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Why Interdisciplinary Engineering?

"Why Interdisciplinary Engineering? Two engineers compare notes on a project."Increasingly, employers are seeking engineers who have interdisciplinary skill sets -- whether that means expertise in multiple areas of engineering or additional expertise in other disciplines, such as business and communication. Purdue University’s online Master’s in Interdisciplinary Engineering -- which gives students access to 200 engineering courses and twelve concentrations -- was designed to prepare students to master interdisciplinary skills and excel in dynamic engineering careers. Engineering students often come from more traditional undergraduate engineering programs. Traditional programs usually stress building expertise in a single, niche area of engineering, and this norm makes some students feel unsure about pursuing a more interdisciplinary graduate degree. But the fact is: engineering careers are changing rapidly, and the academic status quo is no longer giving students all the skills they need to be successful solving complex problems and working on diverse teams. 

If you are interested in pursuing an engineering career or moving forward in your current career, the below will walk you through why interdisciplinary engineering skills have become more important than ever before. 

The problems that engineers solve are becoming more complex

One of the biggest benefits of interdisciplinary programs is that students are taught valuable skills from multiple fields, said Dr. Theodore Weidner, Professor of Engineering Practice at Purdue University. “Engineers are increasingly tasked with solving complex problems that require a host of different skill sets, and that’s where interdisciplinary engineering comes in -- interdisciplinary programs teach students important technical engineering skills while also emphasizing skills from other disciplines like communication,” Dr. Weidner said. 

The complex problems engineers are tasked with solving are created by technological advancements and developments in engineering methods and processes and often require interdisciplinary expertise. Engineers who work in fields like healthcare, transportation, and telecommunication must often master a diverse range of skills and knowledge to keep up with these complex problems and rapidly changing fields. 

The rise of smart factories is also expected to increase demand for engineers who have interdisciplinary skills. Smart factories use data and the Internet of Things (IoT) to make the production of goods more efficient and to connect global production systems in real time. Engineers who work in smart factories may be required to master data and programming skills in addition to more traditional engineering skills. 

According to Dr. Weidner, the changing landscape of engineering also requires engineers to engage with diverse stakeholders and translate complex ideas to general audiences. “Communication skills are more important than ever,” Dr. Weidner said. “Engineers have to be able to communicate effectively when working on complex projects, but traditional engineering degrees don’t always emphasize communication skills.” 

Employers want engineers who have interdisciplinary training 

Interdisciplinary engineering skills are a big benefit for employers. Increasingly, employers are stressing the importance of practical skills over traditional educational training, and many engineering jobs require cross-training and demand that engineers work on diverse teams. Students with training in interdisciplinary engineering often enter the job market already possessing these skills -- making them more appealing to employers in many industries. 

According to Dr. Aaron Lottes, Associate Professor of Engineering Practice at Purdue University, the transition between undergrad and the job market can be difficult for engineering students. “Engineers come out of their undergrads and start working their first jobs, and they learn that the job market wants different skills than what they were trained in,” Dr. Lottes said. “Going back to school for an interdisciplinary program can help students build specific skills around what the job market wants, either by honing in on a special topic or building broad skills over a range of topics.” 

Engineers with training in interdisciplinary engineering are typically well-compensated for their broad range of skills. According to PayScale, U.S based engineers who have an educational background in interdisciplinary engineering make an average of $75,000 a year. Projected annual income increases to $85,096 for engineers who have a Master’s degree, according to the NACE salary survey. Annual pay may be even higher for special topic areas included within interdisciplinary programs. Systems Engineers, for example, make an average of $106,640 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Interdisciplinary Engineering programs offer more flexibility 

Considering the number of career options engineers have available to them, many engineering students want flexibility to customize their degrees around their specific goals and interests. Interdisciplinary degrees provide students with more customization options by giving them access to engineering courses in dozens of different disciplines as well as access to courses in communication, business, analytics, technology, and other relevant topics. 

An academic study by Dr. Lisa R. Lattuca and colleagues found that interdisciplinary engineering skills are uniquely important to engineering students’ success in the workforce and on diverse engineering teams. The study produced evidence that students’ participation in non-engineering clubs and activities, study abroad programs, and humanitarian engineering projects were related to stronger interdisciplinary engineering skills. In other words, students who had access to experiences and courses outside of traditional engineering areas had more robust interdisciplinary skillsets. 

The study also found that students whose program curriculum focused on interdisciplinary skills -- such as systems thinking and the real-world context behind engineering problems -- also developed stronger interdisciplinary skills. 

Importantly, students in interdisciplinary programs don’t necessarily need to focus on a broad spectrum of engineering skills -- they can also fine-tune their degrees to give them expertise in niche subjects like Materials Engineering and Systems Engineering. This makes interdisciplinary engineering a good option for engineers interested in a specialized area and engineers interested in building a diverse range of skills. 

“Interdisciplinary programs are really about giving students the flexibility to explore different disciplines of engineering and broaden their skill sets,” said Dr. Lottes. “These programs are ideal for students looking to shift careers, build new skills, or see what options are available to them while still earning a master’s degree distinction.” 

Interdisciplinary Engineering at Purdue

Purdue University has a distinguished engineering legacy that extends to its online programs. Purdue’s online engineering graduate programs are consistently ranked in the top 3 by U.S News and World Report. Purdue’s 100% online Interdisciplinary Master of Science in Engineering is a unique online engineering graduate program that gives students access to the entirety of Purdue’s graduate engineering course catalog and twelve optional concentrations.  Learn more about Purdue’s most flexible engineering graduate program at the program’s website. 

 

Writer: Rachel Barton, Technical Content Writer, Purdue Online, barton53@purdue.edu