What I Wish I Knew About DISCIPLINES

The boundaries of disciplines have changed, they’re not as strict as they used to be. There are many terms that refer to this act of merging or breaking down of disciplinary boundaries, including multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and cross-disciplinary. In this post, I will not dwell on the technical distinctions between each of these words (and will unprofessionally use the word multidisciplinary), but will rather share a bit of what I have learnt about disciplines having worked in a single-discipline department as well as a multidisciplinary school.

The rise of multidisciplinarity

Sharing across disciplines is not how the ‘traditional’ university was designed. The way in which some subjects are presented and degrees are designed still reflect this notion of sticking to your discipline or staying in your lane. I suppose there is some status linked to the title one gets when you specialise in a certain discipline; such as ‘political scientist’ or ‘economist’.
However, many universities are moving away from this and in business schools, in particular, multidisciplinarity has been encouraged. The ability to be a more agile leader is one of the many reasons business schools try to give their students knowledge from a wide range of disciplines.
This type of learning has also been used to challenge the underlying assumptions and foundations on which many disciplines are built. Such as the various heterodox economic critiques of traditional, mainstream, or neoclassical economics.

Why you don’t need to start from scratch

I have heard many prospective postgraduate students talk about feeling like they studied for the wrong degree and wanting to do another undergraduate degree so they can establish a foundation in a subject they are actually interested in. I have also seen many do so to get into a postgraduate programme of their choice.
However, with multidisciplinary degrees, it is often not necessary to start from scratch.
Let me demonstrate with an example.
If you, for instance, studied education but would like to become a philanthropist instead, there is no reason to go back and do another undergraduate degree. A master’s in philanthropy is a specialist degree, although in many universities they do not specifically state that you need an undergraduate/postgraduate degree in a particular field in order to gain entry. The entry requirements would often be very broad, such as the below requirements for a MM In African Philanthropy at the Wits Business School:
A four-year degree/postgraduate diploma in management or related/cognate discipline at NQF 8 level, with a good academic performance record. A level of competence in Maths and English equivalent to the SA NSC level. A minimum of three years appropriate work experience. If the applicant seeks exemption from this requirement a letter of motivation must accompany the application.
There are many degrees that have similar entrance requirements, such as Governance and Business Administration degrees.
Of course this does not mean that you can have a Political Science degree and then decide to segway into a postgraduate degree in medicine. Your degree must be somehow related or be from a ‘cognate discipline’ which simply refers to a closely allied discipline or branch of study. It is, however, possible for people to make disciplinary leaps, such as someone with a medical degree wanting to do a master’s in business administration if they wish to open a medical practice and run it.

Do your research

If you are unsure about whether you would qualify for a degree based on your experience and background, it is advisable that you contact the degree convenor or coordinator. This will usually be an academic within the school or department you want to apply to who is ‘in charge’ of the degree. Often these individuals will also decide on applications if they are not decided on by a committee. Doing so will give you some insight into what the degree is about apart from what is on the university website and you can make an informed decision about whether it is worth spending the application fee and the time it will take to prepare an application.