“What Am I?” The Path to Becoming an Interdisciplinary Academic

  • Catherine LyallEmail author


By exploring the motivations and aspirations of a group of British academics whose doctoral studies were explicitly interdisciplinary, this chapter investigates how their university careers have subsequently developed and the challenges and opportunities that they have faced. Interviewees reflect on their sense of self and the consequences that their interdisciplinary identity has for their status in the academy.


Academic identity Career experiences Status 

In 1999 two of the UK Research Councils came together to launch the joint Economic and Social Research Council/Natural Environment Research Council Interdisciplinary Research Studentships. Their goal was to promote greater interaction between the social and environmental sciences and to help generate a community of professional researchers capable of working across these sets of disciplines. Between 1999 and 2004 the scheme awarded some 123 PhD studentships, representing a total investment approaching £3.5 million (Meagher and Lyall 2005).

Five years later, in 2004, the Economic and Social Research Council and the Medical Research Council introduced the Interdisciplinary Research Studentship and Post-Doctoral Fellowship Scheme, with the intention of supporting both postgraduate students wishing to study for a PhD qualification in the social and medical sciences and early career researchers (ECRs) who had recently completed their PhD. As with the ESRC/NERC studentship scheme, the main objective was to allow applicants to develop new research skills while tackling projects that were genuinely interdisciplinary in nature. It was also intended that this scheme would promote greater interaction between the social and medical sciences, and lead to the development of a body of professional social and medical scientists. ESRC/MRC jointly awarded up to 20 studentships and 10 post-doctoral fellowships1 under this scheme each year; 82 studentships and 32 post-doctoral fellowships had been awarded, representing an investment of about £2.4 million each year, by the time we were commissioned to evaluate the scheme in 2009 (Meagher and Lyall 2009).

I was part of the team that conducted independent evaluations of both of these schemes, commissioned by ESRC to provide the funders with a sound evidence base with which to assess the future of these schemes and to consider applicability of the model elsewhere. These evaluation reports (Meagher and Lyall 2005, 2009) assessed micro issues related to the operation of the funding schemes and macro issues related to the changing academic landscape for interdisciplinary research.

In both cases, our evaluations strongly supported the continuation of the funding schemes, due to their perceived success and to the absence of other opportunities for interdisciplinary postgraduate training in the UK at that time.2 While our informants in both studies showed great enthusiasm for the intellectual benefits conferred by interdisciplinary research, views were more mixed, or qualified, regarding the extent to which interdisciplinary work was an advantage in career development. In both reports (ibid.) we therefore suggested that if Research Councils genuinely wished to see interdisciplinary research as part of the UK’s academic landscape, then it was imperative that they facilitate career paths for interdisciplinary researchers, ensuring that they were not disadvantaged by existing governance structures.

Among the governance issues that we highlighted (ibid. 2005, p. 3) was what we termed “institutional departmentalism” as well as the limitations of the, then, Research Assessment Exercise (RAE),3 and indeed the operation of the Research Councils’ own administrative processes at that time. We considered that all of these aspects worked against academic employment prospects, placing constraints on future academic career paths for students undertaking interdisciplinary PhDs although we also expressed hope that academia was slowly evolving towards greater acceptance of such types of careers.

Our 2005 survey respondents (supervisors and students) were generally optimistic that the interdisciplinary nature of the ESRC/NERC studentship would enhance students’ employability and nearly two-thirds of supervisors disagreed that in the future interdisciplinary training could be seen as a disadvantage in academia. In 2009, the majority of student awardholders and supervisors/mentors (80% and 84% respectively) felt that engaging in interdisciplinary research leads to significant career benefits for ECRs but a notable fraction (19%) of supervisors/mentors agreed that interdisciplinary research leads to considerable career disincentives for ECRs.

