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.



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.

Comment Box is loading comments...

Go back to blog