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Finding a Home Between Disciplines: Perspective of a Doctoral Student

Where do I fit?

It’s a question I ask myself a lot as a PhD researcher starting a career in academia.

Do I fit somewhere like a jigsaw piece? Is there one very specific, specialised slot for me to find and make my home, among people doing complementary, similar work?

Do I fit somewhere like a key? Is there one lock out there for me to open, one problem out there that my specific set of skills will be ideal to solve?

Or do I fit somewhere like a nail? Will I make a perfect home for myself in one of any number of different areas, among similar people and very different people? It might be more effort at first to find and make a place, but it might be more rewarding too.

These days, research is more and more collaborative and doesn’t just involve researchers of the same discipline all working together in one lab. The biggest and most exciting projects are often interdisciplinary, international, and intersectoral, involving researchers from a wide variety of disciplines and backgrounds working together with governmental, industry, or other partners, in order to tackle complex, multifaceted questions that could never be answered by the stereotypical old-fashioned researcher scribbling furiously alone in an ivory tower corner office.

This is why, during an uncharacteristically sunny and dry week in Edinburgh this July, over 50 doctoral researchers spent long days working together to collaboratively write a guide to interdisciplinary, international, and intersectoral collaboration aimed at early career researchers like themselves. This was the activity and output of the League of European Research Universities (LERU) Doctoral Summer School for 2019 and will be available shortly. Delegates represented universities from all over Europe and came from an even wider selection of backgrounds and nationalities.

We took advantage of that fact on the last full day of the Summer School, with a session on cultural differences. Dividing into groups of nationalities (Irish, British) or regions large or small (Nordic, Mediterranean, the Americas), we shared insights from our own culture and listened to others speak about the assumptions people make (“We aren’t all crazy about football in Brazil”) and the ways to work smoothly together (don’t be late in Germany, but don’t be early either in Finland!). It was a fascinating, funny, and highly worthwhile session. And one of the most interesting groups was the group that formed spontaneously of people who didn’t identify with a single country or region. They spoke about the benefits and frustrations of representing two (or more) backgrounds, having two native languages, never being fully one thing or the other. Of course, along with those who couldn’t pick one single country or region, many people in the room were “from” one country, but doing their doctoral studies in another, or had lived for a while in a different country or travelled regularly between two or more countries. Many spoke or were learning a second or third (or fourth, or more!) language. Some may not have been able to choose between two countries, but both countries were included in the same regional group, so they didn’t have to.

Similarly, albeit on a less fundamental scale for personal identity, the previous day we had divided at one point into disciplines: physical sciences, health sciences, social sciences, arts & humanities, and a handful of us who didn’t quite fit neatly into one “faculty”. Researchers who were “raised” in one faculty but are working, for whatever reason, somewhere very different, who can “speak” two or more different kinds of jargon and switch between different expectations and default ways of doing things.

As the world becomes more global, as people move more easily and settle more commonly elsewhere than their own birthplace, there are more and more people who have two (or more) places they call “home”, who fluently speak two languages or dialects or slang vocabularies, who don’t have a single easy answer to “Where are you from?”. And many more people who are good visitors, learn a new language (maybe imperfectly!), form strong connections, make friends, go home with new insights.

This can be a model for interdisciplinarity too. A researcher can cross disciplines, equally comfortable in two different disciplinary settings, or learn to be a good “visitor”, able to make connections with researchers from a range of disciplines. For current early career researchers, who face challenges and serious competition establishing a career, being “bilingual” or a good visitor in other disciplines is a good way to become a “key” – the one person with the specific skills needed for a specific problem, and an even better way to become a versatile, useful, self-directed “nail,” able to make a place for yourself where you can do the most good.

Projects like SHAPE-ID aim to improve interdisciplinary cooperation across very different disciplines in order to tackle ambitious questions and problems, many of which also involve international collaborations. These projects will need early career researchers who are as comfortable crossing disciplines as they are crossing international borders, who are as willing to learn an unfamiliar disciplinary perspective as they are to learn at least a little of a foreign language, and who are as enthusiastic to make connections with researchers in other disciplines as they are to make friends in other countries.

As an early career researcher facing an uncertain future career, I worry plenty. But maybe what I’m most looking forward to are the opportunities and connections that come from interdisciplinary and international collaborations. I can’t wait to make a place where I fit.

by Emer Emily Neenan

Emer Emily Neenan is currently a PhD candidate at the School of Education, Trinity College Dublin, studying Earth Science education in Irish schools, funded by an Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholarship. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Geology from Trinity College Dublin, and a MSc in Geology (Seismology) undertaken at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies Geophysics Section. She enjoys exploring alternative ways of expressing science and research, including poetry, creative non-fiction, graphic design, and painting. She tweets @e3neenan. 

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