Is your PhD a monster?

The other week I got a chance to just sit and chat with a group of new ANU PhD candidates. The subject was problems. As you can imagine, I totally loved it because as the students talked I wrote about 20 blog posts in my head.

Amongst the many topics we discussed that night was the difficulty of doing interdisciplinary work. There was a lot of angst in the room about it. It’s difficult for anyone to provide provide clear cut, actionable strategies to the problem of interdisciplinary work. Partly because problems seem to be on multiple fronts: method, disciplinary culture, writing the thesis, supervision.

In other words – all the usual problems, but with the volume turned up to 11.

Later that night I sounded out my Twitter followers on the subject and got even more ideas to ponder. @a6ruled wondered if learning to write (and think) like a scholar in an unfamiliar discipline is like learning to write in another language. @absent highlighted the difficulty of trying to integrate the styles of different disciplines in a single body of work; @jayscoh agreed and talked about the danger of displaying ‘shallow knowledge’ of another discipline. @deirdremcgowan warned that reconciling conflicting advice from supervisors in different discipline made the process difficult. She went on to describe the problem of “single discipline hostility”, where every term had to be defined, literature reviews had to be multiple and methodology was “madness”.

@cosgrove_s summed it up the whole thread nicely when told us how his supervisor warned him that interdisciplinary work carried the danger of “going down over international waters”.

angelusThat supervisor is right you know. Publishing can be difficult for those working between disciplines, as can the examination process. As I mulled the problem over I started to wonder: is the interdisciplinary thesis an academic monster?

My mind went to monsters because I was reading a draft of Evelyn Tsistas fascinating thesis, where she compares hybrids, chimeras and cyborgs to mythical figures like Vampires and Werewolves. Evelyn points out that the figure of the monster in literature represents our fears of crossing boundaries, of being (or becoming) other than human.

Just as the figure of the monster is often also an outcast, the writer of an interdisciplinary thesis can become intellectually homeless. As Kamler and Thomson put it in their seminal book “Helping Doctoral Students Write”, text work is identity work. As we write the thesis, they argue, we also write the scholar – and who wants to be a scholarly monster?

Well, plenty of people. And for good reasons.

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 there’s original and too original. Your contribution might be so original, so novel or challenging that people can’t, or wont, accept it.

How do you do an interdiscplinary thesis and avoid being othered?

Plenty of people do it, so there must be some tricks.

Let me switch gears momentarily to one of my favourite TV shows featuring monsters, Buffy the Vampire slayer. As you might remember, Buffy is the one girl in all the world blessed (or cursed) with the ability to kick Vampire butt, so, of course, for the purpose of dramatic tension, she has to fall in love with one or two vampires along the way.

Buffy’s first love is Angel/Angelus, a vampire who has a soul and is therefore good – most of the time. The problem with Angel is he can become the evil Angelus if he experiences a moment of pure happiness. For this reason Angel/Angelus (conveniently) spends a lot of time on screen, in tight leather pants, either smouldering and brooding.

The clever thing about the Angel/Angelus character is that he is recognisably human in either state of being. In fact, when he flips over from good, but tortured, Angel to evil, devil-may-care Angelus he is perhaps more human – and definitely more fun. The audience is invited to love Angel / Angelus for his human-ness and his tight leather pants.

Stay with me – I’m going to get to the point soon I promise.

In her thesis, Evelyn describes hybrid monsters “deeply elusive” because they make us question what makes us human in the first place. Likewise the inter-disciplinary thesis is uncomfortable precisely because it makes us wonder – what is knowledge anyway? If academic knowledge depends on disciplinary methods and procedures, how much can you colour outside disciplinary boundaries and still end up with something that is recognisably a thesis at all?

The key to being successful in this interdisciplinary thing, I think, is to colour outside the lines and end up with something that is recognisably a thesis. To create a loveable monster, like Angel/Angelus, you need to tap into the thrill of the exotic other, without bringing too much of the disturbing otherness.

