KARENLOWRY

The interdisciplinary PhD and its impact on future job prospects

Monday 30th of October, 2017

I want to write about my experiences as an interdisciplinary academic. While many of the articles I’m going to cite focus on the interdisciplinary PhD, I also want to draw on my experiences post-PhD as existing between disciplines and departments. When I was very early into my PhD, I read the article “Is Your PhD a Monster?” by The Thesis Whisperer, who focused her discussion on the limitations of the interdisciplinary PhD. Just embarking on an interdisciplinary PhD myself, with a supervisor in Creative Writing and a supervisor in Internet Studies, I was fresh faced and convinced the writer was obviously missing out on the monumental push towards interdisciplinary work in academic rhetoric. I was not deterred. With that being said, there are two passages I want to single out from this article. In this first passage, The Thesis Whisperer explains that there has been a shift in the way we approach the PhD now, compared to previous centuries:

“The fact of the matter is, making new knowledge is much harder than it used to be. Back in the 17th century all you had to do to get a PhD was know everything. Luckily, in the Christian West at least, all knowledge was contained in the Christian Bible. Now knowledge is a vast and sprawling city, not a provincial country town. Mastery of subject knowledge is no longer the ‘gold standard’ of thesis examination. Originality has now come to take centre stage and making a contribution (with a capital C) has become the aim of every PhD student, everywhere – regardless of discipline.

If we follow the import/export theory of creativity, Interdisciplinary ‘cross breeding’ is a good route to new original knowledge. Both [sic] there’s original and too original. Your contribution might be so original, so novel or challenging that people can’t, or wont, accept it.” (The Thesis Whisperer, 2013, para. 10 – para. 11)

However, while this acknowledges that an interdisciplinary approach could meet the new demands of the contemporary PhD, it also suggests that this approach could pose potential problems in receptivity. When it comes to some of the rhetoric supporting interdisciplinarity, there are many books which have been published intending to guide students and researchers in overcoming some of the obstacles with interdisciplinary research. For example, Allen Repko, in Interdisciplinary Research: Process and Theory says "Interdisciplinary studies [IDS] is not a passing fad; it is here to stay" (2008,ix). He continues to establish that multi and interdisciplinary studies are the "13th most popular undergraduate field of 33 listed by the National Center for Education Statistics" (2008,ix) in the US. Likewise, Julie Klien opens the abstract for her article, "Evaluation of Interdisciplinary and Transdisciplinary Research: A Literature Review" with "Interdisciplinarity has become a widespread mantra for research, accompanied by a growing body of publications" (Klien, 2008). Angela McBride also states that "The 21st century is a period of increased focus on interdisciplinary collaboration" (2010, p. 74) when applying interdisciplinary studies to the field of nursing. Despite this, in academia, "interdisciplinary studies is too often associated with intellectual fads and fashions" (Salter and Hearn, 1997, 3).

When it comes to interdisciplinarity and the role of the creative individual in business, who will often find themselves working in multi and interdisciplinary teams, Rooni Reiter-Palmon, Triparna de Vreede and Gert-Jan de Vreede explain that "the use of interdisciplinary teams has increased as organisations have realized [sic] the advantages of using teams for creative endeavours" (2014, p. 241). However, while there has been an emphasis on working in teams as a matter of organisation survival (Reiter-Palmon, T. de Vreede and G.J de Vreede, 2014, p. 241), Diana Rhoten suggests that universities have tended to approach interdisicplinarity as a "trend rather than a real transition and to thus undertake their interdisciplinary efforts in a piecemeal, incoherent, catch-as-catch-can fashion rather than approaching them as comprehensive, root-and-branch reforms" (Rhoten, 2004, para. 7). Karen Kelsky touches on this in her article, “The Professor Is In: The Curse of the Interdisciplinary PhD”:

“The fact is: There are far fewer interdisciplinary departments than there are traditional disciplinary ones. If your Ph.D. is from an interdisciplinary department (like, say, my old departments of East Asian languages and cultures), then you end up with a Ph.D. that is not 100-percent “legible,” from a disciplinary standpoint, to folks in many of the departments who might hire you.” (Kelsky, 2014, para. 4).

While I disagree with the assertion that the interdisciplinary PhD makes you less employable (Kelsky, 2014; The Thesis whisperer, 2013), there is an “Institutional rhetoric on interdisciplinarity [that] just isn’t matched by administrative or organizational support of interdisciplinarity—especially not when it comes to tenure lines, which are still overwhelmingly approved in the traditional disciplinary homes” (Kelsky, 2014, para. 5).

