Berkeley offers doctoral students the opportunity to create an interdisciplinary major of their own design.

You must have successfully completed at least two semesters of graduate study in a doctoral program at Berkeley. You will need five faculty from multiple departments to support your proposal, and will need to show that the project you propose cannot be completed in any existing doctoral program. Completing a doctorate in an existing departmental, school, or group program is to your advantage because access to space, financial support, and continuing supervision are much more difficult for interdisciplinary students. The proposal you write will be judged against existing programs where you might complete the research you outline.

Contact Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs Linda Song ([email protected]) if you have any questions.

Proposal Guidelines for Student Applicants

You are required to present a proposal, to be reviewed by a subcommittee of the Graduate Council of the Academic Senate, that convincingly argues the following:

  1. The proposed program is truly interdisciplinary and cannot be carried out within the flexibility provided by existing departmental, school, or group programs;
  2. You have worked out arrangements for supervision by five sponsoring professors, who agree to act both individually and as a committee;
  3. You have the intellectual capacity for executing the proposed program, independently, without a cohort of students or the structure of a departmental major.

Your proposal must support these points with evidence, drawn from your experience and completed work at Berkeley. The proposal must include a detailed plan of study containing each of the following:

  • The title of the proposed interdisciplinary field
  • The foreign language in which you will demonstrate competence, to fulfill the Graduate Council requirement for the PhD
  • The three subjects which you will prepare for the Qualifying Examination
  • The name of the proposed chair of the Qualifying Examination committee and the name of the proposed chair of the dissertation committee (cannot be the same person)
  • A preliminary dissertation prospectus approved by your proposed committee. Formats may vary but you must describe the research questions or hypotheses; the kinds of evidence, data sources, or materials to be examined; the methods to be used to study those sources; the current state of knowledge on the subject; and where possible, a discussion of preliminary data, conclusions that can be drawn from them, and sources of error that might influence your conclusions.

A discussion of your completed Berkeley coursework, any relevant coursework or professional experience prior to entering graduate study at Berkeley, or other evidence of distinction and promise will also be useful for the subcommittee. Proposals should be submitted to [email protected], with a subject line of “Interdisciplinary PhD proposal”. It is suggested that you consult with the Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs at the same email address before finalizing a proposal.

Guidelines for Faculty Supporting Interdisciplinary PhD proposals

Five faculty members must agree to serve as a sponsoring committee. Each must write a letter of support containing a detailed analysis of the proposed program. Faculty members are reminded that they should not write letters of support unless they are totally convinced that the applicant is an outstanding student with a proposal of exceptional merit and uniqueness.

The sponsoring faculty committee must be drawn exclusively from UC Berkeley Academic Senate members (as defined in the Guide to Graduate Policy). One member of the committee must agree to act as major professor, usually serving as doctoral committee chair, and a second must agree to chair the Qualifying Examination. The major professor’s department graduate staff will be expected to serve the interdisciplinary PhD student by submitting required administrative paperwork, if the proposal is accepted, and agreement by the department Chair should be indicated.

The letter from the proposed major professor should contain:

  1. Evidence of consultation with other sponsors in which the role of each sponsor as a member of the supervising, qualifying, and dissertation committee is made clear
  2. The proposed foreign language and manner of completing the foreign language requirement
  3. A proposed normative time for completion of degree requirements
  4. A statement of eligibility for or access to study space, laboratory facilities, or a GSI appointment or other forms of support within the department, group, or school.

Assurance by a sponsoring faculty member that the student will be eligible for a GSI appointment or other form of support, while not mandatory, greatly strengthens the proposal.

It is also helpful for the subcommittee to receive additional letters of recommendation from faculty members who have worked with the student but who will not be associated with the interdisciplinary program.

All letters should be submitted via email to [email protected], either as email messages or attached documents, directly by the faculty member.

Proposal Review and Next Steps

A faculty subcommittee of the Graduate Council reads the proposal and makes a recommendation to the Dean of the Graduate Division, who makes the final decision whether to approve the proposal.

If approved, your major will be changed to Interdisciplinary Studies. One of your five sponsoring faculty (usually the major professor) will be designated as Graduate Adviser for signatures on study lists, petitions, and other forms requiring the signature of a Head Graduate Adviser.

Qualifying Examinations will be carried out in accordance with the usual procedures. Foreign language requirements will conform to Graduate Council policy. After successful completion of the Qualifying Examination, you will be advanced to candidacy under Plan A with five members (three signing the dissertation title page and all five participating in a final defense of the subject of the dissertation). Interdisciplinary PhD students who advance to candidacy, are within normative time established by the subcommittee of the Graduate Council, and have a positive online Annual Progress Report on file are eligible for the DCF Fellowship. A limited amount of Block Grant and Summer Grant funding may be available annually.

How to Avoid Common Proposal Errors

The most common weaknesses in students’ proposals for an Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program include:

  1. Vagueness and lack of clear focus in the proposal;
  2. Lack of evidence that the proposed program cannot be accommodated in an existing department or group program; and
  3. Misuse of the application by students academically unqualified to gain admission to or continuance in an existing doctoral program.

The most common weaknesses in supporting statements by faculty members include:

  1. Lack of evidence that the sponsor has consulted with the other sponsors and analyzed the roles of each member of the group, individually and as a whole;
  2. Lack of indication as to which professor is the principal sponsor of the student and which will serves as chair of the Qualifying Examination; and
  3. Lack of evidence that one of the sponsors can provide the space and logistic support commonly available to a doctoral candidate in a departmental or group program. Mere generalized approval of an applicant’s proposal is not sufficient.


Proposals and faculty letters of evaluation must be gathered in one file and submitted to the Graduate Division no later than November 1 for notification of a decision by approximately January 10, or by March 15 for notification by approximately May 1st. These are firm deadlines and exceptions cannot be made.