Want to get tenure? Stay away from interdisciplinary research.

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.