By Sam McAuliffe
Universities Australia-wide are increasingly championing interdisciplinary research. Indeed, Monash University – my institution – advertises that it “invests” in interdisciplinary research to support “the next generation of research students”. And indeed, as far as my research is concerned, they followed through on that statement – I am in my final year of a PhD project that sits at the intersection of music, improvisation, and philosophy, supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program (RTP) Scholarship. Beyond the initial hurdle of acquiring funding, however, there are a range of challenges that face PhD candidates undertaking interdisciplinary research. In what follows I outline three things I consider to be necessary to foster a supportive environment for interdisciplinary research at a PhD level.
Looking beyond the peculiarities of individual projects that present unique challenges to the researcher, in my experience, the biggest challenge facing interdisciplinary PhD candidates – and here I am referring to individual projects where one candidate works across disciplines, as opposed to collaborative projects where two or more researchers from different fields come together – is that considerable portions of their research, as is expected, fall beyond the expertise or interest of those who comprise each discipline.
Moreover, it is not uncommon for some academics to express concern that attempts to bridge disciplines risks diluting their strengths. While there is merit to such an argument (arguments for and against must be left for another time), oftentimes it seems as though this argument functions as a placeholder to merely defend intellectual cliques concerned with narrow views and source materials. Thus, that the interdisciplinary candidate already operates at the periphery of the central concerns of each discipline, any further siloing of the discipline with respect to those “cliques” or administrative pressures exacerbates the issue even further. The prevalence and rigidity of those disciplinary silos poses a considerable challenge to the interdisciplinary PhD candidate; in which discipline are they able to gain a sense of community or intellectual belonging?
So, what three things might make for a supportive and inclusive PhD experience for the interdisciplinary candidate?
Appropriate panel members for progress reviews: When one undertakes a PhD project, interdisciplinary or not, they are typically assigned a particular “home” department. This means, in my experience, that progress reviews are organised from within that department and therefore, there is a tendency for progress reviews to be comprised of faculty from that department. For the candidate to get the most out of those progress reviews, both in terms of gaining relevant feedback and giving the panel members insight into the preliminary concerns or findings of one’s project such that the candidate might spring to mind if an interesting opportunity came along, at least one representative from each discipline should sit on review panels.
Role models: It is not feasible to have a department comprised of staff that covers every possible manifestation of interdisciplinarity. But the lack of role models and faculty to talk to with experience working across disciplines – or even working beyond the confines of their particular “silo” within that discipline – is profoundly noticeable when you’re a PhD candidate looking for guidance. It does seem curious both from the perspective of guidance during candidature and prospective academic job opportunities that while universities advertise they are investing in interdisciplinarity, this has yet to translate into hiring staff with interdisciplinary experience. Hopefully we see the yield of that “investment” with respect to interdisciplinary research mentioned earlier in the not too distant future (notwithstanding the impact of COVID-19).
Network as much as possible: In light the comments above, it seems the answer is to network as much as possible. There are role models out there – although perhaps not within the candidate’s department or university, and there are other candidates out there working across similar disciplines and addressing relevant issues/questions. In my field, however, the majority of these people tend to be based overseas. COVID-19 has not made interdisciplinary research any easier…
 “Investing in interdisciplinary research,” monash.edu, accessed July 29, 2020, https://www.monash.edu/graduate-research/partnerships/featured-items/row-1/placeholder2
 “Co-supervision arrangements,” monash.edu, accessed July 29, 2020, https://www.monash.edu/graduate-research/partnerships/monash-mv
Sam McAuliffe is a PhD candidate at Monash University, working at the intersection of improvised music and philosophical hermeneutics. He is the recipient of both an RTP scholarship and the Monash-Pratt scholarship for doctoral research. McAuliffe has had articles published in Reinvention, Journal of Comparative Media Arts, and Organised Sound, and has forthcoming articles in Critical Horizons, and the Journal of Aesthetic Education. He has also worked as a musical director for experimental theatre productions, has curated sound installations for major Australian art festivals, and he plays guitar in a variety of ensembles.