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I am applying for a PhD and when I was speaking to my potential advisor they discussed the possibility of me applying for an interdisciplinary degree that is offered by the institution as an option instead of the discipline specific degree in applied mathematics. The supervisors field is in mathematical biology and my dissertation work would be as well, and working under the assumption that they will take me on as a student, I am wondering what the advantages and disadvantages of the interdisciplinary degree might be relative to a degree that focuses on a specific discipline.

For example, how would a PhD in an interdisciplinary field affect paths forward for a PostDoc position? There are probably some particular advantages and disadvantages that are not obvious to me, so I am putting this out to the community.

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The main reasons are pretty obvious, I think.

A narrow field of study will (probably) make you more suitable for employment in that field and less in others.

A wider field of study will (probably) give you more options, but those who have specialized in something will have the upper hand (again, probably) over you it their specialty.

None of that is necessarily true and you can always either broaden your outlook later or specialize further as necessary. So, I suspect that any effect is most important only for your first job.

But it also depends on the individual program. I can imagine one in which the mathematical techniques are pretty generally useful, but also one in which they are not. This might be worth exploring with you proposed advisor.

On a different dimension, an interdisciplinary program might leave you more grounded in applications, where a straight applied math program might (not necessarily) leave you wondering how to actually use what you have learned.

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This answer is for the US academic job market in mathematics, where the majority of positions are more focused on teaching than research and where many colleges and universities have combined departments of mathematics rather than separate pure and applied mathematics departments or even more specialized departments.

A specialized interdisciplinary degree program is a good way to prepare for a focused research career in that interdisciplinary area of research, particularly if that area is new and growing.

A more traditional program grounded within a discipline may be more helpful in preparing you for a faculty career within a typical mathematics department. As an applied mathematician teaching in a smaller department at an institution that isn't focused on research, you'd be expected to be able to teach a broad range of courses in mathematics, from calculus to linear algebra, ordinary and partial differential equations, mathematical modeling, mathematical biology, numerical analysis, and maybe even some probability and statistics. It's likely that a more traditional degree program with a broader range of graduate courses would better prepare you for this kind of teaching work.

Some specific things to consider:

  1. Do graduate students in the interdisciplinary program work only as research assistants or can they get experience as TA's within the math department?

  2. How broad is the course work that you'll take as a student in the two different programs?

  3. What areas are covered by the preliminary exams in the two programs?

  4. How have previous graduates of the programs done on the job market (both immediately after graduation and after some years (say 5-10) in the profession)?

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  • Whomever gave the down vote, could you elaborate please and thank you? Commented Aug 30, 2020 at 19:20

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