Navigating Interdisciplinary Waters in the Ph.D.

Interdisciplinary. Intersectionality. Let’s face it: the “inters” are sexy. They sound great on paper and at dinner parties.

But here is another reality: Interdisciplinary work is often the stepchild of the academic world. Traditional academic fields exert a great deal of power because they are written into the fabric of institutional structures as departments, majors, graduate programs, fellowships, research assistantships, post- docs, professorships, journals, and publishing categories. If you aspire to breach these silos, be prepared for additional challenges.

Here are some ideas for the intrepid interdisciplinary pilot.

Haters or protectors? Be prepared to be told that your idea is not doable, is inadvisable, or that you won’t get a job if you pursue it. In this job market, one could argue that there’s a good chance you won’t get a job anyway. You could decide that this advice-giver is offering sound information and hew to a more conventional path. Before you take any piece of advice, evaluate the giver’s reasons. Triangulate between different perspectives.

Find role models. If you proceed, find role models who are doing something similar, and watch and learn. Better yet, take them out for coffee (over Skype if necessary), and ask them to share their experience. Consider this part of your research.

Interdisciplinary work is more work. In most cases, you will create a new area of research by becoming literate in the scholarship of more than one field. This could take a few lifetimes.

Delimit. Putting borders around any project is a challenge, but for interdisciplinary students, the challenge is to delimit ruthlessly. Put boundaries around the scope of your project, the bodies of literature you review, the methods you use, and the theoretical frameworks you employ. This is necessary because, by definition, most interdisciplinary work engages more subfields of knowledge, and you need to be able to say to all who ask, “That falls outside the scope of this project.”

Vet suggestions. A moment will come when a well-meaning faculty member on your committee will casually say, “You should take a look at…” and mention a body of literature that would take you six months or more to absorb. An appropriate response is this: “Thank you for the suggestion. I will look into that area and see if it is appropriate for my project.” Ask for key texts or authors, and then review them to determine whether they are useful.

The Interdisciplinary Committee

Creating a committee within a single discipline is challenging enough, but forming an interdisciplinary committee can be positively daunting. The standard advice to grad students about committee formation is to tap the social network to find out who plays well with whom. This information can be hard to come by when faculty members are in different fields or have never worked together. When faculty members on a committee don’t know each other, there may be less likelihood of weird interpersonal or political dynamics. However, you may find that the people examining you don’t agree on basic terms, epistemologies, or methods, making your job more complicated.

The Interdisciplinary Defense

Be prepared for these questions:

  • Why did you choose these fields/methodologies/subjects?
  • What would the intersection of these fields allow you to do that working with the fields alone would not?
  • What new methods or theories are suggested by examining these fields together?
  • Are there epistemological tensions between your fields or their methods, and if so, how would you handle these tensions?
  • What are the implications of your research for each of these fields?
  • Where might you publish this work?

Additional Articles and Resources

ScholarStudio Writing Resource Manual

The Curse of the Interdisciplinary PhD

Interdisciplinary Penalty

Mildly Interdisciplinary

Forming an Interdisciplinary Dissertation Committee


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