Focus group discussions with a sample of supervisors in 2005 flagged serious constraints on academic career paths for interdisciplinary students. These participants noted that, even those students whose innovative interdisciplinary work was received well at conferences, for example, could feel that they were disadvantaged when prospective university employers prioritise ability to teach in a discipline (an issue that still persists today as discussed in Chap.  3). Similarly, in one-to-one interviews, only a handful of supervisors were wholly positive about the interdisciplinary studentship contributing to academic employment, and some had mixed feelings, with many voicing real concerns about employment prospects in “tribal” academia. While students who discussed employability in these interviews appeared to be fairly optimistic that they would be prepared to take advantage of such changes in academia, our 2005 report notes that these students frequently used the word “hope”. Students in our 2005 focus group were frustrated by the feeling that they needed to be in a single discipline to get jobs: “Going wide in your PhD is what seems right, then there is the feeling that academia wants you to narrow” (Meagher and Lyall 2005, p. 39).

Although acknowledging that fundamental transformation would take longer, our focus group participants in 2005 expected the academic landscape to change in the next 15 years. They saw this coming about in great part through the efforts of currently established academics who have, themselves, “travelled the journey” to interdisciplinarity.

The holders of both the ESRC/MRC and the ESRC/NERC awards were seen to be at least as strong intellectually as conventional postgraduate studentship awardholders and both schemes were perceived as affording otherwise unavailable opportunities to undertake innovative, interdisciplinary types of projects. Both schemes were rated very highly by those involved, with wide support for their continuation. In our evaluators’ conclusions we noted that the ESRC/MRC interdisciplinary funding scheme was building capacity by generating high-calibre individuals who were capable of continuing to undertake interdisciplinary research in areas of potential interest to both the Research Councils involved but we cautioned:

Whether or not the academic context of the future allows or encourages them to do so remains to be seen. (Meagher and Lyall 2009, p. 45)

This then provides the starting point for my career history interviews with previous awardholders of these studentships, the most senior of whom were 15 years post PhD at the time of interviewing. During these conversations we discussed how their careers as academics had actually developed and whether the academic landscape for interdisciplinary research—and employment prospects—have indeed changed. Various themes emerged that underpin the continuing narrative in the chapters that follow, including our sense of academic “identity”, what it means to have a successful academic career, and the role that serendipity might play in this.


I started each interview by asking informants to talk about their motivations for undertaking a purposely interdisciplinary PhD. A recurrent theme was a coincidence of circumstances, rather than the applicant specifically setting out to do a piece of interdisciplinary research and then actively seeking a suitable studentship. Supervisors were influential in suggesting these joint studentships as potential sources of funding and luck or “opportunism” also played a part, for example:

[T]o be perfectly frank, it was purely opportunistic…it just sort of happened really. (Diana)

Practical considerations certainly had a role in the form of achievable funding deadlines or the added kudos of a better-funded studentship. But others had been more explicit in seeking out an interdisciplinary approach, either because of the research they wanted to do and a realisation that this required disciplinary transition, or because of the profession they wanted to pursue, or previous exposure to this approach at the undergraduate level, or indeed because of personal temperament:

[I couldn’t] really envisage doing any other type of PhD. (Iona)

When discussing their motivations for undertaking an interdisciplinary PhD, my informants fell into three groups. First, there were those who were influenced either by prior education and training (e.g. Helena, Iona, Louisa, Tristan, Vera) or who had already identified their own research topics (e.g. Carina, Fiona, Gina) so this group was dedicated to pursuing interdisciplinary research from the outset of their postgraduate journey.

There was then a second group who were, to an extent, sensitised to interdisciplinarity via their undergraduate geography degrees that encompassed both social and physical elements and who were then influenced by their supervisors to follow a more interdisciplinary postgraduate path (e.g. Norman, Owen and Quentin).

Finally, there is the group whom I have termed “opportunistic” as in “this opportunity cropped up” as Paterson, along with others explained, that would-be supervisors guided them towards the joint studentship opportunities.4 In many respects, it is this group that is of greatest interest because I will link them to a later discussion about the role of serendipity in interdisciplinary research when I ask how, in our modern, metric-driven academic lives, do we retain space for chance and opportunism, which are arguably the lifeblood of scholarly creativity?

