In Defense of an Interdisciplinary Education

As a recent PhD recipient, I am well aware of the terrifying statistics of the job market; the traditional path of "PhD straight into tenure track academic career" is no longer the standard, but the exception. Many highly qualified PhDs spend years on the job market, adjuncting or acting as an instructor on temporary contract, until the right TT job pops up. Many leave academia altogether, either by choice (they don't want to work in academia to begin with), or by necessity (you can't feed a family on an adjunct's salary and schedule forever). Of course, the statistics fluctuate depending on your degree; common wisdom tells us STEM fields are in high demand, while humanities/arts PhDs may only be able to find a dozen TT jobs per year to apply to, all of which are extremely competitive.

Recently, Fareed Zakaria published a book called "In Defense of a Liberal Education." In it, he argues that the push for STEM-only, highly technical, highly career-oriented fields has removed some of the humanity and critical thinking skills that college graduates should pursue. I would like to make another, more modest defense: that of the interdisciplinary education.

I've been looking for jobs- a lot. On higher ed sites, with human rights and advocacy organizations, NGOs of all shapes and sizes, in research institutes and think tanks, etc. While I'm not yet in the crunch of the full time job search quite yet, I want to see what is out there, what types of candidates they are looking for, and what skills I might want to brush up on in the next few months or year. One thing that I have noticed a lot of, with the slight exception of some incredibly specific academic positions, is that many organizations are looking for people that are very well rounded. You have to be a subject matter expert in several areas, and be able to write about them, and research them, and speak about them, and analyze them, and understand them from multiple perspectives.

This is when I feel thankful for my interdisciplinary PhD. The degree is in Public Affairs, the focus is health management and research, and my dissertation was about peace and conflict in the Middle East. I have publications and presentations on topics like medical tourism, health information technology, food aid and food security, quality of life, war, and undergraduate health education. That covers a lot of ground that, say, a strictly political science or health degree would not. This gives me the ability to seriously consider jobs that focus on topics ranging from public health to human rights to international relations, and all of the ways those fields overlap. I used to worry about the range of publications that I had; what if potential employers see me as disorganized or lacking focus? Now, I feel that they show that I can do research of all types, write about it, present it, and analyze it. Not quite a jack of all trades, but a master of some (not just one).

What can you do if your degree isn't focused on interdisciplinary education? Work it in for yourself.

  • Seek out colleagues in departments that are different from yours, but might complement yours in some way. See if there is a way you can bridge the gap between your disciplines into a cohesive paper or study, or even just an informal discussion that might spark ideas.
  • Take a class or two in a different discipline if possible, even a free MOOC, just so you can think about things outside of your comfort zone and find connections between your focus and other issues that are out there.
  • Read books and journal articles from a variety of fields. While it's important to keep up with the literature in our field, it can really narrow your viewpoint and perspective when that's all you read.

You'll soon notice that there is a lot more overlap than you think, since the world is so often messy and issues don't tend to stay in one isolated, organized little box. Find the connections that few other people will look for, and it will open your mind (and your career trajectory) in directions you might have never imagined.