In other words, if your text is not recognisable as a scholarly contribution, to at least one discipline, your thesis-monster will not be welcome at the disciplinary dinner table. If becoming a recognisable scholarly creature is your aim, the onus is on you – even more than usual – to imagine how your audience is consuming your thesis as you write it.

My own thesis was on gesture in architectural education, which sat somewhere between architecture, education and sociology. The way I dealt with my multiple audience problem was to take a leaf from the web designers’ handbook and imagine my audience using ‘personas’. A persona is an imaginary person who you create by means of profiling tools and processes. I based my profile on two possible examiners for my thesis.

One was ‘Jan’, a communications specialist and the other was ‘Johanna’ an architectural historian, teacher and educationalist. I worked up profile ‘stories’, complete with photos, for both and stuck them on my wall. As I wrote I would look at the profile and ask myself: “what would Jurgen think of this?”, “would Johanna agree with that?” and so on.

Sometimes Jan would not need to read a whole lot of stuff that Johanna already knew, so I sign-posted it for her, i.e: “readers familiar with the history of architectural education can safely skip the next chapter and go straight to chapter four where I sketch out the history of research on gesture”.

What I ended up with was 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. In retrospect a far safer and more sensible strategy would have been to ‘stand’ firmly in one discipline: just write the thesis for architecture educationalists and reach for techniques and ideas from communications into it. But that’s the problem with a the thesis, just as with life, there’s no do overs.

I’m interested to hear from those people who are writing, or have written an interdisciplinary thesis. Do you have advice for anyone else who is trying to make a loveable monster?

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48 thoughts on “Is your PhD a monster?

  1. Really like this: “To create a loveable monster, like Angel/Angelus, you need to tap into the thrill of the exotic other, without bringing too much of the disturbing otherness.” It’s hard to sound knowledgeable in an area where you could sound, as one of your followers described it, like someone trying to speak a foreign language. Interesting analogy, the loveable monster. New perspective, for sure!

  2. Yes I did an interdisciplinary Phd and I would say ultimately you have to pick one discipline or another to work from. And be sure one of your examiners has a background in that discipline – mine didn’t – and yes, it was like talking a foreign language. Disciplines are there for a reason and take different epistemological approaches – otherwise they would all be the same discipline, wouldn’t they?. ‘What we see is not reality itself but reality exposed to our method of questioning’ ( Heisenberg I believe) -

  3. Pingback: The Interdisciplinary Thesis – Is your PhD a monster? | Creative Writer PhD

  4. Yes, I’m doing a transdisciplinary phd, its great at the beginning phase of phd, but there are about 5 different thesis I could write out of my research so far, how to slice & dice ? I’ve struggled with deciding whats in & whats out of thesis. Plus my undergrad, Masters & research area totally different to my supervisors. This been a strength & weakness at different times throughout phd journey.

    • Yes. I did a inter-disciplinary dissertation. The approach that I used ( and which worked very well) was as follows;

      1) You must have a department where you are doing your graduate work. Lets call this department A and the broad field as Field-A
      2) Your other fields are B, C et. al
      3)You want to present your dissertation in a way that you are solving a problem from B and C using expertise in area A.

      In this way you get your PhD since you are making the case of solving problems from “other” fields using your expertise in Fields-A.

      Hope this helps !

  5. I have just finished an interdisciplinary masters research project. My project involved exploring three different but related areas of academic literature to ascertain from a wholistic viewpoint the causative processes of environmental injustice, with the resultant thesis written from a community development standpoint. In addition, I found that I had to take an historical perspective as well. I feel that the thesis, and the knowledge gained from the research, benefits from these multiple viewpoints.
    In fact, I found during my undergrad days that the current focus on specialisation (be it within a discipline or theory) is erroneous and can be misleading, as the world is not a vacuum, and nothing exists in isolation from anything else. The causes of the social problems researched, especially in my field of humanities, are often multi-faceted, and require multiple solutions to fix.
    Like TD crazy I too found myself heading in multiple directions during the journey, but have heart TD crazy, you too will find a way to incorporate all five areas into one coherent thesis.
    My next step is a PhD, and I will use a similar approach to provide some practical solutions to the issue of disparate service delivery levels that exist between regional areas and major cities. I know now it is doable.