Tristan’s relatively rapid career trajectory prompted me to consider whether there might be a link between high achievers being more strategic in their career choices whereas others may have had a tendency to simply drift into interdisciplinary research because the opportunity presented itself. I wondered if there might be a link between the people who move institutions versus the ones who stay, those who actively pursue an interdisciplinary career or those who are content to let things happen to them? However, interrogating the interview data did not reveal any obvious links between any demographic features, such as level of seniority and whether the informant had moved from their PhD host institution (see Appendix B). In any case, the nature of this research design did not present a meaningful sample that would permit this type of rigorous correlation.

It was, however, notable that interviewees did tend to describe taking advantage of a situation rather than actively seeking interdisciplinary research opportunities. I expected to hear that they had approached their careers in a more planned way rather than essentially happenstance. So how do these interviewees actually symbolise what I have termed “opportunism”, simply that they were taking advantage of an open funding call? How might their careers have evolved had these studentship schemes not been available to them?

Katya goes some way to answering these conjectures: as a medical sociologist based in a sociology department who, by her own admission, was not a high flyer, her department would not have nominated her for one of their allocated ESRC awards. Mariana also expressed the view that she would not have been competitive enough for a single discipline award from ESRC because her degree in biology would preclude her from gaining a pure social science studentship. This then raises the question of quality: might one infer that the interdisciplinary schemes were seen as accepting “second best” candidates who were not good enough for the single discipline competitions? This imputation is firmly negated by the findings of our evaluations of these schemes (Meagher and Lyall 2005, 2009) where the graduates of these awards were deemed by their supervisors to be “at least as good” as other PhD students whom they had supervised. An alternative interpretation could be that these interdisciplinary studentship schemes were more willing to take a gamble and to fund projects and perhaps candidates who were seen as “intellectual risk takers” (Augsburg 2014).

As discussed in Chap.  1, interdisciplinarity takes many forms and this can influence the types of career paths that academic researchers experience. In a previous study (Lyall et al. 2011) we identified, using the Q sort method, two groups (“factors”) of interdisciplinary researchers and developed the following characterisations for the two factors, which illustrate different motivations for interdisciplinarity.

One group (“Problem solvers”) was focused on the role of interdisciplinarity in solving problems. The standpoint captured by this factor emphasises interdisciplinary approaches as a way of addressing real-world problems which will also provide research that better serves the needs of the economy and promotes application of research in policy and practice. Interdisciplinary research is underpinned by synthesising and integrating research output and by working together to find things out. Discipline experts, working in collaboration with other researchers from different disciplines, typically carry out this form of interdisciplinary research.

The second group, which we termed “Individual careers”, was focused on the role of interdisciplinarity in the context of their own careers. This factor agrees with the “Problem solvers” that the real world is not divided up by academic disciplines. However, the focus of working with researchers from other disciplines is the context of broadening horizons and improving the individual’s own research. Different disciplines offer more than just different perspectives as they can also confront ingrained assumptions.

Although the interviewees in the current sample might span both archetypes, the nature of their graduate training meant that they more frequently fell into the category of “Individual careers”.

Career Aspirations and Development

Having started by talking about their motivation for undertaking an interdisciplinary PhD, I then asked awardholders what their aspirations had been for their career at that stage when they were just starting out on their graduate studies. We then moved the conversation on to talking about how their career had developed, if indeed it had developed how they had hoped, and whether they had had any particular career development strategies.

