Karen Kelsky

Founder and President at The Professor Is In

The Professor Is In: The Curse of the Interdisciplinary Ph.D.

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I always hear that universities are looking for interdisciplinarity, but I’m getting an interdisciplinary Ph.D., and I’m not having much luck so far. Does my choice complicate my job search?

It’s not your imagination. You do have an extra challenge on the job market as an interdisciplinary Ph.D.

When the importance of teaching gets talked up on college campuses, the bullshit factor is massive. When interdisciplinarity gets trumpeted, the same thing holds true. And on both of these subjects, grad students are systematically misled.

The fact is: There are far fewer interdisciplinary departments than there are traditional disciplinary ones. If your Ph.D. is from an interdisciplinary department (like, say, my old departments of East Asian languages and cultures), then you end up with a Ph.D. that is not 100-percent “legible,” from a disciplinary standpoint, to folks in many of the departments who might hire you.

To give an example from my own former departmental homes: Ph.D.’s from East Asian languages and cultures had the opportunity to work with specialists in literature, history, anthropology, linguistics, and religious studies. This was great for their intellectual projects. But when those scholars finished, they didn’t finish as Ph.D.’s in any of those disciplines. So when they applied for jobs in departments of history, anthropology, linguistics, or religious studies, they were not as instantly appealing as candidates whose Ph.D.’s were actually in those fields. (In the field of literature, I should point out, the gap was not as problematic.)

This wasn’t an insurmountable obstacle by any means. People do make the leap. But in this job market, any extra challenge is scary. Don’t underestimate the issues.

Institutional rhetoric on interdisciplinarity just isn’t matched by administrative or organizational support of interdisciplinarity—especially not when it comes to tenure lines, which are still overwhelmingly approved in the traditional disciplinary homes. Sure, there are other East Asian language and culture departments, but they’re small in number compared to departments of history or anthropology. Graduate students are inevitably thrilled about entering interdisciplinary programs because at the start they see (and are informed of) only the intellectual and programmatic opportunities. What they don’t understand (and are not informed of) are the limitations the interdisciplinary Ph.D. imposes on them when they go out on the market.

What to do?

Take a long hard look at your record, and get clear on which traditional disciplinary field you will be most competitive in. Then, while you’re still in grad school, build a conference, grant, and publication record that places you firmly in that field. Don’t go to conferences and publish in three or four different disciplines. Pick one or at most two, and focus your efforts on those.

Also strategize your letter-writers so they reflect the discipline at which you are aiming. That famous linguist who was so helpful to you on your committee? She’ll be of limited utility in your history job search. Molding your record of grants, conferences, publications, and letter writers to a particular disciplinary home. When you finish, search committees will look at you and see a card-carrying member of their discipline.

Dear Readers: Have a question about the academic job market and/or professionalization? Send it to me! I welcome any and all questions related to the job market, preparing for the job market while in graduate school, coping with the adjunct struggle, and assistant professorhood. Send questions to me at gettenure@gmail.com.

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