  6. I am in a field known as “resource management” which sits between politics, sociology, anthropology, mining, environment and area studies. And my research is in PNG, which makes it 10x more complicated and frustrating than it should be. I just want to die, cause it seemed “straightforward” 4.5 years ago!

    • Hi, thanks for posting this. I’m feeling this… 18 months into a PhD in waste/resource management. I am looking at measuring informal waste management in Jakarta. I haven’t even gotten into writing it properly yet so not sure if I can offer any practical advice. People wiser than me have said to remember to enjoy the journey, figure out what you think really needs to be said, and just write something to be proud of.

      • GREAT advice… I am on the home straight with a somewhat interdisciplinary thesis. I think I’ll print that out and stick it somewhere I see it all the time!

  7. There is a really good virtual conference on transdiciplinary studies happening at the moment at http://www.i2sconference.org
    Well worth a look at the videos and posters that are online (and I think will be available after the conference without registration).

    My thesis covers a range of disciplines and I have the fortune to have very understanding supervisors over those disciplines who are all willing to see the other perspective. I am sure writing will still need to be deeper in one discipline than than the others though.

  8. I have just completed a PhD on telehealth, which was mainly qualitative, but also had quantitative and economic analysis components. The main problem was that I ended up doing three literature reviews and about twice as much work as I would have done had I stuck solely to one discipline. The good news is that the PhD has proved to be really excellent research training. Fortunately I also had a supervisory panel in which each member assisted with their own methodology and left space for the other methodologies. I did have some problems with structure, as neither IMRAD nor chronological order worked for the write up, so I created a logical order (it was at this point that the word “monster” became most apt) with a diagram that I put at the beginning of each chapter as a reminder to readers on where they were up to in the story.

  9. Run away is my first reaction. I wrote a thesis that sat between biomedical ethics, philosophical ethics, public health and epidemiology. Make sure you have supervisors who understand how things overlap. I unfortunately lost the one supervisor who got the overlap, so struggled with trying to explain the point to everyone else. Many of the comments I got from the examiners whowed they did not necessarily have an appreciation of how the areas overlapped, and why I was looking at things they way I was. Its that fear which has prevented me from publishing ANYTHING from my thesis – even though I graduated in late 2011.

  10. This is a great post on the rewards and pitfalls of interdisciplinary research. And Buffy references are always welcome (even though it is nearly a decade since she stopped saving the world!)

    Your readers might also be interested in this short post I wrote about interdisciplinary research and academic resistance to it:

    http://hatfulofhistory.wordpress.com/2013/09/02/what-relevance-is-your-research-to-anything-when-academic-disciplines-collide/

  11. Publish. It’s harder to criticise work that has been peer-reviewed by it’s discipline.

    I’m (re)organising my thesis into themes, around published pieces. Each piece has a discipline focus. I’m using them as perspectives on the ‘problem’ I’m exploring. I’ll stitch it all together with inter-text commentary/discussion, topped and tailed with a general Introduction and integrated Conclusion.

    And yes. My thesis is a monster.

    • I assume it is not your real name, but I agree with you g2-03db67cface373158834e8e7ee578a0e: “Publish. It’s harder to criticise work that has been peer-reviewed by it’s discipline.”

      Interdisciplinary research is encouraged rhetorically, but I don’t know much empirical evidence suggesting that it is valued well in the academic community. That is not to say one should not do it. One study from the Netherlands in Research Policy (a top journal in its field) found that disciplinary research contributed more to career progression in both basic and strategic disciplines.

      van Rijnsoever, F. J., & Hessels, L. K. (2011). Factors associated with disciplinary and interdisciplinary research collaboration. Research Policy, 40(3), 463-472. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.respol.2010.11.001

  12. Reblogged this on What Have I Done?! and commented:
    Interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research is hard. Harder still can be getting recognition and acceptance from established academics for whom discipline specialisation has been a career necessity.

    My thesis is nothing like I imagined back in 2007. Nor when I had to redefine it in 2008, 2010, or again in 2011. A cross-disciplinary monster that looked so much easier when I set out on this journey.

