I am in an interdisciplinary field and have several questions. Can you help?

Date: February 2017


I am a third year Ph.D. student working in a very interdisciplinary field. I need to gain expertise in computer science, electrical engineering, neuroscience, psychology, statistics, and many other areas too. I am interested in specializing in computational neuroscience, machine learning, and computational imaging. But I am facing some problems, and I wanted to know your suggestions.

  1. For my minor, I need to take at least four specific courses. I took one last semester but am unable to enroll in the course that I am interested in for this semester. Also, I do not have a committee members from this field yet and was hoping to find someone after attending this course. A significant portion of my current research is related to this course. Does the Graduate School have any suggestion for me in this regard?
  2. I am interested in working in industry in the future and my current work is relevant for jobs in the engineering sector. I’ll be taking my A exam very soon and my field awards a master’s of arts (M.A.) degree to students who pass. Would it be possible for me to get a “master of science” degree instead of “master of arts” if I pass ?

Thank you,
Interdisciplinary Graduate Student


Dear Interdisciplinary Graduate Student,

Cornell’s field structure is specifically designed to allow interdisciplinary study, just as you hope to accomplish. Students are encouraged to take courses and identify faculty mentors from outside of their primary discipline; but, as you’ve discovered, it can sometimes be difficult to open these doors. I have heard that some popular engineering and computer science courses have been oversubscribed recently due to an incredible increase in student demand. I certainly understand how frustrating this can be!

My first suggestion would be for you to contact the DGS of the field you hope to minor in. S/he might have ideas on whether you could get special permission to enroll in or audit the course. I would also encourage you to talk about potential faculty members who could become minor members of your committee. If you haven’t yet done so, you could also contact the instructor of the course directly to see if special permission to enroll could be granted.

Your field only offers M.A. and Ph.D. degrees, and I’ve verified that Cornell does not have the authority to offer an M.S. in this subject under New York State regulations. The Graduate School does, however, have a program that allows Ph.D. students in certain fields to earn a master’s degree in a minor subject at the time of the A exam. As an example, the fields of mathematics, applied mathematics, information science, and statistics have an arrangement that allows their students to earn a M.S. degree in computer science if certain requirements are met. Here is a description. There are not currently any agreements with your field but you could ask your DGS whether the field might consider forming such a program. If the academic requirements are compatible and the faculty are supportive, the Graduate School could facilitate this discussion. We think it can be a great way for students to demonstrate greater breadth of skills and have meaningful credentials in two different areas at the time of graduation. 

Please let me know if you’d like me to contact your DGS with more information on this, I’d be very happy to start the conversation.

With best regards,


Jason Kahabka
Associate Dean for Administration