NiTRO + Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Falling Between the Silos: Undertaking Interdisciplinary PhD Research

Universities Australia-wide are increasingly championing interdisciplinary research. Monash University … 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.

By Sam McAuliffe

Universities Australia-wide are increasingly championing interdisciplinary research. Indeed, Monash University – my institution – advertises that it “invests”[1] in interdisciplinary research to support “the next generation of research students”.[2] 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.

It is not uncommon for some academics to express concern that attempts to bridge disciplines risks diluting their strengths.

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.

While universities advertise they are investing in interdisciplinarity, this has yet to translate into hiring staff with interdisciplinary experience.

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?

  1. 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.

  2. 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).

  3. 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…

References

[1] “Investing in interdisciplinary research,” monash.edu, accessed July 29, 2020, https://www.monash.edu/graduate-research/partnerships/featured-items/row-1/placeholder2

[2] “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.

More from this issue

Bridging the Gap

Dr Lyndall Adams recently completed a major public art project as part of the Wanneroo Road/Joondalup Drive Interchange Bridge

Read More +

More from this issue

On campus at the Australian National University the Schools of Art and Design (SOA&D) and Music (SoM) are neighbours, both physically and metaphorically. We see connections with science, medicine, economics, the social sciences and humanities, digital technologies and other disciplines as highly effective models of research and evidence that are increasingly important.

Dr Ruth De Souza recently joined the School of Art at RMIT University as a Vice Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow. Dr De Souza is a nurse, academic and a community-engaged researcher in gender, race, health and digital technologies. Her Fellowship will engage health professionals in finding new ways to understand, co-design and implement sustainable cultural safety initiatives in a range of health contexts in response to health inequities. But why in a School of Art?

We live in uncertain and debilitating times which deserve informed and transparent political and cultural discourse and participation. However, numerous political leaders across the world lack courage, empathy and imagination in their approach to the COVID-19 and climate emergencies and the lingering and toxic outcomes of colonisation and globalised capital.

Dr Lyndall Adams recently completed a major public art project as part of the Wanneroo Road/Joondalup Drive Interchange Bridge Project, for Main Roads WA. Professor Clive Barstow talked to Lyndall about collaborating with industry from ideas to completion.

As a musician and researcher, I recognise interdisciplinarity as virtually ubiquitous amongst creative and research fields, in spite of inevitable resistance from some. Its purpose is generally to foster innovation, which depends on the extension of possibilities beyond the familiar.

2020 spectacularly demonstrated how more than ever humanity is required to work collaboratively to face the wicked problems we created and try and imagine shared futures. Working in the area of Art and the Frontier technologies of the Life Sciences, we are acutely aware to the entanglement of biology with culture and how both disciplines … effect and affect the way we live.

When Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA) internal whistle-blower, Jeff Morris, exposed the actions of ‘Dodgy Don’ – a CBA financial planner who allegedly forged signatures, overcharged fees and created unauthorised investment accounts for his customers without their permission – Morris contributed to setting in motion the 2017 Banking Royal Commission.