On Job Prospects for Interdisciplinary PhDs

A pair of studies were recently released that analyzed national Survey of Earned Doctorates data to discern employment patterns of PhDs with interdisciplinary dissertation topics. The survey form now allows students to identify a primary and secondary field, (“If your dissertation was interdisciplinary, list the name and number of your secondary field”) which researchers have been using as a proxy for interdisciplinary research.

The Cornell study (Kniffin & Hanks) looked at PhDs graduating in 2010. The report, which has not been peer reviewed or published in a archival source as of yet, has gotten picked up by a variety of blogs and email listservs because of potentially dramatic and negative findings. The headline that “interdisciplinary PhDs earn less” is prompted by an average $1,700 annual salary difference between the two groups– a small difference in relation to the $5000 ranges used to bin and collect the salary data. More curiously, they found that students whose fathers had earned a college degree were slightly more likely to name a secondary field, and that non-citizens were more likely than U.S. citizens to pursue interdisciplinary research (4.7% higher probability). (Can you tell I am skeptical of this study?)

Millar’s findings were peer reviewed, much more promising, and thus less likely to be featured on blog sites. She compared two sets of PhD graduates: from 2004-2007 and 2008. She found that interdisciplinary PhDs were more likely than disciplinary PhDs to find employment in academia (the odds are 26% higher), and that the type of dissertation has no statistically significant effect on the type of position (post-doc, tenure-track, etc.). Related to this, students with interdisciplinary dissertations have more publications. This can be partly explained by the type of employment because publications are more highly valued in academia, so graduates working in academia and those pursing an academic career path would tend to focus on those.

Finally, an evaluation of NSF’s IGERT program compared a set of IGERT graduates to a comparison group of graduates without formal interdisciplinary training. The study found that IGERT students graduated in less time on average (5.63 vs. 6.04 years), considered fewer different employment sectors on average (2.39 vs. 2.10), were more positive in self-reports of how well their training prepared them for faculty positions, and self-reported less difficulty in finding postgraduate employment.

So what’s the answer? Is it worth doing an interdisciplinary PhD? Are you taking a big career risk?

10 thoughts on “On Job Prospects for Interdisciplinary PhDs

  1. I think it is worth doing an interdisciplinary PhD. For students who are pursuing academic job, interdisciplinary training or project can produce more publications according to this article, which can put them in a much more competitive position when searching for academic position. Students who are working with interdisciplinary research normally have more access to different technologies and work across two disciplines, which allow them much more chances to have new findings such as borrowing techniques in one subject and use it in another subject, or using methodology of one discipline to solve the problem in another discipline. This kind of experience is not only help interdisciplinary students to have more publications, it also helps them to explore more possibilities in their future research as academic faculty, no matter in expand their research field or applying for grants.

    Another promising funding in Millar’s paper is Fig.2 showed that the possibility for interdisciplinary students to be tenure track position is the same with non-interdisciplinary student, which has been lower in the past few years. It seems that the academic world has placed higher value on indiscipline experience. However, the possibility of interdisciplinary students in non-tenure track position is lower than the non-interdisciplinary student. This may because of students who are doing single research can go more deeper in their subject, which shows a higher scientific value on their area. This may be something the interdisciplinary students should pay attention on their research and get improved .

  2. I don’t see how doing an interdisciplinary research project could hurt, truthfully. It doesn’t make sense for it not to help. You will inevitably expand your marketability, being a jack of many trades, and well-rounded individuals. Additionally, these PhDs have an extensive network of faculty and, in theory, the job possibilities would be expanded. Millar discusses some proposed publishing challenges that are perceived, but in my mind it would seem that opportunities of different publishing possibilities would be opened. The research would be more applicable to many fields of research and therefore more journals would be open to accepting the paper in question.

    The nature of the world around us is interdisciplinary. Maybe I’m being too close-minded on the idea that it would be rejected, but to me it seems silly to think that academics can box off certain parts of the world, imagining that it only affects their discipline. This simply isn’t the case. One way or another everything is intertwined. We, as educators and researchers, should be keen to note this and adapt our methodologies to reflect the fact that research itself is highly unlikely to be strictly one discipline or another.

    Millar also notes that, according to the research, non-interdisciplinary graduates seem to have more tenure track positions… the gold. However, these results were only consistent with the 2004-2005 graduates. I think what might be more important to note is how many of the graduates actually applied for/wanted tenure and achieved it. Wouldn’t the success rate of tenure be more important to note? It is possible that some of the graduates were hoping for a teaching position or perhaps were not striving for tenure. Unlikely, if I understand the benefits of tenure, but it is possible.

    In my pedagogy class this Wednesday I was cautioned against interdisciplinary research, the logic eluded me, but I feel like there is a fear of it in academia. I think that it has to do with a loss of power, the feeling from some academics that they are no longer the master expert. The horrific reputation of a PhD ego is dangerous, and I think that the interdisciplinary research strives to keep this in check and does a good job with it. There is the looming threat that we aren’t learning as much about specific topics, losing the expertise, but it is so important to grasp large concepts as well as specific ones.

    Interdisciplinary research is on the horizon of campuses around the country and around the world and we would be foolish not to accept it. Again, by nature all topics eventually will intertwine. Why should we not address it as such in our research?

    Perhaps finding jobs, at least initially, might be more difficult as the interdisciplinary idea is taking hold. However, I think that down the road it makes far more sense to show yourself is possessing different, but important skills, that you can offer to your employer.

