Interdisciplinary PhDs: turning the negatives into positives

Interdisciplinary PhDs come with unique challenges but if you can find ways to benefit from them, you’ll have the best of both worlds, says Selina Sutton

June 9, 2018
Merger

Doing a PhD is tough and doing an interdisciplinary PhD comes with its own set of obstacles. Recently, I tried looking online for advice. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much out there even though there are many students who define their PhD research as interdisciplinary. Hence, here are some of my own reflections on the first year of being an interdisciplinary PhD student.

From my experience, one major thing is impostor syndrome. It hits you, hard. “There’s a reason that these two fields haven’t come together before. You’re just too stupid to see it,” is the negative mantra that runs through my head most regularly.

Recently, my personal strategy has been to turn the negatives into positives by looking for how I will benefit from scaling obstacles, rather than focusing on the labour of climbing walls, swinging across monkey bars or crawling under barbed wire, figuratively speaking. This way of thinking quietens self-doubts and boosts my confidence in what I’m doing, how, and why.

Negative thought: You don’t really “belong” in either camp…

Positive thought:…because you belong in both! And are pitching your own camp

Have you seen that photo of Big Bird from Sesame Street in a meeting surrounded by sensible people with laptops? That’s how I feel when I meet other academics. When talking to linguists, I explain that I’m based in a computer science department, but that my research group does the more social side of computing, and I get blank faces in return. In conversation with those from the human-computer interaction community, I emphasise that “I define myself as a sociophonetician”, and also get blank faces.

I fell into the trap of using these two lines as excuses for why I don’t quite fit in, and as a defensive strategy for when I don’t follow the same lines of thought as other people, or for when I get lost in the conversation. But in describing myself as one thing or another, I’m further separating the two camps that I’m trying to bring together.

Recently, I’ve reframed my thoughts and how I define my work. When you talk about a PhD topic, you inherently reference a discipline or field with its own set of underlying assumptions, a given set of practices, and an abundance of prior literature. So, when I describe my research as what I’ve outlined above, it’s like getting up from a tent in one field, going across to another, standing outside and asking to be let in. So instead, when people ask what I do, I begin by defining my research agenda – that is to bring the fields of sociophonetics and human-computer interaction together for the benefit of both – and then explain my PhD topic within this context. It’s a small change, but in this way I’m pitching my own marquee and inviting everyone in.

Negative thought: Since you don’t belong in either camp, you have two sparse work-related networks

Positive thought: This doubles, not halves, your support

Unlike many students, I don’t identify with an already existing specialist topic of inquiry, or a tight-knit group of researchers within and beyond my department. As is indicated above, this has impacted on my professional identity but there are also more practical implications. This has made attending some conferences quite scary. I’m worried that while I’m there I’ll be stuck in a corner on my own. So far, this hasn’t happened. I’m incredibly lucky to have three amazing supervisors across two universities and departments who are well-respected, prominent figures in their fields. All three have helped me to make connections with interesting, friendly people, who I continue to have discussions with. Twitter has been essential to maintaining these connections, as well as being a source of daily support, and keeping me in the loop with what’s going on.

Most importantly, having a wide, dispersed and multidisciplinary network prevents me from being stuck in a bubble. I am regularly reminded of the bigger picture, of the research world outside my PhD, outside the two fields that I am bringing together, and outside academia.

Negative thought: People struggle to understand my PhD

Positive thought: In time, they will get it, and some will think that it’s awesome

At the first conference I attended during my PhD, I was lucky enough to have a conversation with a researcher whose work I greatly respected. Unfortunately, after explaining my plans for my first piece of work (within which I thought I had been clear about my methods), they asked “OK, but how are you going to do that?”. I panicked. I didn’t know what to say. I soon realised that this would be a regular occurrence and accompanied by blank faces, or frowns of concern and confusion.

However, fast-forward a year and I’ve presented a poster for my first piece of work at a conference. The feedback that I received was overwhelmingly positive. Everyone thought that it was interesting and no one had concerns about my methods. The discussions that I had focused on details, next steps, and how cool and novel my work was. I was elated.

To summarise, I will paraphrase my favourite bit of feedback from that day that I am now using as a battle cry when confronting impostor syndrome: “At first it is wacky, but the more that others can see what I’m doing, the more it will make sense.”

Selina Jeanne Sutton is a PhD student in computing and information sciences at Northumbria University.

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