Beautiful fusion deliciousness… or a hot mess?


Interdisciplinary research. So hot right now… or is it?

To be clear – I’m a super fan of interdisciplinary work. I’m happily ‘post-disciplinary’ myself. My PhD was interdisciplinary, and my current job is transdisciplinary. I work with all kinds of research students, from physics to fine art; education to chemistry, I embrace you all! While I don’t identify with an academic discipline, I do identify with a role (‘academic developer’) and a professional practice (let’s call it ‘research education’).

While lots of people are involved with research education at my university, I am the only person who studies it as well. When asked how I can be an academic when I don’t have a discipline, I usually answer: “I research researchers – someone has to”. I make it sound cool and funny – to make people laugh – but if I’m honest, it’s a kind of lonely research life. Finding collaborators in one challenge, but finding the next job is even harder. The researching researchers business is vanishingly small. We are oddities in the academic landscape. At best, there is one job in each university for someone like me, whereas there are 60 for someone in, say, health sciences.

I see many research students on the verge of becoming ‘un-disciplined’ like me, By which I mean, doing research across and between disciplines and running the risk of becoming a specialist with limited career options. Almost without exception, these people are doing the most exciting and cutting-edge work. I see earth scientists working in anthropology; computer scientists working in chemistry; historians working in business; economists working in population health and so on. Super cool work, yes – but I fret about their future.

Interdisciplinary work is a bit like fusion cuisine: amazingly tasty and addictive when done well, but it’s so easy to make something… weird.

Something no one wants to eat.

Dr Emily Kothe and I came up with this idea during my recent visit to Deakin University. We were discussing the lasagne on offer in the downstairs cafe, which was a conventional lasagne in every sense, except with coriander sprinkled on top. We agreed that while coriander is an interesting and pleasant herb, it has a strong and distinctive taste. The taste of coriander has become so keyed in with South East Asian food that when encountered on top of an otherwise fine lasagne, it feels unpleasantly out of place. I’m in Italy; then I’m in Asia, then I’m … just feeling confused.

Similarly, the person doing an interdisciplinary PhD, to a greater or lesser extent, will not fit in the conventional academic mold. This makes you confusing to other academics at best and, at worst, being ‘un-disciplined’ can have all kinds of knock-on effects for your future career.

So my usual advice is to write a document for the kind of academic you want to be. This involves shaping the document for the reader who can help you most. Your examiner(s) usually know the post-doc opportunities or entry-level positions that are coming up. If they like your PhD, they are in a position to get you short-listed or recommend you on to someone else.

But what if that academic you want to be doesn’t exist, or there is a very limited market for them? I recently did commercialisation training where we were warned: ‘don’t try to create a market for your product!’ Sound advice for academia, at least most of the time. Recently I had a discussion with an earth scientist who is using scientific techniques on ancient human remains. It’s fascinating work which helps us understand the complex waves of human migration. Should she write a dissertation for anthropologists interested in ancient migration, or earth scientists interested in how to apply techniques to anthropological problems? In this case, it means a choice between writing as if you are an earth scientist or a sciencey-anthropologist.

It’s possible I am wrong, but my feeling is, there are more academic jobs for an earth scientist than a sciencey-anthropologist. Entry level jobs usually involve teaching massive, undergraduate entry-level courses, where a strong disciplinary background is an asset. A sciencey-anthropologist is a specialist from a different background who cannot teach an ‘Anthropology 101’ course. Unless you can find a university with a ‘scientific anthropology 101’ course (and there might be some), you are coriander in an Italian lasagne. You can probably get yourself a post-doc because what you are doing is cool, but it might be hard to translate that post-doc to something more permanent.

In my Italian lasagne example, the coriander was not an asset. But it’s easy to imagine a delicious South East Asian lasagne that looks like an Italian one but is packed with pork, fish sauce, chilli and yes, coriander. I’m drooling now: imagine a dish where every bite gives you the soft, creamy layering of lasagne, but the fresh flavours of Vietnam. Not many PhD students think about deliberately shaping their topic choices to become Vietnamese Lasagne, but it’s a smart strategy. There is a lot of mileage in standing firmly in your disciplinary background but reaching out to another discipline for techniques or topic knowledge that makes you interestingly different. Let’s say you are a historian, instead of studying politics or war, why not explore the history of an industry sector instead? You can turn yourself into a history lecturer (not many jobs) or a business lecturer who can teach history (lots of jobs).

Of course, I have assumed that you want to stay in academia – increasingly people don’t. In this case, ‘un-disciplining’ yourself and creating the market might actually be a smart strategy. One of my students, Jodie Lee Trembath, is doing some terrific work studying the experiences of academics who migrate for their work (and collaborating on a great blog project ‘The Familiar Strange’). We’ve talked a lot about her career options as she has progressed. While there are next to no academic jobs in studies of academia, there are a lot of potential jobs helping universities better manage and support people who have relocated for their work. Or she can go back to her home discipline of communications with a tool bag of useful methodological techniques from anthropology. Many of you will be in this position. Consider the computer science student who showed me their amazing work in computational biology last week. At the end of a PhD like this, you have a skill set for translating real-world problems into code. The person who can do this can pretty much name their starting salary at a big bank… if you should want to work at one, of course.

I’m not sure what kind of lasagne you end up being outside academia, but I bet it’s delicious. So now I’m wondering, those of you who are doing the fusion research-flavour game. How are you positioning yourself for future career success? Does any of this resonate? Or do you have other ideas? I’d love to hear them in the comments.