Responses to the question about career aspirations again fell broadly into three groups:
  1. 1.

    those who had no career plans while doing their PhD: “Honestly? I didn’t have the foggiest clue” (Norman)

  2. 2.

    those who wanted to stay in academia or at least wanted to be a university researcher (Katya and Una, for example, were adamant that they did not want teaching roles and this theme of research-only careers is explored further in Chap.  3)

  3. 3.

    and a comparably sized group of people who wanted to continue to do research but were not certain that it had to be in an academic role, reflecting previous experiences with NGOs or consultancy firms


My introductory email had allowed for the fact that the awardholders whom I was inviting for interview may no longer consider that they were working in an interdisciplinary way, despite the earlier focus of their PhD. So when I asked if interdisciplinarity still featured in their current role the responses ranged from a definite “yes” to something more equivocal. None of my respondents had abandoned their interdisciplinary roots completely but for some it was a question of degree, perhaps reflecting the fact that respondents were now in lectureships where teaching took up more of their time. Norman ascribed this to the “institutional set up” within his current department and partly to the fact that “research career trajectories change over time”. This mixed picture was also presented by another geographer who noted that it had been useful to him to be able to show that he could work across the “gaps between different specialisms” (Owen) but went on to acknowledge that many aspects of his day-to-day activities (teaching and research) were “still quite disciplinary”.

I asked informants if they could say if their career had unfolded as they expected and, if necessary, prompted them with the question “are you where you expected to be in your career by now?”. Career progression had been reasonably straightforward for Diana, Owen and Quentin, and Reuben admitted to his career developing “Probably better than I expected”. In contrast, when I interviewed her, Selina was about to give up her academic career and retrain in another profession. Others too recognised that they were taking a harder route: Helena, who was someone straddling academic and professional roles, did wonder “why am I making life hard for myself”, acknowledging that “it would be so much easier if I just did what is the more defined pathway” but she answered her own question with this:

[T]he reason I’m doing what I’m doing and meshing it together is because that’s what I really enjoy, and not only enjoy, I think that’s what’s beneficial to the NHS. So it does take a bit longer, and it’s a bit more of a meandering road. (Helena)

Achieving various conventional academic career milestones, such as external awards and fellowships and reaching senior grades, were not guarantors of a sense of personal success. Louisa was concerned that publications had not been “that great” and she worried about her “real limitations as an academic” saying that she “certainly [wouldn’t] have a stellar career”. Was this female modesty rather than anything to do with interdisciplinarity or are interdisciplinary researchers actually less confident about their academic status?

Interviewees drew comparisons with the progress of their monodisciplinary colleagues. Belinda, who was eight years post PhD, was finding promotion difficult in her department because of the nature of her research and, specifically, the different publication rates of qualitative and quantitative researchers which she believed led to a lack of parity in promotion prospects. Fiona (nine years post PhD) portrayed her recent promotion to Senior Lecturer as “not easy to come by” and described how, in comparison with her monodisciplinary peers, both her interdisciplinary background and the fact that she had moved between different countries had held her back.

Women in the sample had made career choices that had involved maternity leaves and part-time working (not, of course, choices that are solely the preserve of interdisciplinary academics). Carina clearly felt that her maternity leaves had delayed her promotion to Senior Lecturer as she talked about the well-meaning but patronising attitudes of senior (male) colleagues (again, sadly not unique to the interdisciplinary world). Even for those who did appear to have been more strategic, with a clearer idea of what was required for progression, acknowledged “massive challenges”:

At every point there are challenges … the structures in the university don’t fully understand it… So you spend a lot of your time explaining …what you’re trying to do, what the importance and the benefits of that are, to a whole range of people who will often say “yes, we’re completely committed”, but then when it comes to sign on the dotted line, that’s when it gets even trickier. (Helena)

Yet few interviewees were willing to admit to having had any career strategy and reflected a lack of planning in the early stages: “When I was young I would go more on the basis of enjoying what I’m doing now” (Carina). Similarly, Diana admitted “without really planning it, I have had an interdisciplinary trajectory” while Erica used the very telling phrase “I just jog along and see what happens”. Quentin “didn’t really have any expectations” and described how

through no real planning or strategy on my part, I’ve ended up with some quite marketable skills … I’ve never had a specific career strategy. It’s literally—I’ll be honest—the one I came up with when I did my Masters which was, if someone is willing to pay me, I’ll stay in university—is pretty much still my main guiding strategy but I guess there’s a corollary to it which is, if it’s still interesting. (Quentin)