I had little focus on my employability in academia for most of my PhD; I was just focusing on keeping my head above water. My transition into academia was high school > bachelor degree > honours > PhD. The learning curve for my PhD, compared to my honours year, was massive and, as a result, I suffered greatly from imposter syndrome. I spent all of my time learning how to be a good researcher, I hadn’t even paused to consider what I would do once I was proficient and competent—competency felt like an impossible dream. I think the following quote, from later on in Kelsky’s article, could, arguably, summarise some of my earlier experiences very well, as I wavered between imposter syndrome and having the freedom to create and explore:

“Graduate students are inevitably thrilled about entering interdisciplinary programs because at the start they see (and are informed of) only the intellectual and programmatic opportunities. What they don’t understand (and are not informed of) are the limitations the interdisciplinary Ph.D. imposes on them when they go out on the market.” (Kelsky, 2014, para. 5).

I had no issues with this institutionalised rhetoric when I was studying my PhD as I had full creative freedom to develop my ideas and explore research in both departments. I did, towards the end of the process, begin doubting myself as I was worried I’d end up in the same situation as The Thesis Whisperer, with “two and a half literature reviews, multiple methodologies and an uncomfortable, fence sitting kind of conclusion which left at least one of my examiners didn’t really like” (The Thesis Whisperer, 2013, para. 24). However, where I have struggled the most is in developing my identity post PhD, in an industry where I shift between departments and disciplines.

I was right, in some respects, when I was a young, green PhD student; I have had no issues finding work, and it’s precisely because I am interdisciplinary. In a market where so few jobs exist and funding is being cut in increasing amounts to higher education, being able to transition across departments and teach in multiple fields makes me a desirable candidate. However, my constant shifting between departments has also left me with a professional identity crisis. There are times when I feel less skilled than some of the people I work alongside as, while I transition in and out of the field, they are static and, therefore, gaining more experience and knowledge in those areas. But does that really make me less than others, or is my interdisciplinary learning responsible for the creative problem solving techniques that make me a good educator and innovative researcher?

While I very much feel my interdisciplinarity makes me more successful in the academic job market, both The Thesis Whisperer and Kelsky suggest that it can also be a detriment when applying to many traditional universities (The Thesis Whisperer, 2013; Kelsky, 2014). In overcoming this, Kelsky suggests the key to being successful in interdisciplinary studies is to focus on establishing yourself in one discipline over the other, stating that you should:

“Take a long hard look at your record, and get clear on which traditional disciplinary field you will be most competitive in. Then, while you’re still in grad school, build a conference, grant, and publication record that places you firmly in that field. Don’t go to conferences and publish in three or four different disciplines. Pick one or at most two, and focus your efforts on those.” (Kelsky, 2014, para. 7).

If I had to define my field in any one, particular area, it would be digital poetry; that and education are the only fields I feel comfortable publishing in. However, digital poetry is, by its very nature, interdisciplinary; existing not in its own department, but between web design and creative writing. Having spent my undergraduate degree studying creative writing, I honestly prefer web design as a profession. That doesn’t mean I don’t write. As for the issue being interdisciplinary, I don’t have a solution for my identity crisis. I have not followed the advice quoted above; I have moved fluidly in and out fields, trying to gain as much experience as I can. I like learning, I don’t limit myself to one discipline. So far it hasn’t impacted my employability.

 

References

The Thesis Whisperer (2013). Is Your PhD a Monster? The Thesis Whisperer. Retrieved on 29th of October 2017 from https://thesiswhisperer.com/2013/09/11/help-i-think-i-have-created-a-monster/

Kelsky, K. (2014). The Professor Is In: The Curse of the Interdisciplinary Ph.D. Chronicle Vitae. . Retrieved on 29th of October 2017 from https://chroniclevitae.com/news/548-the-professor-is-in-the-curse-of-the-interdisciplinary-ph-d

Klien, J. (2008). Evaluation of Interdisciplinary and Transdisciplinary Research: A Literature Review. in American Journal of Preventive Medicine 35: (2). p.116 - p. 123

McBride, A.B. (2010). Toward a Roadmap for Interdisciplinary Academic Career Success. Research and Theory for Nursing Practice. 24: (1). New York, p. 74 - p. 86.

Repko, A. (2008). Interdisciplinary Research: Process and Theory. Arlington: Sage Publications, Inc.

