Interdisciplinarity in Practice

Reflections on a PGR training workshop held at the M&S Company Archive, University of Leeds, 7 September 2017

The timing of this workshop fell in the final weeks of the first year of my PhD, making it the perfect opportunity to reflect on my methodology, aims, and progress thus far. Something that aided this reflection (for me and for others) was the refreshing honesty that featured throughout the day, especially in terms of the practicalities of completing an interdisciplinary PhD.

This sense of openness was present from the outset. Dr Emily Troscianko spoke about the personal elements in her research; having suffered from anorexia nervosa, Emily runs a blog called ‘A Hunger Artist’ on Psychology Today that explores what it is like to live with this illness, both physically and mentally. Her research engages with this, focusing on the connections between eating disorders and fiction-reading, particularly with regards to how people respond to and interpret different types of literature. These kinds of questions require an innovative approach that inspired and challenged us to think about our own research in new ways.

Following this, Dr Catherine Oakley encouraged us to think about whether our interdisciplinary methodologies were ‘accidental’ or ‘designed’. Catherine’s research questions required her to engage with a variety of disciplines, such as literature and history, yet she did not set out with the specific intention of doing an interdisciplinary PhD – it was ‘accidental’. The majority of other PGRs also categorised their PhD in this manner; however, many of us were unsure how to ‘package’ and conceptualise our research to others, especially at conferences and in job applications.

One of the sessions run by Dr Victoria Bates and Dr Sam Goodman tackled this specifically. They challenged us to think about how we could tailor our research at different conferences and in different publications. One of the conclusions reached during this session was that we could think of our research as rooted in one discipline, such as history, with satellite branches extending from this, such as literature and sociology. This provides a firm footing for framing and mentally managing your research, without disregarding the benefits to be gained from engaging with multiple disciplines.

The benefits to be gained from drawing on a variety of disciplines were immediately apparent in Professor Jane Macnaughton’s keynote address on the Wellcome Trust ‘Life of Breath’ project, which she leads with Professor Havi Carel. The project examines breathing and breathlessness, engaging with arts, humanities, and medical practice. She detailed the need to be ‘imaginatively responsive’ in a project such as this, where participant engagement and comfort is crucial. As a result, planning, safe spaces, continuity, strong relationships, and trust are key to this interdisciplinary project.

Another session, run by Dr James Stark, addressed the practicalities of job applications. One of the highlights of this session was the importance placed on collaboration in academia, with examples from live job applications and their requirements. James gave practical advice about how we could demonstrate collaboration in an academic job application, giving specific examples like organising a seminar series or running a blog. Further to this, the importance of being able to give specific outputs was emphasised, which could range from the formation of a network to the number of unique visitors on a blog. This framework of specific examples combined with specific outputs has the potential to make job applications far punchier.

In addition to this, James debunked the idea of ‘linear’ career progression. This was particularly eye-opening, as ‘invisible’ rejections existed alongside James’ many successes (similar to Johannes Haushofer’s ‘CV of Failures’). Many of us found this heartening and reassuring, as the process of undertaking a PhD is one that can intensify perfectionist tendencies, in which failures are seemingly unacceptable.

This is a feeling that many PGRs seemed to be familiar with, which makes events like this even more important. Meeting other researchers in your field not only encourages collaboration on an academic level, but it also gives you the opportunity to talk to others who may be facing similar challenges to you. Some of the difficulties spoken about were things like completing your PhD on time whilst covering multiple disciplines, which can be particularly demanding in terms of time management. Talking about these issues and connecting with other PGRs can make the PhD process feel far more collaborative and inclusive. Plus, after these kinds of events, connecting via email or Twitter can serve as a healthy and productive outlet for sharing ideas.

Erin Bramwell
ESRC-funded PhD candidate, Lancaster University
@erinebramwell