    I am working to restructure my work around key themes/topics, and breaking each into more-or-less discipline specific ‘perspectives’ – each of which I can then put forward for publication. My new monster thesis model will stitch together a series of paper-length pieces to tell a story, one that I will prelude in an Introduction, and tie together in a Conclusion.

    I’ve seen similar approaches work. It has to for mine as I just want this finished; and end to the ‘you can’t do that, do this instead’…

  13. i am SO happy you posted this and eagerly await further commentary. this idea of being stalled by stalwarts of the single discipline perspective is exactly where i am right now (which is odd, because my field is interdisciplinary in & of itself). i, too, lost the one person who understood what i am trying to do, so i’m at a complete loss.

  14. It’s funny that you should use the monster analogy, because I have explicitly described my thesis as a disciplinary chimera in order to pre-empt readers. I will have markers who aren’t quite in the discipline of my thesis, so I thought that i’d cast myself as discplinary mad scientist. I have a precedent, strangely, in one of my primary sources. Godfrey of Saint-Victor, a twelfth-century Parisian canon, wrote that his poem was a ‘brimming mixed cup’ in the dedication to its patron, a newly appointed abbot. He continued by claiming that the reader would assay some things sweet, and some things bitter to the taste, but that he hoped that it would not be insipid. I am making that my dedication..

  15. Knowledge is created at the intersection of disciplines. It’s a shame university departments are so siloed. Perhaps an active interdisciplinary research facillitator is required.

  16. Thanks for the reassurance on my own loveable monster. My thesis is located in popular music studies (itself a ‘disciplinary chimera’ [James L. Smith above]) and draws from literature in cultural geography, economics, cultural policy, etc. To further complicate matters, I study in a School of Music but lecture in a School of Social Policy.

    My coping strategy has been to visualise the thesis I want to write and which makes best use of my data and to formulate (and reformulate) a thesis outline accordingly. I have now identified an external examiner whose approach best suits my chosen style and I am writing up my thesis with that person as my main target audience – fortunately he also writes to a broad interdisciplinary audience and publishes in a range of disciplinary journals, so it is not limiting thus far. However, the problem of maintaining intellectual depth within the word-count means that my writing is painfully slow. It’s difficult to be concise, but that’s part of the art of writing I guess…

    • This is a really interesting thread and Eileen’s response particularly speaks to my own situation. I’m writing my opening chapters and really feeling the weight of six literatures, none of which I feel I’m doing justice too. Luckily I’m still convinced that my interdisciplinary approach is valid. Anyway, back to the edits….

  17. ‘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.’

    Sorry, what?

    Even giving this the most charitable reading I can, there is simply no way that this is true.

    • It is true to the extent that the Bible, its commentaries, the various theological treatises surrounding doctrine, and the corpus of the Latin and Greek Classics were readable over the period of time it took to finish a doctorate. I’d say that was more true of the Late Middle Ages, and less so of the Early Modern period. I think the point that it was actually possible to ‘read it all’, especially in the age of more readily available moveable type books, is still valid.

    • It’s a flippant remark, sure, but based in evidence I assure you. For a longer, fuller reference on the subject I refer you to William clark’s “academic charisma and the research university” where he has an excellent chapter on the origins of the viva in early knowledge disputation practices

  18. Hello. Nice blog post. I like the idea of creating the personas – a shame it didn’t work in the way you wanted, but I think it has milage!

    I am researching a PhD using ecology, biogeochemistry, GIS and social theory. Yes, headaches ensue, and I can’t imagine that I will come out of the viva unscathed – but what an exciting journey. I can’t imagine tackling my subject in any other way. In fact, I don’t think I’d be happy without the open tool box of mixed methods.

    It is the conflicts and the misfits which have in fact shaped my project – they are the interesting bits.

