Karen Kelsky

Founder and President at The Professor Is In

The Professor Is In: The Interdisciplinary Factor

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Occasionally I get questions that run along the lines of either: (a) "How do I pitch myself for this interdisciplinary job when my degree is in X discipline?" or (b) "How do I write a cover letter for a job in X discipline when my Ph.D. is from an interdisciplinary program?" This week I thought I would tackle those questions together.

I will start with the first one because it’s easier: Most applicants for interdisciplinary jobs come from doctoral programs in a particular discipline for the simple reason that Ph.D. programs in specific disciplines vastly outnumber interdisciplinary ones. Certain types of academic programs — business schools, for example — are interdisciplinary by nature, since they hire so much from sociology, psychology, mathematics, and economics as well as business fields. So pitching yourself for an interdisciplinary job is not a particularly uphill battle.

The trick to cover letters like these is, first of all, to articulate the contributions of your research in a way that brings disciplines that are different (but probably related; I mean, there aren’t many jobs that combine astrophysics and comparative literature) into dialogue with each other.

What does it mean to bring fields into "dialogue" with each other? It means, for instance, using methodologies that are conventionally associated with one discipline to engage theoretical questions in another. Or it could involve "borrowing" theoretical concepts across disciplines — philosophy concepts for anthropology, for example, or psychology concepts for literature. That shows you can think beyond disciplinary boundaries and that you are aware of debates and developments in other, related fields.

The second trick of a cover letter for an interdisciplinary job is to use the language of the program itself to pitch your work as relevant. If the position is in "global studies" or "development studies," show how your research is pertinent in those realms. Often an interdisciplinary-studies program won’t have its own canon but will be focused on a cluster of themes and questions. Show that you are aware of them, and that as a scholar you are poised to make a contribution on those fronts.

A word of warning: Your potential colleagues will need to see that you are engaging with the given fields accurately and legitimately. Being interdisciplinary doesn’t mean that you can be loose in throwing around a field’s approaches or terms.

Here’s an example from my own career in anthropology. Many fields love to poach anthropological methods like "ethnography," which is fine, except when the practitioner has only the vaguest idea what ethnography means and how it is done. If I hear a historian or a sociologist make big "interdisciplinary" claims of engaging with anthropology — yet I, as an anthropologist, can clearly see they have no real idea, beyond a few buzzwords, of what the field is about or how its methods/theories actually operate then I will not accept their research conclusions or their claims to genuine interdisciplinarity.

Apply the same logic if the interdisciplinary opening is at a teaching-oriented institution. Show that you can design courses around topics rather than canons. Hiring committees for topical programs in environmental studies, science studies, gender studies, or the like will appreciate an applicant who can mirror the bricoleur way in which those fields have generally assembled themselves — synthesizing knowledge and insights from a variety of disciplines across the humanities, social sciences, and life sciences.

Now to the second question, which is harder to answer.

A few years ago I wrote a column, "The Curse of the Interdisciplinary Ph.D.," on how to strategically prepare for the job market if your doctorate is from an interdisciplinary program. Clearly, most faculty jobs are in traditional disciplines. That column was about thinking and planning ahead: "Take a long hard look at your record," I wrote in that 2014 essay, "and get clear on which traditional disciplinary field you will be most competitive in. Then, while you’re still in grad school, build a conference, grant, and publication record that places you firmly in that field. Don’t go to conferences and publish in three or four different disciplines. Pick one or at most two, and focus your efforts on those."

But let’s say you didn’t think strategically or plan ahead. Now here you are — in your final year in graduate school — writing cover letters. You didn’t publish and present at the conferences of your targeted discipline, or cultivate scholars from that field to write letters of recommendation. No use fretting over what you should have done. The question is: How do you pitch yourself now?

First, it’s good to recognize that some disciplines are more prone to gatekeeping than others. Anthropology, which is a discipline heavily invested in its own canon and method, will not hire non-anthropologists. Geography and religion, however, have been known to hire Ph.D.s from other fields.

Whether or not a department is open to a nontraditional hire will generally be made clear in the job ad itself. Does it say under requirements "Degree in X," or does it say, "Degree in X or related discipline"? If it’s the former, forget it. If it’s the latter, you have a shot.

Once you’ve decided to apply, in assembling your application, essentially reverse the logic that I’ve laid out above:

  • Use the vernacular of the discipline.
  • Show that you know the field’s canon and its signature methodology.
  • Show that you understand the major debates that are shaping special issues of the field’s flagship journals and the official themes of its major annual conferences.
  • If you are asked for sample syllabi, look at how those in the field are organized. I am not saying steal someone else’s syllabus. I am saying: Familiarize yourself with the general conventions of how the building blocks of knowledge fit together to reflect the learning objectives of the discipline in question.

Because you won’t have the "brand" of a Ph.D. in X, you will have to do some discursive labor to signal to people that you can be a colleague in research and teaching on the department’s intellectual wavelength.

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