional disciplines. We can't deal with complex problems like these with a single approach.  

For many years problem-solving has been approached through a single lens. Sometimes we get better solutions if we're able to solve problems through bringing together different lenses and different perspectives.  

Also, the world of work doesn't divide us into neat disciplines. For example, when I think back to my career in marketing in product management, I worked across different departments including finance, design engineering, industrial engineering, sales and operations.  

In many other work contexts including academia, the picture is the same. You have to work across departments to come up with a solution to problems. You must work in cross disciplinary way and understand the ways people from different disciplines work.  

Cross-functional, interdisciplinary work, very often across geographical boundaries, is a feature of the modern workplace. We're developing a set of skills for the students, which will set them up well for their lives. Students need to work across disciplines to do that successfully. 

What are some of the work-ready skills students are likely to develop through studying an interdisciplinary degree?  

According to a recent report by Mckinsey, employers are looking for portfolio of skills, including digital skills, cognitive skills (including both critical and creative thinking), self-leadership skills (self-awareness, entrepreneurship and goal achievement) and interpersonal working skills.  

Students can develop these skills by being asked to solve problems and explain and justify their solutions. Interpersonal skills will also be developed through teamwork activities. 

Technical skills are built into the programmes and the specialisms that we offer. For example, when studying business transformation, you can specialise in marketing or entrepreneurship, or you can specialise in accounting and finance.  

At Zayed University’s College of Interdisciplinary Studies, Partner Challenges are a mandatory part of the programme. Students will work with external partner organisations in teams to solve real-world interdisciplinary problems, applying the skills and knowledge from their programme. 

The problems that students are working on are intentionally interdisciplinary in nature. For example, a group of students might be looking at the application of artificial intelligence technology to recruitment and selection.. There are many ways to approach this. Coming at it from a technical point of view you can explore how to apply the technology. Or, from a psychological perspective, you can understand what the challenges are in getting people to adapt to this new technology. 

What does the work experience component of these programmes involve and why is it important? 

Zayed University has work placement coordinators in each of the colleges. The student life team looks at the welfare of students and helps them develop workplace-ready skills. 

We have the Partner Challenges which we’ve just discussed, which expose students to working with industry throughout the programme.  

Students will also complete a workplace internship, working in industry for a semester. Students also have a mentor who supports them during that process. We want students to directly apply what they learned at university. 

Fundamentally, it's about employability: we want students to be workplace ready. That's not just being close to the workplace and developing skills that are relevant to the workplace, it's also recognising that they're in an increasingly competitive market once they graduate.  

There'll be people at different stages of development who will have different levels of work experience, so it’s important to stand out as a candidate. 

Finally, what prepares Zayed University graduates to work anywhere in the world?  

Our programmes help students develop an interdisciplinary perspective which will help them solve problems in the real world from a different viewpoint.  

Zayed University is pioneering in this respect. We're one of the very few pioneering institutions worldwide that are offering intentionally interdisciplinary education. 

What sets us apart is that we've embedded a set of foundational, employability skills into our programmes to provide opportunities to consolidate and transfer these skills and the technical knowledge that students acquired through the partnership challenges. We're working with industry from day one, and that continues throughout the programme. 

This article was originally published in April 2023 .

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