    Best wishes all, Beth

  19. Interesting post that resonates quite a bit. I am writing an interdisciplinary thesis for an Engineering Doctorate, covering laser physics and statistics. The mental gear change between the separate disciplines is considerable, and I’ve had to write a second volume providing all the necessary physical, statistical and mathematical background material for the different readerships. Yes, my thesis has at times been a monster that I’ve loved and hated in equal measure. I thought I’d finally entered the home straight when I submitted last week, only to find I’d misinterpreted a definition on the laser physics side. Fortunately the bulk of my statistical work is unaffected, but the script needs to be corrected before the viva. One of the problems with the project is that none of my (four) supervisors had the same degree of oversight of the work as I had, so that mistakes of this kind were only likely to be picked up by due diligence on my part. The extent to which I’ve had to ‘self-police’ my own work has made the entire exercise a whole lot harder. Even so, I’d like to think I’ve handled the switch from physics to statistics, and vice versa, in a readable and comprehensible manner; and that the thesis will provide food for thought for those who come to read it.

  20. I needed this blog three years ago! My lack of a discipline caused me endless self-doubt and stress to the extent that it impacted on my health. I had no supervisor in my field because I am yet to define my field. I started in the English program as a creative science writer, but through that stumbled on a new theory for the reason why enigmatic ancient monuments, such as Stonehenge, were built the way they were. I have no background in archaeology. None in anthropology, even though the theory is all based around the way indigenous cultures store bucket loads of scientific information.

    I had a very supportive supervisor and incredible help from a top-notch academic librarian. The archaeology department in my own university wouldn’t talk to me – mention Stonehenge and they run a mile – there are more nutcase theories on that place than anywhere else in the world. I got help from archaeologists elsewhere. For five years I loved the obsessive research, but struggled with my identity and lack of peers. My own background is engineering, education, information technology, gifted education and science writing including natural history. I am the author of “The Skeptic’s Guide to the Paranormal”, which should have assured archaeologists that there were no aliens, ley lines or advanced astronomical mathematics in there!

    I tried the publication in journals and soon gave up. I had too much which needed to be drawn together from the two key disciplines, plus the sciences and information technology, to ever get to the point within the word limits of a journal. Plus the moment the word ‘Stonehenge’ appears from someone who is not in the Neolithic archaeology field, it is almost automatic rejection. And Stonehenge was just one chapter out of the 12 in the thesis.

    My conclusion – nothing can be more rewarding than this struggle! My supervisor was able to source examiners from the top of the fields including world renown archaeologists, whose praise I can now use in marketing. A proposal based on the thesis was immediately accepted for publication by Cambridge University Press as archaeology, and I have an agent working with me on books for the mainstream market. I am just back from the UK where Stonehenge experts and other Neolithic archaeologists I met with are very excited about this new approach.

    My monster is now my best friend. But I wouldn’t recommend this approach to anyone working toward an academic career. I still don’t fit anywhere. But I’m mature age and my future is as a writer. My monster has so much original work in it that I have material now, and new directions, to last a lifetime. I am in heaven.

  21. I am currently writing an interdisciplinary thesis. I have published papers in journals from both disciplines but found this a difficult task as my work is always either too mathematical or not not mathematical enough. It’s also difficult to keep consistency between chapters when some of them were published as papers aimed at biologists and others at mathematicians.

    However, I have to say that I agree with Funny Researcher. The approach I am using for my thesis is ‘Here is the biological problem, and here is how I am going to use maths to solve it’.

    I like the Buffy and Angel analogy!