This theme of doing things that people enjoyed or found interesting was widespread, even if that came at the expense of career progression. Fiona was not alone in admitting to being casual about her career and lacking purpose (“I’ve had different kind of goal posts”) but acknowledged that it had not necessarily served her well. Mariana, who had had a varied career as a policy researcher for a global organisation and as a research administrator before returning to academic research, was someone else who had “no expectations actually for my career”. Norman also acknowledged that his career had not developed as he thought it might but he was relaxed about this:

I’m not particularly careerist in that sense, so I don’t have ambitions to be a young professor or anything like that. So that kind of slowness and perhaps that slight slowness in publications and in promotions or something like that really just doesn’t worry me and I know that’s distinct to me rather than (LAUGHS)—not everyone else would feel the same about that. But that doesn’t worry me.5 (Norman)

This prompted me to wonder whether all academics are simply reluctant to present themselves in interviews as too “careerist” or too driven and whether I would have received similar responses had I interviewed academic colleagues who had pursued more traditional academic careers?

External pressures inevitably influence career choices, for example, Diana’s account of how her career had developed described how, when she joined her current department, she had felt compelled to conform to its biological (rather than social) research focus. Partly through career progression, Diana had then been able to move back towards the social sciences but this had not been a seamless process:

[N]ow it feels like I can write a story and it all looks beautifully linear and flowing from one thing to the next, but it wasn’t like that at all. (Diana)

This ideal of the “career narrative” was echoed by others:
  • Quentin spoke about “retrofitting” his career to fit promotion expectations

  • Helena described how the fellowship application she was writing was helping her to “make sense of her journey” and talked about the importance of identifying one’s “research golden thread”

  • Fiona recollected similar advice from her PhD supervisor about the importance of developing her own “niche” but found it difficult to write a “coherent story” about her contributions to knowledge as a social scientist

As interdisciplinary researchers, do we retrospectively construct our career so that it looks planned and seamless as these interviewees suggest? Perhaps it takes more time to be able to look back on an interdisciplinary career and identify—and then hold on to—Helena’s “golden thread”. Nevertheless, these seem to be key tactics in the development of a successful interdisciplinary career and form the crux of the argument that will be presented in Chap.  4 on the implications for academic capacity building.

Ultimately, having a career “strategy” may not be an option in the current academic climate. Katya was in the depressing situation of working on short, three-month contracts and would “literally work on anything if it gives me a job”. Career decisions may therefore be simply pragmatic:

[I]t was a full-time position for three years. You don’t really turn that down do you? (Belinda)

Nevertheless, the idea of being lucky or fortunate in one’s career and the role played by chance were recurring themes in these conversations; Vera was not the only interviewee who used the term “serendipitous” when talking about her career development.

Awardholders, as we saw above, were also admitting to not having an overt career strategy or a particularly clear motivation for starting out on an interdisciplinary career. It may be that academics who follow an interdisciplinary route need to be more flexible in their careers and are less able to follow a pre-defined path. This has implications for leadership at the departmental and institutional levels and also for the broader governance environment with respect to the funding landscape so, in Chap.  6, I discuss what might be appropriate roles for institutions in supporting and facilitating interdisciplinary careers.

Career Highs and Lows

I asked awardholders if they could talk about some of their career highs and lows.6 This “career high” question provoked a number of responses (see Table 2.1) that would represent conventional career milestones for any academic without, necessarily, being particular to interdisciplinarity unless, of course, one shares the opinion, supported by a substantial body of literature (e.g. Castán Broto et al. 2009; Evans and Randalls 2008; Golde and Gallagher 1999; Zucker 2012), that would say that it might be harder for interdisciplinarians to achieve these goals.
Table 2.1

Career highs

Getting the PhD (Belinda, Helena)

Getting a postdoc fellowship (Carina)

Being awarded personal fellowships (Diana)

The lab in which she worked being awarded a national prize (Erica)

Being a collaborator in projects funded by an interdisciplinary programme that enabled her to develop her geographical scope (Gina)