Rhoten, D. (1997). "Interdisciplinary Research: Trend or Transition," in 5, ed. (New York: Items & Issues, Spring/Summer 2004), p.1 - p.2, p.6 - p.11.

Salter, L. and A. Hearn. "Introduction". Outside the Lines: Issues in Interdisciplinary Research. Montreal: McGill-Queen's Press.

 

“You must be very intelligent”: Vulnerability in academia and the impact of the PhD student/supervisor relationship

Wednesday 18th of October, 2017

I recently finished reading You must be very intelligent: The PhD Delusion by Karin Bodewits, which reads as a harsh (but deserved) critique of the European University system. While the system is, in fact, ‘broken’ in some ways, the book reads more like a warning about the importance of the PhD student/supervisor relationship. The book is also part autobiographical and part fiction – ultimately labelled as fictional overall, which I found somewhat problematic to navigate through.

As a researcher and writer myself, I was rather uncomfortable with the potential ethical implications in how similar some of the details in the book are with the publically available details of Bodewits’ real-life academic experiences. For example, in the book, Karin conducts her research in lab 262, while she credits lab 229 in her thesis. The acknowledgements in her thesis also read as a carefully constructed dig at her primary supervisor (“I want to thank XXXXX for giving me the chance to do a PhD in his research group. I am grateful to YYYYY who has always been actively involved in my project”[1]) – though I could be reading too much into this given my context for reading up on her thesis was the character development of the PhD supervisors in her book. That being said, I think enough small details have been changed to bring into question the reliability of the narrative (‘which facts are based on truth and which have been changed to create a more compelling, humorous narrative?'). In regards to how uncomfortable this question of truth has made me, I also think this could have been deliberately executed; I think this question of truth allows Bodewits to bring attention to many problematic practises in academia while writing, ultimately, a lighthearted and humorous novel.

For me, the conflict in the book centres around the fictional PhD supervisor, Mark McLean, who is disengaged with his research students, has unrealistic expectations and shows clear favouritism for projects that will raise his profile or provide grant money and career progression in some way. While Bodewits’ disillusion is with the academic system in general (finishing the book with “And so it goes on, unchecked, oppressive, soul-gnawing, enervating little slave empires run by tin-pot paranoiacs preying on gullible, hopeful, dreamy youth” [Bodewits, 2011, p.336]), I think the real lesson to take away from the book, is that “for many PhD students, the supervisor-supervisee relationship is pivotal to the successful completion of their PhD” (Lynch, 2008, para. 5). If one considers Jonathan Downie’s post on The Thesis Whisperer, which focuses on the prevalence of feelings of insecurity, vunerability and imposter syndrome in PhD students, one must consider the potentially devastating impact a breakdown of this kind of mentorship could be. Downie comments, “Outwardly capable, productive PhD students walk around with this nagging feeling that they really aren’t good researchers and that one day, someone will find them out” (2016, para. 5).

I should disclose now that I did complete my PhD in a vastly different environment to Bodewits—in humanities, not science, and in the Australian University system. I also had, and still have to this day, a wonderful relationship with both of my PhD supervisors. I think Gina Wisker, for The Guardian, sums up the polarity in our experiences quite well, stating that:

“Some PhD students have positive tales of supervisors who are good managers and become lifelong friends. Others, however, have horror stories. These are the supervisors who do not see students regularly, show little interest in their work, make unrealistic demands on their progress, don’t put them in touch with other students or networks, and provide harsh, confusing or no feedback.” (Wisker, 2014, para. 1).

This article, therefore, isn’t a comment on these university systems specifically, as I have had little to do with the European system, other than attending a conference at the Imperial College in London. Rather, it draws on something common to all systems and disciplines—the PhD supervisor, and how the breakdown of this relationship can intensify or even, in extreme cases, create feelings of vulnerability and imposter syndrome in PhD students. A lot of the vunerability in Bodewits’ novel, even the overwhelming sense of imposter syndrome that is drawn on throughout the book, I believe stems from the conflict, and lack of support, with Mark, the PhD supervisor.

While the PhD supervisor is not responsible for coddling you (see this article for an idea of what not to do when it comes to your relationship with your PhD supervisor), their support is crucial in helping you navigate the rough terrain that is academia. It’s normal to have doubts; making a new contribution to knowledge can be incredibly isolating. Your supervisor should be the one throwing you a life saver as the ship goes under. They are the ones who should be pulling you back to shore. You should not be completely alone in your quest for knowledge; there should be at least one other person on that boat as you search for knowledge lost at sea and seek to discover new land.

