Navigating an Interdisciplinary PhD

25 November 2019

Interdisciplinary PhDs are becoming increasingly common, particularly those which are based on a topic that spans many research fields. For example, PhDs in migration studies often span multiple disciplines, such as sociology, geography, demography, politics, health and others.

At the time of writing, a quick search of a popular website for finding PhD projects returned 540 results based on searching for the term ‘interdisciplinary’ alone. The interdisciplinary nature of work like this presents both benefits and challenges. In this blog post, based on my experience of the first year of my interdisciplinary PhD, I argue that though there are some challenges to consider, the skills gained are valuable throughout the PhD and beyond.

One of the clear positives of an interdisciplinary PhD is the benefit of being able to utilise the best qualities of each discipline to use in your work. This means sharing theories, concepts, methods and more. This can result in completely novel ways of doing things or a subtle tweak of a common method. Additionally, as a result of the bridges made between disciplines and their concepts and methods, interdisciplinary work is often mixed method. However, mixed method PhDs, whilst they have their challenges (which deserve a separate full blog post), allow for methods and disciplines to be brought together in new and sometimes unexpected ways. Not only is this a benefit to the PhD research itself, but in a broader sense it can help to prevent disciplines working in silos and spark methodological advances.

Describing and conveying your research
It is common that conferences you will attend will be targeted at only one of the disciplines in which your PhD sits. This can mean that much of the audience may be an expert in only one aspect of your research. It is therefore important to think carefully about how you present your research. Presenting your research to groups who are non-experts in some aspects of your research means that you become well practiced in conveying your research in accessible ways and avoiding discipline-specific jargon. This is a benefit not only when talking to other researchers but also to people outside of academia and disseminating your research to the general public.

Feedback and constructive criticism
Encountering constructive criticism and potential disagreement is an integral part of the development of any PhD. However, rather than receiving constructive feedback from just one discipline with a certain way of thinking, interdisciplinary PhD students are likely to receive this from two or more disciplines, each with different ways of thinking. Though this can be overwhelming at times, receiving feedback from multiple perspectives is highly valuable. Receiving varied feedback greatly improves the quality of your work and is an opportunity that many students do not have.

When it comes to support, it certainly helps to either have a supervisory team which represents at least two of the disciplines incorporated in your work. Additionally, if supervisors are used to working in multidisciplinary research teams, they will often be aware of and have advice on some of the likely challenges you may face. From a more practical perspective, it is also useful to finding training and events which either bring your disciplines together or provide a greater depth of knowledge in one specific discipline. These events are important to help improve your knowledge and also help you to find others with similar interests. This is important in order to identify a peer support network with shared knowledge and experiences.

Bringing a critical eye to your own work
A perhaps unexpected benefit of an interdisciplinary PhD is the critical approach it encourages you to take to your work. In working with two or more disciplines, you become more aware of the differences, quirks and strange biases that different disciplines have. This means you are better able to take a step back and see you work through the eyes of other disciplines. This encourages you to anticipate the possible points of contention which may come from different disciplines and ways of thinking. Developing this skill benefits many aspects of the PhD, from writing critically, answering left field questions at conferences and defending your thesis in your viva.

In summary
There are some significant challenges in completing an interdisciplinary PhD, particularly in conveying your research and successfully bringing together two or more ways of thinking. However, there are many positives to be gained from the experience, not just in taking a critical approach to your work but also in the ability to describe and convey your work to diverse audiences. These skills are valuable throughout the PhD and beyond and arguably make you a stronger PhD candidate.

Natalie C Bennett is a PhD candidate in Social Epidemiology and Public Health at the University of Sheffield. Her research focuses on ethnic density, social cohesion policy and mental health.

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