The privilege of doing a PhD and devoting three years to her own work (Helena)

Getting on to a professional training scheme (Helena)

Getting a large grant and setting up her own team (Julia)

Getting a paper from PhD published (Katya)

First publication (Paterson)

Career milestones: Postdoc, lectureship (Paterson)

Specific published article, large grant (Quentin)

Having papers published in high-impact journals (Iona, Reuben)

Getting prestigious grants (Reuben, Gina)

Setting up a new research group (Tristan)

Career development fellowship (Una)

Others were more reflective about what it meant to be interdisciplinary and linked their career highs to that. For example, pride in outputs from a very interdisciplinary collaboration or seeing a long-term project come to fruition:

[T]hat paper kind of encapsulated kind of just a really important way in which … people with different perspectives could come together and critically engage with a concept like [topic] and that we were able to bring all of our different ideas together and work together to produce something. (Norman)

[T]he high is then when you do later on realise—well, actually, yeah, look at this paper that we wrote, who would have thought that three years ago when we had only just met one another … that we would have been able to get to this point. They’re the high points. (Owen)

Tristan identified success in carving out a role for social science in a department dominated by the natural sciences. These three responses encapsulate the purpose and thrill of interdisciplinary research, despite the challenges, but not everyone shared these views:

[I]t’s quite hard to sort of get a buzz from research that takes a long time to come to fruition and then a long time to either get appreciated or not. (Paterson)

Again, when it came to talking about career lows, there was a spectrum of responses (see Table 2.2) and some career lows were not, on the face of it, problems unique to interdisciplinarity as one could argue that all academics, regardless of discipline, might face these obstacles. However, given what we know about the well-rehearsed tribulations of interdisciplinary research, it is not a stretch to consider that these matters may have been exacerbated by the interdisciplinary context in which respondents found themselves.
Table 2.2

Career lows

Impact of maternity leave on career progression (Carina, Katya)

A grant application blocked because it did not fit with the unit’s strategy (Diana)

The struggle to complete PhD thesis due to family issues (Erica)

Issues with employment contracts (Fiona, Julia, Una)

Poor supervision (Katya, Mariana)

The struggle to find a postdoc position (Louisa)

Workload management, especially as a new lecturer (Owen)

Dispiriting paper and grant rejections (Paterson, Selina)

Other career lows were much more clearly attributable to the interdisciplinary nature of their work, such as feeling ill equipped and out of one’s depth or the wearisomeness of constant self-justification:

[I]t was just incredibly difficult and not even vaguely what I wanted to be doing…It was awful being an anthropologist thrown into that, and really at quite a junior level, first job postdoc and not getting a huge deal of support…not being able to develop your skills. By the end of it I felt completely de-skilled. (Belinda)

[T]he groundwork that needs doing is energy-sapping, and also time-sapping. Whilst I’m trying to write the content of what a fellowship is, I’m also doing all of this groundwork to explain who I am to loads of people, to make the case for why the work is important … that can be overwhelming in terms of the amount of time that takes to do, and often does make me think should I just give up. (Helena)

Key Turning Points

In conjunction with the question about career highs and lows, interviewees were asked if they could describe any key turning points in their career. These might have been paths not taken, for example, a deliberate decision not to be “the token geographer in an engineering department” (Owen). Paradigmatic shifts were key: moving from an anthropology department to a medical school presented Belinda with a theoretical turning point, moving from an interpretivist tradition to a positivist one where she had to learn to hold her ground theoretically in this new environment. Reuben’s move, essentially in the opposite direction from biology to anthropology, and being exposed to different disciplinary approaches and traditions was similarly “an eye opener”.