I had two other people in that boat with me and I believe that, unlike in Bodewits’ experience, my supervisors would fall into what Susanna Chamberlain describes “Colleague in training” (2016, para. 16):

“When a PhD candidate is treated as a colleague in training, the relationship is always on a professional basis, where the individual and their work is held in respect. The supervisor recognises that their role is to guide through the morass of regulation and requirements, offer suggestions and do some teaching around issues such as methodology, research practice and process, and be sensitive to the life-cycle of the PhD process. The experience for both the supervisor and student should be one of acknowledgement of each other, recognising the power differential but emphasising the support at this time. This is the best of supervision.” (Chamberlain, 2016, para. 16)

It is this support that helped me combat my feelings of inadequacy; my supervisors were like the support crew passing me water and towels during the Tour de France, only it was constructive feedback, the occasional compliment and open calls for publications instead.

On the other end of the spectrum, in discussing bullying in academic contexts (arguably, one of the key focuses in Bodewits’ book) Sam Farley and Christine Sprigg suggest that it exists as the result of extreme competition for few opportunities across academic fields (2014, para. 13). This is something reflected in the book as Bodewits notes that she is told not to talk about her research at conferences in case it gets stolen (“Be careful. Do not share what we work on. Your data isn’t safe here” [Bodewits, 2017, p.122]), going on to describe how boring conferences are as they are just full of academics rehashing already published articles (Bodewits, 2017, p.122-124). While this not only correlates to Bodewits’ fictional account of the PhD experience, there are also parallels with Wisker's article, “PhD Students: what to do if you don’t work well with your supervisor”, where she states, “There are darker stories of selfishness, power and meanness, where supervisors use their students to produce the supervisor’s work, take all the accolades for publications and results, and belittle student’s different approaches” (2014, para.7).

You must be very intelligent: The PhD Delusion, for me, is a cautionary tale of the importance in shopping around for your PhD supervisor. This relationship is more important, in my opinion, than the prestige of the university you do eventually attend.

Are you considering beginning a PhD? I cannot recommend this article strongly enough: https://thesiswhisperer.com/2017/06/07/supervisor-shopping/

 

Footnotes

[1] While this information is readily available online, I felt uncomfortable providing a reference and linking this post directly to it, given the nature of some of the representations in the book.

 

References

Bodewits, K. (2017). You Must be Very Intelligent: The PhD Delusion. Munich, Germany: Springer International Publishing.

Chamberlain, S. (2016). Ten types of PhD supervisor relationships – which is yours? The Conversation. Retrieved on 16th of October 2017 from: https://theconversation.com/ten-types-of-phd-supervisor-relationships-which-is-yours-52967

Downie, J. (2016). The Lies We Tell Ourselves. The Thesis Whisperer. Retrieved on 16th of October 2017 from: https://thesiswhisperer.com/2016/03/09/the-lies-we-tell-ourselves/

Farley, S and C. Sprigg. (2014). Culture of cruelty: why bullying thrives in higher education. The Guardian. Retrieved on 16th of October 2017 from: https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2014/nov/03/why-bullying-thrives-higher-education

Lynch, S. (2008). Happy days: Why PhD students need a helping hand from their supervisors. Independent. Retrieved on 16th of October 2017 from: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/higher/happy-days-why-phd-students-need-a-helping-hand-from-their-supervisors-781842.html

Wisker, G. (2014). PhD students: what to do if you don't work well with your supervisor. The Guardian. Retrieved on 16th of October 2017 from: https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2014/dec/29/phd-supervisor-university-research-tips-relationship-work

 

Selfhood and mental health in academia

Thursday 12th of October, 2017

I read two articles this week (today, actually) which both touched on mental health in academia. The first one, “High-Functioning Depression and Anxiety and the PhD”, by Cat Oakley, suggests this culture of depression and anxiety amongst newly minted academics could be the result of a lack of support for PhD students combined with unrealistic work and funding expectations; something I’ve certainly experienced myself. Haven’t we all? The paragraph which caught my attention focused on how confusing the PhD process can be and how institutions have been failing to support their PhD students:

“Undertaking a doctorate comes with pressures enough in itself: isolation, long hours, financial worries, the lack of clarity and confusion surrounding your ideas, living with the unfinished-ness of the thing across an extended period of time. The majority of us anticipate these factors, to some degree, when we sign up. However, in addition to this, the current institutional culture of academia is failing PhD students in multiple ways. It offers a funding model that pulls the rug from beneath your feet in your writing-up year (if, that is, you have funding at all). It is amplifying expectations to publish, to teach, to network and to undertake other professional activities whilst also ensuring that you are on track to submit in a timely fashion. It offers insufficient training and payment for postgraduate teaching. It does not provide tailored support and careers advice for the difficult transition period after completion, as you emerge into a shrunken academic jobs market.” (Oakley, 2016, para.6).