  22. Thanks Thesis Whisperer for bringing this up – I’ve been involved in delivering interdisciplinary teamwork workshops to first year PhDs for over a decade. My experience is that research students in general find it interesting and, often, really exciting to be working with peers from different disciplines. The more diametrically different the subject areas then the more original are the ideas they choose to explore. Across the world interdisciplinarity has been seen as a means to explore the World’s biggest research problems – hence there are many research projects out there that call on a number of disciplines to help alleviate poverty, global warming, the problems of urbanisation, etc etc. The UK Research Councils that provide most of the Government funding for research in the UK have announced much greater collaboration around big world problem themes and now expect a certain level of interdisciplinarity and collaboration as they seek to solve the problems. Simultaneously, they hope, they are changing academic culture in the process (in particular the problem of ‘siloisation’).
    All of the correspondents, and the Thesis Whisperer, mention the problems and frustrations of trying to communicate to those colleagues deep in their subject bunkers. I think it is most important to have in mind the bigger perspective of achieving academic progress. The PhD thesis must be novel, original and contribute to the field. By adopting an interdisciplinary approach you are immediately fulfilling these criteria including contributing to the field of interdisciplinarity. One thing correspondents have also mentioned is that they have incorporated some sort of guide or primer for those subject examiners and supervisors that are interrogating (helpfully, one hopes!) their thesis. It would seem to make sense here in such a guide to talk about the difficulties of interdisciplinarity within the thesis and state boldly that the interdisciplinarity itself is part of the thesis’s claims to originality. Colleagues will try to knock you down – but that’s their job and that’s how research and the peer review process (including the Viva) works. It’s tough – but it is supposed to be. I like Lynne Kelly’s comment that ‘nothing can be more rewarding than this struggle!’
    I guess what I’m saying is that everyone who has written an interdisciplinary thesis has contributed to what it means to be interdisciplinary – there is, and probably always will be, a very long way to go. Have a look at the work of the Association for Interdisciplinary Studies: http://www.units.muohio.edu/aisorg/

  23. Great site! I wrote an interdisciplinary Ph.D. dissertation. I agree with those who say, adopt the language of one discipline, even if you use it to look outside the field. Two other tips: (1) try, to the best of your ability, to negotiate a literature review that looks at the INTERSECTION of the two disciplines on your topic. (2) deeply cultivate your thesis director, make sure at least the two of you share an understanding of your aim, and elicit their help in explaining your work to other examiners/committee members.

  24. Great post and all the more wise commentary by all who have recounted their experiences. Count me in the same league too. A cross-disciplinary research gives you a plethora of idea’s but at the end of the day, one has to stifle rigorously to balance and bridge the different disciplines. So as to exquisitely carve the monster that you have given birth to a sleek mermaid. Though i have not yet started with my thesis but reading through the above experiences sure tells me that crafting this “monster to mermaid” surely is an arduous task. :

  25. Like many others here, I submitted an interdisciplinary PhD thesis. As my supervisors were based in medicine, I adopted the language and layout of the medical school thesis, even though my research topic and methods were more humanities based (international development). It was definitely a case of square peg, round hole.
    I agree with those who suggest adopting the language of one discipline. If you’re a student at a U.K institution (as I was), I would adopt the discipline of your main supervisor to save on tears and tantrums (not necessarily from the student). My other tip would be to seek advice from those in your field of research. I received so much advice from researchers working in my research field, many of who were interdisciplinary.

    Great website by the way – I wished I’d discovered it during my PhD study years.

  26. Pingback: Dissertation101Is your PhD a monster? » Dissertation101

  27. Pingback: Why do people quit the PhD? | The Thesis Whisperer

  28. Pingback: Staying power: how to finish your doctorate | 100 days to the doctorate & beyond

  29. Thanks for raising this quite perplexing issue. I am coming up to confirmation – with my topic looking at ehealth (health and information systems). I hadn’t seen these as mutually exclusive, but seem to be regularly getting asked about under which field I am positioning the thesis and what publications I want to publish (and interestingly this seems to be more an issue for IT field than medical where the role of technology has been accepted). I’m starting to think that the best approach is the pick one (main supervisor), though on principle this irritates me!

  30. Thanks for this post, it has described the feeling that I have had throughout my PhD, but could not quite explain. Working across several fields of science is definitely challenging, and it can be difficult to find your academic identity- which conference to present at, which journal to submit to, who will examine your thesis? In my experience, academic societies can overlook your work as not significant or relevant when considering you for presentations and student awards. Despite these difficulties, you will come away from your PhD training with novel and interesting ideas, contacts and skills in a variety of disciplines that you can choose to pursue in postdoctoral work, and excellent coping skills in times of uncertainty. Don’t give up- just remember that we can only grow through being put outside our comfort zone (or comfort discipline).

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