  3. The sample size of non-interdisciplinary dissertation status in Millar’s study is about 2.5 times than folks with interdisciplinary dissertations. Despite weighted means and proportions of variables in the analyses (Table 1), I still believe this can somewhat dampen the 26% higher odds of interdisciplinary folks to find a job in academia than the non-interdisciplinary ones.

    Based on my experiences and conversations, I think some element of interdisciplinary is important, nay vital, in understanding diverse ways of approaching research questions and the vantages that are influenced by the said research. Simultaneous involvement in different projects or working in an interdisciplinary project both influence and increase (or even decrease sometimes) the avenues of publications and outreach towards different fields. Personally, it is worth it if the research is more applied than exploratory but that might change in the coming decades.

    But definitely beneficial yes. Big Dan Ariely fan! And I love how he does interdisciplinary research in behavioral economics based on his two PhDs along with his unusual way of looking at the world.

  4. After reading the first paper cited here, me and Laura feel that the data is not presented in a fair way. The way the survey was done seems to have inflated their conclusions. For example, they are predicting their income in $5,000 or $10,000 intervals, and their conclusion is only a $1,700 difference. Is that significant??

    And lets assume that their is a $1,700 difference in salary the first year, we decided that that is a okay price to pay for doing better research. We will take the hit of $1,700 the first year and do research that makes a bigger impact across fields.

    The second paper, predicts a much better outcome for ID grads and seems to interpret the same data in a much fairer way. The graphs are scaled properly and don’t make the 0.8% difference look like a 50% difference.

    In conclusion, maybe a few years ago ID grads should have been a little nervous about the risk they took. But it seems the ID research is catching on and the ID grads should be excited about the choices they made.

  5. I don’t believe doing interdisciplinary work is major career risk. IDR allows individuals to pursue fulfilling research with limited to no financial repercussions.

  6. I think that more and more the understanding of science needs an interdisciplinary skill. The interdisciplinary training promotes self-questioning and helps to establish a student with autonomous thinking and collaboration experience, keys feature for future researchers. Even if now that is not a “top” on postgraduate employment, the trend on the science, facing the complexity of the challenges to be address, are and will (need) open more opportunities and value those skills. As a graduate student in a interdisciplinary PhD I’m not afraid of my future career options.

  7. Overall, we believe that it is worthwhile to do an interdisciplinary PhD and it is not a big career risk. The two most important factors we focused on were communication and salary.

    The value of communication and the ability to express one’s ideas to a variety of people with different backgrounds is incredibly important. This is a skill that is refined when working in an interdisciplinary field with a variety of mentors and colleagues. This skill also appears to be sought by employers.

    Based on the articles, it appears that there is no significant difference in pay. In this regard, it reinforces the fact that an interdisciplinary career is not a big financial risk.

  8. Maybe the faster graduation rates for IGERT students concluded by the IGERT evaluation is a result of the type of people the IGERT program attracts. It does not make intuitive sense that interdisciplinary students can graduate faster on average than students of a single discipline because interdisciplinary students spend their time in coursework and research across multiple fields instead of staying in one. It’s possible that interdisciplinary programs attract students who are on average more motivated than others.
    Regarding the question of “is it worth it?” we think the answer is yes. An interdisciplinary education makes each graduate more unique and distinguishable from their peers. It also gives you more career opportunities, which could give the students more chances to find a career that is fulfilling and that they enjoy. This is worth the supposed salary that is $1700 less.

  9. The first issue with the Cornell study is that “interdisciplinary” construct lacks clear definition. A general issue across sources is that they fail to capture the degree to which programs are interdisciplinary. Relying on self-report for a secondary field supplied by the doctoral degree earner is an imprecise measure. While the authors ascertain that father’s degree matters, what they may be redundantly capturing is socioeconomic status, rather than any meaningful difference in parental degrees. It’s likewise difficult to draw conclusions on 2010 graduates only. It would be wiser to project their future earnings and then take a follow-up measure to see whether their prediction model was effective. The post-doctoral or first year of work beyond the PhD is too short a measure of “success” in terms of salary or opportunities.

    Millar’s study evaluated graduates from 2004-2007 as a larger sample but self-reported their interdisciplinary involvement. Their individual distinctions between interdisciplinary and non-interdisciplinary varied such that there was no common frame of reference to categorize survey respondents. Perhaps a better method to define interdisciplinary would be to look at the varied disciplines in authors on a respective graduates’ publications.

    In the NSF’s evaluation study includes IGERT and non-IGERT PhD degree-earners as a clearer distinction. Students claim they feel prepared to work across many sectors, however outside influences such as the job market impact how doctoral degree earners are employed beyond just the interdisciplinary nature of their programs.

  10. Haoran Wei
    Sallie Beth Johnson
    Seyyed Mohammad Hossein Abtahi

    Yes, being involved in an interdisciplinary project is worth it. As a general argument, these researchers mainly focused on near term after graduation time frame and there are some employment risk associated with IGERT graduates, particularly in industry. But we are interested to see if there are any long term difference. Final results show most IGERT graduates find their way easier in academia. Having less graduation time, more published papers, and considering fewer employment sectors represents good and deep understanding about their future desired career. NSF reports show 96% of IGERT graduates are happy and recommend interdisciplinary research to others. %50 of overall graduate reported that they had to learn a new discipline within their career path. Our overall evaluations show that interdisciplinary research can make a good basin for future career decisions while making you able to investigate them from different perspectives.

Leave a Reply