This blog post is part of a series called Is Academia Broken? This is the first in the series and it discusses the perils of doing interdisciplinary research for early career academics. You can find the second blog post of the series here.
Inter-disciplinary, multi-disciplinary, cross-disciplinary research: it is much lauded in academia. The reason is clear: cross-fertilization of ideas is undeniably a good thing. Interdisciplinary research allows different fields and cultures to borrow each others’ methods, approaches, and results. After all, scholars do not do research in a vacuum. And as the boundaries separating departments and disciplines fade, collaboration among them naturally increases. While interdisciplinary research is indeed a good thing for academia, I would like to argue that it is a bad choice to jumpstart an academic career.
Here’s my story. From my undergraduate degree through to my postdoc, I was pushed to take classes in other departments. My undergraduate degree was in Astrophysics and I took two or three classes in Computer Science. This is rather normal. A lot of physicists are (and need to be) good with computers. I liked these classes enough to apply for a Masters in Computer Science which I completed right after my Bachelor. I then worked two research jobs. The first at CINECA, Italy, where I did Astronomical Data Visualization (a great way to blend Astrophysics and Computer Science). The second one at CERN, Switzerland, where I worked with data repositories, digital libraries, natural language processing, Open Access. In my years at CERN, I started getting more and more interested in data and information science. I applied and got into a Ph.D. program in Information Studies at UCLA where I worked with Christine Borgman - easily one of the top Information Scientists in the world.
Anything that falls under the umbrella of Data Science and Information Science is intrinsically interdisciplinary and the classes I took at UCLA were as interdisciplinary as it gets. During my first two years as a Ph.D., I took classes such as
Methods for social network analysis (Sociology)
Critical studies of architecture (Architecture)
Geographic thought and the concept of belonging (Geography)
Thinking about thinking (Cognitive Science)
Formal Modeling and Simulations in Social Sciences (Complex Systems)
Data and Media Arts (Design)
A pretty mixed bag, huh? (Full list here). While it all sounds a bit eccentric, these were the most formative, nurturing years of my life (I will discuss this in detail in a separate post). These classes instructed me on research methods I did not know about: for my dissertation (Pepe 2010), I used graph theory (physics), survey research (sociology), and “complex systems” methods. These classes also let me meet, collaborate, and publish papers with scholars in other disciplines: sociology/identity (Pepe 2012), social media analysis (Shuai 2012), semantic web theory (Rodriguez 2010), and even music research (Rodriguez 2008).
In the final year of my Ph.D., I was lucky enough to meet a Professor of Astronomy at Harvard - Alyssa Goodman - who was passionate about data, visualization, digital libraries, Open Access, and Open Science. We immediately struck a chord and she offered me a Postdoc as the in-house information scientist at the Center for Astrophysics. So, a return to Astrophysics, some people thought! Well, not really, because at Harvard I also became a fellow of the most excellent Berkman Center for Internet and Society (Law) and Institute for Quantitative Social Science (Social Sciences).
At the end of my Postdoc, I found myself with a good amount of publications (about 30) that lacked a concrete focus. Interdisciplinary career, indeed. The problem at this point was that despite my publication record and research experience, I was essentially “unemployable” by most academic departments. My entire life I had wanted to be an academic (and that is why I did a Ph.D. in the first place) but at the end of the day to become a tenured professor you have to be able to show disciplinary focus in order to teach a number of core classes. That was not my case:
An Astronomy department would not hire me for I don’t have a Ph.D. in Astronomy.
A Computer Science department would not hire me for the same reason.
An Information Science department would be my only choice, but there’s not many of them and most of them would consider me too much of an Astrophysicist (due to my undergraduate and my postdoc).
What did I do? I ended up quitting my Postdoc to become an entrepreneur without even exploring the possibility of a professorship. But I hope my experience will be useful to Ph.D. students who are embarking on interdisciplinary projects. Unless the current academic infrastructure changes, together with its tenure and funding system, the chances of advancement are smaller for interdisciplinary researchers than they are for traditional highly-focused scholars. So, dear Ph.D. student, as much as you may enjoy being a Fox, I advise you to be a Hedgehog.
— Yours truly,
The Fox who left academia
Alberto Pepe. Structure and Evolution of Scientific Collaboration Networks in a Modern Research Collaboratory. Ph.D. Thesis Social Science Electronic Publishing, 2010. Link
Alberto Pepe, Spencer Wolff, Karen Van Godtsenhoven. One none and one hundred thousand profiles. First Monday 17 University of Illinois Libraries, 2012. Link
Xin Shuai, Alberto Pepe, Johan Bollen. How the Scientific Community Reacts to Newly Submitted Preprints: Article Downloads Twitter Mentions, and Citations. PLoS ONE 7, e47523 Public Library of Science (PLoS), 2012. Link
Marko A. Rodriguez, Alberto Pepe, Joshua Shinavier. The Dilated Triple. 3–15 In Advanced Information and Knowledge Processing. Springer Science \(\mathplus\) Business Media, 2010. Link
Marko A Rodriguez, Vadas Gintautas, Alberto Pepe. A Grateful Dead analysis: The relationship between concert and listening behavior analysis. First Monday 14 University of Illinois Libraries, 2008. Link