Sept. 12 (Bloomberg) -- California Polytechnic State University’s campus in San Luis Obispo has an odd-sounding new major: liberal arts and engineering studies. What’s next, chemistry and philosophy? Statistics and mythology (“lies, damned lies and myths”)?

Although “odd couple” majors have been around for a while, interdisciplinary studies is especially hot today, particularly related to engineering and other technology fields. But prospective students and their parents should read the fine print before selecting such a major or, more important, before attending a university solely because of the existence of such a major.

Many parents push their kids into practical-sounding majors such as science, technology, engineering and math, the so-called STEM fields. But names can be deceiving. To its credit, Cal Poly is quick to explain that its program, called LAES, isn’t an engineering major. Students can set it up so they aren’t required to take any “hard-core” engineering courses (though they have the option to do so). The jobs obtained by graduates, according to the department’s website, include digital publishing, sound engineering, video production and international technology management.

The applied engineering sciences major at Michigan State University involves a bit more “real” engineering, requiring four classical courses such as thermodynamics. Yet that doesn’t seem to justify the word “engineering” in its title, either. Graduates find jobs in business, finance, technology sales and engineering management, according to the department’s website.

Career Chimera

Many colleges are modernizing their engineering curricula to include more team-based project work and courses in business. But without a genuine required core in engineering, it’s a stretch for universities (I am speaking generally from this point on, not necessarily about the above two examples) to describe a major as “engineering.”

But whatever their names, do the new majors meet the common parental requirement that they lead to careers? The schools will cite good employment track records and provide student testimonials.

Yet it seems hard to credit the curricula for this success, given the highly open-ended, create-your-own coursework theme that tends to be central to these interdisciplinary majors. Indeed, many highly successful people in technological fields have no STEM degree. It seems likely that graduates are hired largely because of their individual abilities and accomplishments, rather than primarily from value added by a curriculum.

Counselors at engineering colleges are aware that a number of their students are uninterested in the field and are there only because their job-conscious parents coerced them. A survey by the faculty of the liberal arts and engineering studies program at Cal Poly found that most of their students would have been miserable in a traditional engineering curriculum.

The school is to be commended for addressing this issue head on, showing flexibility in providing some background in scientific and technical subjects while not making a student major in them. But this can also be obtained through traditional means, such as minoring in a STEM field or doing a related internship or research project.

The motivations colleges have for introducing interdisciplinary majors don’t necessarily jibe with students’ best interests. The administrators may be more concerned about their schools’ marketability (and their own), rather than their graduates’ marketability to employers. Thus the university’s imprimatur may be misleading.

Caveat emptor. Keep in mind that if a major combines X and Y, its graduates may not be very conversant in either X or Y. And employment statistics provided by campus career centers, for instance, won’t tell you what kind of jobs students obtain.

Interdisciplinary Inanity

Even for a traditional career-oriented major, the job market in a given field may be weak, with many graduates forced to take mundane positions far beneath their grandiose-sounding backgrounds.

For those interested in “real” engineering, don’t mistake form for substance. Ask first whether the major is approved by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. ABET is sometimes overly finicky in its requirements, but its accreditation is assurance that there is real meat to programs.

One should be equally wary of specialized degree programs at the graduate level. Again, the university may have its own agenda in offering such a degree, and the program may actually mask employment problems in the field. For example, these days the glut in research scientists has led some institutions to promote a “professional doctorate,” a new type of Ph.D. claimed to prepare its graduates for management work in, say, the pharmaceutical industry. Does one really need a doctorate to work as a manager in a pharma company?

Don’t misconstrue my remarks here to mean that liberal arts courses are unimportant for engineers. The California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with their intensive technical coursework, require all students to take a course in the humanities and social sciences every term. Remember, the odds are that you won’t work in hands-on engineering forever, and being of limited literacy and world awareness may be career handicaps.

(Norman Matloff is a professor of computer science at the University of California at Davis.)

To contact the writer of this article: Norman Matloff at matloff@cs.ucdavis.edu.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net.