ISF: a major for people who just can’t decide what they love most

Tala Ram/Staff

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The interdisciplinary studies field major isn’t well known among students or employers, which can make it seem like a risky choice. In reality, it’s a gem. Think of the ISF major as a platter of your favorite desserts. At first, it may seem a little all-over-the-place — but, really, you’re choosing the platter that gives you a little bit of everything and leaves you with a ridiculously rich aftertaste.

How do you know that chocolate chip cookies are your absolute favorite when you’ve never tried a lemon bar?

By the time we’re sophomores, we’re expected not only to have figured out what we’re most passionate about within all of academia but also to have nurtured enough passion to last us the next three years.

But if you ask someone who’s deeply passionate about his or her major, the person’s story is rarely straightforward. People who have found their passion often did so by chance, when stumbling across a class they’d initially never thought of taking. How are we supposed to know exactly what we want to study when there’s such a diversity of options we’ve not yet explored?

Why do we gorge on chocolate chip cookies when we can have a little taste of everything?

This current obsession with specialization leaves us knowing more and more about less and less. Problems that are multifaceted are prescribed solutions that only partially solve the issue. It’s as if each department hands us these incredible lenses that enhance certain things while unintentionally ignoring others.

You might, for example, be a doctor helping patients survive lung cancer, but you’ll need public health workers, teachers, social marketers, design strategists, sociological researchers and writers to really address the issue in a preventative way. Each educational department offers a different perspective, and each perspective offers another problem-solving facet to the equation.

The ISF major remedies this dichotomy beautifully. It not only encourages but actually requires that you take classes in more than three different departments. The ISF website describes the major as “a unique opportunity to develop an individualized cross-disciplinary Research Program that includes a Course of Study and Senior Thesis.”

What this means is that if you …

  • have a really hard time deciding which field of study interests you the most,
  • think specialization is nonsense — coherence is my thing,
  • want to learn skills that reach beyond your major,
  • would like to take upper-division classes without trudging through a ton of weeder-class prerequisites,
  • want to take full advantage of the classes being offered at UC Berkeley without having to limit yourself to a particular department,

… then ISF might be the hidden gem you’ve been looking for.

Won’t finishing a whole cookie leave me more satisfied than a bite here and a bite there?

Graduating with a self-made degree works for you, not against you, when it comes to employers. The expectation is often that we get our education handed to us, but that’s not how ISF plays the game. Not only do you choose your own classes and combine them into a personalized structure, but you choose the title of your major, and you create your own thesis using all the different perspectives you’ve combined. You’re not getting an education — you’re making one.

I’ll take the whole dessert platter, please. But I also want my cookie.

Added bonus: with only six required classes (plus two prerequisite classes), ISF is an excellent department in which to double major. So, if you’re interested in a both coherent and specialized education, you know what to do.

Contact Tala Ram at [email protected].