While touching on some valid points, what resonated with me was that I wasn’t the only one who felt wholly underprepared for teaching at university level. Having my teaching experience limited to the two years of an education degree I completed as an undergraduate (which, I’m aware, is more than many academics have as they enter the workforce as a sessional or contracted academic), and being disadvantaged by my age and lack of experience in general (I started teaching at 25), I relished in being able to work on a team of very supportive, experienced and inspiring academics. In my first year of teaching sessionally, I learnt a lot from the people I worked with and looked up to one lecturer in particular, whom I modelled many of my own teaching practises around. I also asked a lot of questions, an annoying amount of questions, and I read a lot of papers. Since then, I’ve transitioned from sheer panic before I enter a classroom (can you believe I suffered from stage fright? My students are always quite surprised and find it oddly comforting), to feeling like my students know me better than many of the academics in our open plan office. I feel completely comfortable, both in my ability to teach the content, and in how much I know and can share with my students – the latter being something I questioned and doubted for quite some time.

Likewise, Crystal Abidin's “Confessions from a young woman academic in five parts” contains passages that exemplify the unrealistic expectations touched on by Oakley and the impact this has on new academics especially, drawing attention to the perception of “free labour”, which is rife in academia. However, it is the notion that “It seems I am not my own person and my time is not mine” (Abidin, 2017, para. 5), a phrase repeated at the end of each excerpt, that encapsulated my very early explorations into academia. That is not to say that my current job places unrealistic expectations of free labour on me. In fact, I think I’m very lucky to be in a position where there is expressed appreciation for the work I’m contributing. However, what I do is not always widely understood, or easy to explain to those outside academia. This sometimes makes me feel like I’m existing as two different people, people I can’t mash together, people who just don’t get along. The kind of people who give each other sideways glances and make passive aggressive comments during dinner conversation.

I love my job, and I love the creative work I do in my free time, but I’m sick of having to give my ‘elevator pitch’ to people when asked what I do (and people always ask – nowadays what you do to make money seems as important a question as what people should call you when they gossip about you behind your back). This isn’t because I haven’t perfected my elevator pitch, but because it always inevitably leads to more questions, and a longer conversation where I end up making really reductive arguments about complex theories that really need more time than a conversation over drinks or dinner to fully explore.

This idea of selfhood in academia, and in our private lives, is raised by Rosalind Gill, who explores the role of neoliberalism in contemporary universities. She cites Cronin, Rose and Walkerdine when explaining the concept of “'compulsory individuality'(Cronin, 2000), the idea that individuals are now increasingly required to tell the story of their lives as if they were the outcome of deliberative planning and choice (Rose, 1990, Walkerdine et al., 2001)’” (Gill, 2009, p.6). Gill explains that this “bring[s] into being the endlessly self-monitoring, planning, prioritising 'responsibilised' subject required by the contemporary University” (Gill, 2009, p.6) which could be, in part, why I feel uncomfortable talking about what I do outside of academia—no one else seems to have such a perfectly crafted narrative of stability and planning when it comes to developing selfhood and even, in many instances, professional identity.

With that I want to close with some parting words from Gill on why we struggle to define the boundaries surrounding professional identity in contemporary academia:

“All this happens in a context in which not only has the boundary between work and play (or non-work) become completely corroded, but in which we are deeply invested in and passionately attached to work -- indeed, we often draw no distinction between our work and ourselves (and again there are powerful parallels with creative workers here).” (Gill, 2009, p.15).

References

Gill, R (2009) Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia in Flood,R. & Gill,R. (Eds.) Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections. London: Routledge. Retrieved October 11th 2017 from http://diafaneia.ee.auth.gr/sites/default/files/silence.pdf

Oakley, C (2016). High functioning depression and anxiety and the PhD. Mind Your Head. York: University of York. Retrieved October 11th 2017 from http://www.mindyourheadyork.org/depression-anxiety-and-the-phd/

Abidin, C. (2017). Confessions from a young woman academic in five parts: Wishcrys. Retrieved on October 11th 2017 from https://wishcrys.com/2017/10/09/confessions-from-a-young-woman-academic-in-five-parts/#more-15968