Scholarly Synergies: Interdisciplinarity and the Postdoctoral Researcher

As I approach the end of my second month as a discipline-hopping postdoc., I thought I’d write something about the experience of forming synergies between two or more fields of research. The paragraphs below summarise my initial thoughts about the opportunities that interdisciplinarity – especially between the humanities and the sciences – offers to the early career researcher.

A chance to communicate your ideas to people in different disciplines

     As a researcher in literature and history, I have suffered from a societal inferiority complex. I know that my work is important, and my colleagues do too. Plus, even friends who do not explicitly recognise how crucial historical study is have benefited in the course of their education. They still do profit, every time they pick up a newspaper, or are affected by social or political policy that has been developed with historical awareness. Ok, end broadcast (but if you want more – have a look at ‘Move Over Stem: Why The World Needs Humanities Graduates’). HOWEVER, despite the importance of historical research, I still occasionally struggle from a kind of separation from the ‘real-word’. I worry that my studies do not relate to what I see around me when I leave the library. Warning: this feeling is intensified if you decide to undertake research that straddles both the humanities and sciences.

     One of the advantages of combining unconventional disciplines is that I’ve been able to flex my communicative muscles. I’ve spoken about my project and its implications with electrical engineers, computer scientists, neurologists, and friends and family members who work for the National Health Service. As my project is in the ‘medical humanities’, it is crucial that I am able to articulate the connection with modern medical understanding – why my project is important to us today. Naturally, some people will struggle to understand what a historical study of the experience of neurological disorder has to do with modern medicine. They may be pragmatists, who will recognise this impact when it is reflected in policy, diagnosis or treatment. It is important, however, that I perceive the applications of my work, and am able to communicate it to people who are receptive. And that is why interacting with people in various research areas is helping me to develop my skills as a researcher.

Encouragement to conduct your work with different considerations in mind

     Last week, I  spent several hours in The National Archives, digitising medieval documents for use in image processing. In the past, when I have been lucky enough photograph manuscripts myself, I’ve focused on very different issues. Self-taken images have functioned predominantly as an aide memoire, to allow me to study from my own space up in York. Now, with my electronics hat on, I am obsessed with light levels, image resolution, the positioning of the document, and the size of my memory card. Is the document flat? Are these images consistent in quality? Equally, I have to think of historical matters: what is this document? Which scribe wrote it? When? Is it even possible to flatten this document, when we are working with historical binding techniques?

     This is symptomatic of the experience of being newly interdisciplinary. Having to  balance two hats on one’s head simultaneously. To apply, synthesise, and switch between two methodologies in relation to a single source of information. It is wonderful, though, as I have been developing skills that I can foresee being applicable in a range of different contexts, including alternative-academic careers and jobs entirely outside of academia.


The incentive to look elsewhere for funding and jobs

     My internship is provided through the Centre for Chronic Diseases and Disorder at York, which encourages collaborations and transitions between two or more disciplines. Getting employed through this route has encouraged me to consider the possibility that my next employment opportunity may not be provided by the British Academy or the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). Or, if it is, it may not be awarded on the basis of single-disciplinary research. I have begun to look for pots of money that are conditional upon synthesis between disciplines: the Wellcome Trust’s Medical Humanities Early Career Fellowship, for example, or through the AHRC’s Science in Culture theme.

     Alternatively, there may be opportunities that are funded by charities or other non-academic organisations. This outward-facing approach can be very difficult for someone who has been accustomed to scouring’s ‘history’ and ‘literature’ categories. Thus, if interdisciplinary research is your chosen path, the first postdoc. is a valuable opportunity to become familiar with the locations of further research funding.

Heidi Cartwright, Wellcome Images

Brain in the form of an electronic circuit. By Heidi Cartwright, Wellcome Images

The imperative to know your mind, and plan.

     If you decide to step outside of your discipline as an early career researcher, be prepared to feel yourself being pulled in several directions. You will find novel and exciting conferences to attend, new journals to read, and different conversations to be had in the office. I’d advise to make a decision, early on, about how you are going to treat these compulsions. I have decided to embrace them and to allow new opportunities to pull and push me wherever they will.

     I made my choice on the basis that my one-year ‘discipline-hopping internship’ is focused on broadened horizons. Every opportunity I embrace is a chance to learn new skills, meet new people, and open potential new research pathways. However, I am mindful that every meeting that is outside the scope of my study statement detracts time from my original research plan. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as newer and better plans might be formed. However, when I took my internship, I set out to work on a certain project, and I aim to deliver at least the outcomes of that project – and hopefully more. This is why I have a written plan for how I am going to spend this year, and what I expect from myself at the end of every three-month milestone. Thus, if I have achieved what I set out to achieve in terms of skills learned, publications accepted, job applications written etc, I will be happy with my progress.

An opportunity to view yourself differently as a scholar?

     As I mentioned above, my internship has so far given me opportunities to speak with people who operate far outside of my postgraduate disciplines of medieval literature and history. This is because I’ve been working with a supervisor whose network of contacts is radically different from my own. Conversations in the corridors of hospitals, in an office in electronics, and with charities and carehomes, has made me think of myself differently. My Twitter feed has changed drastically to encompass a wider range of topics, and my day-to-day thoughts have taken a shift. I still do believe that traditional academic humanities research has a lot to contribute to the formation and maintenance of social and political policies. However, when I imagine myself in a few years time, I no longer necessarily think of myself exclusively in a university context. I can see myself working with charities, the government, schools, care homes, counselling services, newspapers…

     The opportunity to begin interdisciplinary work that combines non-conventional disciplines has been the source of this new perspective. It’s given me confidence in my abilities outside of the set that I’d become accustomed to. It’s endowed me with truly transferable skills, and contact with people who work outside of academia. Equally, it has strengthened my position within academia, opening new potential routes and broadening my horizons.


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