More conventionally, Diana’s turning point was getting her first Principal Investigator (PI) role although, what was significant for an interdisciplinarian in a medical-led department, was that it then enabled her to shape her own research direction counter to the prevailing medical culture. But the grant application process could be much less positive. In a scenario that all academic researchers, regardless of discipline, may be all too familiar with, Selina spoke about an unsuccessful fellowship application as “the beginning of the end” of her career as an academic:

I hated the whole experience, it knocked me back quite a lot with my enthusiasm for my work generally (LAUGHS) and then I just thought, actually, this is what an academic career is, you know, I’m going to have to be doing this day in, day out really and I don’t like it. (Selina)

Chance meetings, cited as key turning points, again highlight the role that serendipity has played in these careers. Quentin was particularly clear about the role that chance had played at key points in his career. We turn to the vexing—and perhaps unanswerable question—of how institutions might facilitate such serendipitous encounters in Chap.  5.

Sense of Identity

So where did this process of “becoming interdisciplinary” leave my interviewees; how do they now describe themselves as academics? I discussed this issue of identity with each of my awardholder interviewees, using various prompts and suggestions (see Table 2.3). An interdisciplinary identity may be seen to lack the prestige of a discipline-focused academic and can be perceived as risky and outside the norm (Cuevas-Garcia 2015), rendering such individuals “academic nomads without a tribe” (Tait 1999). They may be less confident about their identity as scholars and feel that they risk being considered “amateurs” by their monodisciplinary peers. These interdisciplinarians may also need to assume multiple and shifting identities (Lingard et al. 2016).
Table 2.3

Questions to prompt reflections on interdisciplinary identity

Are you a discipline specialist working in interdisciplinary research projects?

Are you a researcher with multiple skills and able to draw on several disciplines?

Does your research focus on only one discipline?

What label do you use to introduce yourself, for example, “I am a sociologist”?

Do you describe yourself in another way?

Do you describe yourself differently depending on the context?

This sense of identity was firmly related to maintaining academic status. Carina recognised that women such as herself, who had had more than one period of maternity leave, often ended up losing their sense of a scholarly identity as a result of “scatter gunning” (working on lots of different projects) and had thought carefully about her own “brand”:

I decided to establish my identity as a medical sociologist, and that’s what I was going to introduce myself as … I wanted to be a “something”. (Carina)

This process of deliberation about one’s academic identity and having a suitable “label” was a shared concern. Una described herself as a specialist in a particular technique but wanted to carve out her own research identity as “a good public health researcher”, not wanting to be seen as “just a technician”, while Mariana had looked at the websites of others working in a similar field to understand how they described themselves in order to answer her question:

[W]hat am I?… because if you say you’re an interdisciplinary scientist, what does that mean? (Mariana)

This process of becoming an interdisciplinary academic could also be about a loss of identity: Katya felt like “I’m losing the sociologist in us [sic] which is a bit of a shame” while Belinda had stopped describing herself as an anthropologist and no longer identified with a particular discipline or methodology.

This description of self was something that could emerge over time:

I’m a health geographer but …it’s taken quite a long time to reach a point where I feel like I can say that and to decide, yes, that is what I’m going to call myself and it’s been a conscious decision to choose that label. (Selina)

Selina had settled on “health geographer” because she had an eye to future careers and needed to have an identity “to help me frame myself”, suggesting that one needs a recognisable label in order to conform to academic norms where disciplinary connections prevail:

I view myself as having a home discipline and a home working culture and set of theories and methods but then feel able to draw on other disciplines, either through my own work or collaboratively as well. But I think having that sense of home is quite important to me. (Diana)

Universities are still more comfortable with traditional career trajectories (see also Chap.  6) and labels came more readily to some; Erica, for example, was quite clear about being a medical anthropologist, and descriptions of self were more straightforward for those who identified with geography, either as a parent department or as their original degree subject. Paterson was unusual among the sample of awardholders in labelling himself as a “disciplinary expert” at psychology and described himself as a psychologist who would draw on the expertise of others as required.

