Interdisciplinary. Intersectionality. Let’s face it: the “inters” are sexy. They hold the promise of new ways of knowing, new ways of conceptualizing, and new ways of doing scholarship.
But the reality is that interdisciplinary work often seems like stepchild of the academic world. Traditional academic fields exert a great deal of power simply because they are written into the fabric of institutional structures as departments, faculties, graduate schools, fellowships, research assistantships, post-docs, professorships, journals, and publishing categories.
Over three years of working with students in the now-ended IGERT (interdisciplinary graduate education research traineeship) program, I came to see that interdisciplinary scholarship is nearly always more work. It is more work quantitatively in the sense that interdisciplinary students need to cover additional bodies of scholarship. And it is more work qualitatively in the sense that it requires additional intellectual labor to justify research questions, methods, and sometimes evidence.
Interdisciplinary work can be more work logistically—as when students have to navigate multiple departments or faculties to assemble a dissertation committee. And it can be more work socially in terms of getting scholars from disparate disciplines to work constructively together. The standard advice we give to students when putting together a dissertation committee—find out who plays nicely together and who can’t stand being in the same room together—simply doesn’t hold up when trying to evaluate relationships between professors who may never have worked together.
Yet such information is consequential. When the chemistry of an interdisciplinary committee works, students feel supported in finding out how their fields contribute specific “ways of knowing” to their project and are encouraged to figure out how their work expands and challenges disciplinary boundaries. When it doesn’t work, students may feel pulled apart, bounced around, or loaded down with impossible amounts of material to absorb. In the very worst cases, students may find themselves feeling like pawns in, or witnesses to, an epistemological pissing contest.
Nevertheless, graduate students can do important interdisciplinary work if they find good mentorship, are ruthless about delimiting their projects, and are prepared for the kinds of questions they may well face at their defense or viva.
Find advice on weathering all of these challenges and more in the resource available below.
Interdisciplinary Survival Strategies