An anthropology PhD student who got a sociology job argues for interdisciplinary research

An anthropology PhD student at UCLA argues that he was able to expand his job choices by presenting himself as an interdisciplinary scholar:

Some of my mentors, none of whom are in anthropology departments, prefer to say “trained as an anthropologist, so-and-so investigates…” when describing people in the field, as opposed to saying “so-and-so is an anthropologist.” If you are on the job market this may be hard to do as you are likely to have just become a Ph.D.-wielding anthropologist, and to be quite proud of the moniker and achievement. But the shift in self-definition is important for you and your future academic home, I would argue.

I just went through the whole job-hunting process before signing a contract to become a lecturer in media and cultural studies in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, in Britain. I was able to apply for a silly number of jobs, get a bunch of interviews and campus visit requests, and have some choices and grounds on which to do some humble negotiating. I think my trick was post-disciplinary research and (a considerable amount of) cross-disciplinary publishing. I could apply to communications; media studies; anthropology; information studies; science, technology and society; sociology; television studies; American studies and Internet studies. If I were desperate I could apply for archaeology and film production positions. Postdoctoral positions, particularly those financed by the Mellon Foundation, are all about interdisciplinarity, as are jobs looking for digital humanities scholars.

So I’d encourage my fellow freshly minted A.B.D.s and Ph.D.s to begin seeing their research and their teaching across at least four or five large disciplines. Be able to realistically apply to four or five departments. One can put this together variously by publishing in different journals, collaborating with colleagues from different fields, or simply working the boundaries of one’s discipline in necessarily interdisciplinary ways. (All I can say is that I hope this is not my internalization of the precarity of neoliberal governmentality in the education sector.)

Academia talks a lot about interdisciplinary work so it is interesting to hear stories about people who make careers in this emergent sector. Several things strike me about this story:
1. Can one only do this as a student in certain disciplines? In this example, making the switch from anthropology to sociology is not a huge jump as the disciplines share some theorists and ways of collecting data while also looking at the “big picture” of groups and societies. Could you make the same jump between literature and political science? Economics to psychology?
2. For grad students to become interdisciplinary scholars, there have to be interdisciplinary jobs. How many schools and departments would really be willing to hire an interdisciplinary person compared to a qualified/good person within their discipline?
2a. If more grad students go the interdisciplinary route, are there enough jobs for them? In other words, could people then lost out on jobs because they aren’t disciplinary enough?
3. This student seems to have picked a current and relevant topic that I imagine many schools would be interested in:
And there is something said for responding (in non-trendy and timeless ways!) to emergent patterns in industry, politics, and social movements. The departments recognize that what is in the news is what the students want to study. In my case this amounted to a recursive loop from the hype surrounding new media – Arab Spring, Anonymous, Wikileaks, SOPA, PIPA, and Occupy –  to departments requesting applicants with expertise in social media and political movements.
So is the key to interdisciplinary jobs to be at the cutting edge of sexy topics?
3a. I imagine that much interdisciplinary work could be done through center or institutes that focus on particular issues or topics rather than through departments which tend to be looking for a broader set of interests.
This is an intriguing story but there are a lot of institutional and cultural issues within academia that have to be worked out so that a large amount of these stories could be possible.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s