Respondents addressed this identity issue in tactical ways, for example, using “inside” and “outside” labels to maintain coherence within a department:

This is almost by agreement, some others of us who are interdisciplinary, when we talk to our colleagues in the department we refer to ourselves as human geographers, but when I’m outside of those circles I’m an environmental social scientist. (Fiona)

or for diplomatic reasons: Gina chose to identify with her undergraduate ecology degree “as an excuse for poor understanding of social science” or in order to identify with other ecologists so that she does not appear to be “like a sociologist that’s attacking them without understanding what they’re trying to do” (Gina). Julia typically eschewed the term “interdisciplinary” to describe herself, “unless writing a grant application in which case I say it 20,000 times”.

This theme of flexible identities was widespread and respondents talked about repackaging themselves depending on the context. When I asked Norman how he felt about having this rather malleable academic identity his response was an immediate “I love it”. But others found their academic identity much less straightforward. Helena described herself as “a perpetual fence-sitter”. The emphasis on the applied nature of her work was critical for Helena but the fact that she held a dual appointment and consequently had multiple identities (resulting in five different email accounts) was stressful:

It’s all me but which bit of me… this trying to explain yourself to everyone just gets so overwhelming. (Helena)

Tactics to get round this “identity crisis” included focusing on topic areas rather than discipline (Anna), but insecurity and identity fatigue were features of interdisciplinary careers:

[I]t’s easier [to describe herself as an anthropologist] … you know, it’s always a bit tiring to go into endless detail … I also like anthropology … I just feel I’m not maybe the best person to represent it. (Louisa)

Reuben tried to reject labels:

This is something I always struggle with because I really don’t like those labels. Well, I certainly don’t fit easily into them … I always like to be question-driven or problem driven, be looking at what’s the thing in the world that I want to understand and try to explain. When push comes to shove, I use phrases like human evolutionary ecologist. (Reuben)

But the lack of a convenient label also makes other people very insecure:

[T]hey find it problematic when you don’t have a discipline. (Gina)

This chapter has assessed some of the areas of commonality and difference that interviewees presented for their reasons for following an interdisciplinary career path and the routes they had taken, noting some of the milestones that they had passed along the way. It has also reflected on some of the destinations that they have reached regarding their professional identities. Significantly, Reuben’s phrase “when push comes to shove” hints at the fact that, as academics, we cannot escape labels. I develop this theme further in later chapters when I discuss the pervasive notion of the traditional academic and uncertainties about identity in relation to teaching roles. But first we move on to examine how interviewees judged the impact of their institutions on their interdisciplinary careers.

Talking Points

A group of academics whose doctoral studies were explicitly interdisciplinary have spoken about their career motivations and aspirations, and the challenges and opportunities that they have faced, reflecting on their sense of academic identity as interdisciplinarians and the consequences this has for their status in the academy.

Is interdisciplinary research a risky choice within the context of academic careers? Is this changing with the increasing popularity of this style of working within our universities? What could be done at personal, local and national levels to provide more consistent messages to young (and not so young) researchers about how, when and indeed whether to follow this route?


  1. 1.

    A key change from the earlier ESRC/NERC scheme was that, this time, the Research Councils were offering a two-year interdisciplinary post-doctoral fellowship as well as the PhD studentship.

  2. 2.

    These funding schemes no longer exist and have been replaced by the Doctoral Training Centre model: see Filippakopoulou (2017) for a further explanation of this funding model and (accessed 17/12/18).

  3. 3.

    See Chap.  3 for a further discussion of the RAE and its replacement, the REF.

  4. 4.

    Many PhD topics are shaped by the supervisor and, indeed in the natural sciences, it is customary for the supervisor to present the student with the research question. One would also expect potential supervisors to advise applicants on potential sources of funding so we cannot infer too much from the fact that many informants talked about the influence of their supervisor as part of the motivation for starting down this interdisciplinary route.

  5. 5.

    This observation from Norman introduces the idea of “slowness” which is explored further in conjunction with the question about how we facilitate serendipity within the modern academy in Chap.  5.

  6. 6.

    If necessary, I followed this up with prompts such as “what has helped to move your career forward?” or “what do you think has held you back?”


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Social and Political ScienceThe University of EdinburghEdinburghUK

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