Higher education needs to break down the barriers that block pathways to cross-subject study
It's a normal enough question in social situations: people just trying to make conversation and ask an obvious question with an easy answer. For me, though, there's usually a bit of an awkward silence while I try to come up with a short and not-too-confusing response.
I'm one of the many PhD candidates doing an interdisciplinary project. Part mathematical theory, part computational chemistry, with a bit of dabbling in the molecular biology and genetics lab. I have to admit, I'm not really sure what subject my PhD is in.
Interdisciplinarity is fashionable in academia right now: work that spans two or more subject areas, with experts from different disciplines sharing their expertise and perspectives. In many ways, this makes a lot of sense. Nothing exists in isolation from the rest of the world, and studying a subject in its wider context — whether it's understanding biology in terms of the underlying chemistry and physics, or medicine in the context of its interplay with social and economic factors — can often be enlightening.
What's often overlooked, however, is the way the trend affects those of us starting out in our academic careers amid these changes.
For more senior academics, interdisciplinarity usually involves collaborating on a project with colleagues from different backgrounds. For early career researchers, though, it means much more than that. Right from the start of our careers, as PhD students, we are expected to be interdisciplinary: to actually study and work across multiple subject areas at the same time.
This isn't always a choice. Most of us have to take the projects that come with funding attached, and increasingly these seem to be interdisciplinary ones. Many of the now-popular centres for doctoral training, which attracted a recent boost in government funding, have a strongly interdisciplinary ethos, with students working for multiple supervisors in different departments, on projects that are hybrids of multiple subjects.
There's a positive side to this, of course. There can be a real feeling of independence, of ownership of your project, when you're the only one who really understands it and knows how all the disparate parts fit together. However, it can also mean a lack of support and guidance. And trying to gain expertise and familiarity with the literature in multiple subject areas can be a discouraging and near-impossible task. There's a risk of ending up being an expert in nothing.
It can also mean an uncertain future. Academia at the higher levels looks worryingly resistant to interdisciplinary research. Despite universities and funding bodies paying lip service to the concept, academics report their interdisciplinary work being excluded from the Research Excellence Framework due to being "too risky" and high impact journals seemingly less inclined to consider diversity among disciplines.
So where does all this leave the early career researcher looking at a future in academia? We all know we need to "publish or perish". But many of us will be familiar with the frustration of submitting papers to subject-specific journals when our work is perceived as lacking the required impact in any one discipline, or applying to present at conferences where it's simply not understood. Likewise, taking on teaching responsibilities, essential for those wishing to pursue an academic career, can be problematic when you can't prove yourself experienced in any single subject area.
There's a certain irony in government and vice-chancellors championing this approach and funding the best graduates with competitive interdisciplinary studentships and fellowships, while not changing the conventions that make it so difficult for those who choose this route early in their careers to actually progress. You couldn't blame aspiring researchers — faced with an already-precarious career trajectory — for deciding that the route is just too risky. None of this can be good for the UK's research record and higher education system.
The wider academic structures — the way journal papers and grant applications are reviewed, definitions of research quality and impact — need to be addressed if anything is really going to change. And early career academics need the appropriate support and career paths in place, if their interdisciplinary training is going to translate into successful integrated academic careers.
Interdisciplinarity, like the research it attempts to enable, isn't something that can be done in isolation.