DIS Degree Moves MSU Into the Future

While there are many exceptional degree programs at MSU, the school is a product of a departmental, siloed educational tradition. If you intend to be a chemical engineer, a wildlife biologist, a sculptor, there is a track in place for you. For students who want to research things like experimental digital media, the mathematics or neurochemistry of music, entertainment engineering, or virtual reality, it isn’t immediately clear how a student at MSU can move their career down that path.

In the 80s, MSU created a Directed Interdisciplinary Studies (DIS) degree to provide students with a means of pursuing studies outside the regular departmental degree programs. As part of the Honors program, the degree produced Rhodes and Goldwater and Truman Scholars, and many of MSU’s most distinguished graduates. Regrettably, it was eliminated by the Board of Regents in 2009 due to low enrollment. But over the last year the Honors College – under Dean Ilse-Mari Lee – and the Office of the President have reintroduced the program in a new form. In October I wrote about the need for multidisciplinary education at MSU; DIS is precisely the sort of program MSU needs.

DIS is a 120 credit degree that allows students to integrate three creative or scholarly disciplines, resulting in either a B.A. or a B.S, depending on the specific combination. Each student is overseen by a Faculty Advisory Committee (FAC) of a professor from each of the three chosen disciplines. The FAC faculty serve both as a review board and as mentors. “Just think of the three letters of recommendation the students will graduate with,” Lee said, “You’ll have a person from each discipline who knows you really well.”  The FAC will give a report every semester on the student’s progress to the Honors College Academic Advisor, Martha Sellers. The students will then be interviewed by the Honors College advisory board. DIS is a thesis-driven degree; the FAC and members of the advisory board conduct the thesis defenses and determine whether graduation requirements have been met.

“If I were a freshman,” Lee said, “I would of course study music, and definitely some cell biology and neuroscience courses, and mathematics. Because I had to make the choice between music or medicine. There wasn’t the possibility of combining the two.”  Lee’s excitement about the program was palpable. “I think we’re seeing students coming that are interested in the left and the right brain, that are artists and scientists, that are engineers and mathematicians and musicians. It fits the generation of students that we have very well.”

Students must take Texts and Critics or HONR 301 (an upper division substitute for Texts and Critics) – and may complete the Honors College degree – but DIS is it is available to all students, “because we know that many highly-motivated students are not in the Honors College,” Lee said. The degree requires a high level of independent learning and motivation, so there is high bar for the program: each student must maintain at least a 3.5 GPA and must meet multiple levels of review. “This is not for everybody,” points out Dr. Lee, “This is for students who are self-motivated and driven.”

DIS is a stepping-stone to graduate work. “This is a phenomenal degree toward graduate school in fields that we do not have on our campus,” says Dr. Lee, “But it is not a degree that you’re going to enter the workforce with. You may; if somebody is looking for a person who can think incredibly independently and critically have have a multidisciplinary perspective on problems, that’s a DIS graduate, there’s no question about that.” But the program is geared more to provide students with a path specifically suited to a graduate program of their choice.

The degree may seem hokey, but the previous iteration of DIS created stellar students. Ryan Archer, a 1998 DIS graduate, focused his degree on natural resource and land use management. Archer is now Senior Legal Counsel for Boeing. “I have come to appreciate that a DIS degree may not be advisable for many students since it is non-standard and does not fit a prototypical ‘profession’ driven program. But that is the intent, because it is designed for a select class of students who plan to obtain advanced degrees in fields such as law, medicine or the sciences. For these students, the DIS presents a fantastic opportunity.”

Jennifer Devoe is another graduate of the earlier DIS program. “I was very fortunate to have the DIS credentials and experiences to help set me apart from the rest [of medical school applicants]. I also had the benefit of working closely with several stellar faculty who had knowledge and familiarity with my work, my dedication to learning, my life goals, and my personal character … I had several interviewers comment on the richness of my MSU education and the great aspects of the DIS program.” Devoe received both a Rhodes and a Goldwater scholarship is now an MD/Ph.D and associate professor at the Oregon Health and Science University.
Barriers between disciplines are eroding. To propel students into the future, MSU should continue to support programs like DIS, which serve as incubators for innovation that the rest of the campus can adopt. “When this degree was first formatted,” Lee said, “I think they were way ahead of their time. I think now we’re precisely where we should be, and I think a lot of people are going to be very interested to see what happens here.” DIS is only accepting five students this semester – the application deadline is Feb. 29 – but will begin taking on new students every semester beginning next year. Lee is ecstatic: “I like to think that the sky’s the limit.”