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Career Advice

How to shine in an interdisciplinary job market

Knowing how to highlight your relevancy in a range of disciplines can radically increase your job opportunities in the academic market

BY CAROLYN STEELE | JAN 07 2008

The rise in interdisciplinary programs is presenting some new challenges for scholars. Your ability to demonstrate that you’re the perfect fit for a position can be a complex process in an interdisciplinary job market, so we have turned to people on both sides of the process – job seekers and faculty with experience on hiring committees – to discover what strategies are most effective in landing an academic position in an institution where the disciplinary boundaries are blurred.

Barbara Crow, graduate program director of York University’s communication and culture program maintains that the same principles apply in the interdisciplinary job market as those within traditional disciplines. “It’s very important when you respond to a job advertisement that you specifically address the relationship of your qualifications to the content of the advertisement. You need to demonstrate how your studies, interests, publications, conference presentations and teaching meet the requirements set out in the ad. But for Ravindra Mohabeer, a sessional contract faculty at York and a recent graduate from Crow’s program, the culture of the university forces PhD graduates to position themselves in ways they may find uncomfortable. “I’ve had to position myself as a specialist in something – in my case it’s been media education, which, on its own, is troubling to me since media education is a field wrought with polemics and fences around which one must stand on one side or another … [my research delves] into education, psychology, social work, sociology, and a host of other fields. In so doing, my topic has superceded my original desire and found a field for me that I don’t quite know that I want to fit into.” The process of learning how to articulate your breadth in a manner that is compelling, nuanced and pertinent is an important rite of passage for an interdisciplinary scholar, but can be time-consuming. Don’t rush the process. You’ll be glad you took the time when the interview process is underway.

Many doctoral candidates are finding themselves struggling with the tensions and biases inherent in crossing disciplinary boundaries. If your field spans two or more disciplines, how specialized can you be? One of the questions that arises, and for which there is no conclusive answer, focuses on the number and types of publications hiring committees expect. Do the magic three publications which seem to be generally accepted as the norm mean that you need this number for each field that is relevant or is that an aggregate number? To answer this question, consider what else you have to offer because of the diversity or your background. For instance, you may have published two articles in one field but only have conference presentations in the second although you have produced several related art exhibits, and received external awards for creative work that is relevant to your research. With intellectual diversity comes a greater acceptance of the range of expertise needed to express these different perspectives. By all means, continue to produce good, strong publications, but don’t fear there is no hope if all your productive work does not take the form of articles in refereed journals.

So what else do search committees look for when assessing applicants who present these tensions between multiple fields? Prof. T, herself a veteran of the interdisciplinary market on the west coast, looks for candidates who are able to interact productively with colleagues from different fields. “I look for theoretical flexibility and collaboration. That could be because of my particular field – both matter lots, especially for working on teams … I’m not sure people always recognize the value of being able to talk to colleagues from both fields and of knowing what matters or is important to each field.”

For Crow, it’s all about relevance. As she reads over the pile of CVs, she asks, “How does their covering letter attend to the job call? Does the candidate speak to why they are appropriate for this position? How do they articulate, characterize and situate their research and scholarship? Does the candidate display knowledge of our programme? Do they indicate what courses they could teach, which institutes they might want to affiliate with, and/or how their research complements and/or enhances our programme and department?”

Begin to consider these questions early on in your degree. By taking courses and writing comprehensive exams in related areas, presenting at conferences and publishing in journals relevant to the fields you would like to teach in, you will develop an understanding of the major ideas, trends and scholarship in more than one field. You will also begin to develop a network of colleagues that span disciplines as well, which can be enormously useful for producing collaborative work and hearing about positions.

Prof. T found that doing a postdoc was strategically beneficial because it gave her the time to more fully develop the interdisciplinary links between the field her research originated in and the field to which she could apply those links in innovative ways. In addition, her area became one that’s highly fundable. She also found teaching in several areas to be helpful, but offers a caveat: “I also think it’s important to get a job in the field you’re most comfortable in. I’ve heard of some teachers who were able to qualify for jobs outside of their fields, but who then had a tough time preparing courses outside their original fields.” In other words, just because you could expand your potential job market by applying to multiple fields doesn’t mean you should. Take the time to carefully assess the impact of being hired in a field with which you’re less well versed. Consider how well you’re able to juggle the demands of the tenure track before you start sending out applications.

Mohabeer’s strategy for positioning himself in a range of fields began during his degree when he selected a dissertation committee with scholars from a variety of fields because of the nature of his research. Mohabeer found that “having an interdisciplinary committee [can be] difficult at times, but, in the end, can be a magnificent gift since it allows you to have someone in your corner who has already established themselves in a field to which you might potentially be submitting an application down the road.”

Both Mohabeer and Prof. T stress the importance of stretching yourself by interacting with people from other fields and learning to discuss your ideas from their perspectives, an activity Mohabeer describes as “thoughtful networking.” Demonstrating links between his work and field scholars from other areas has occasionally allowed to him to contribute to their ideas in interesting ways. The importance of being able to communicate productively with people from different disciplines will be a critical hurdle during your campus visit and job talk, so be proactive – get some practice doing this throughout your PhD.

Finally, Prof. T recommends interdisciplinary scholars keep up in whatever fields are relevant to their research, especially after the dissertation is defended. This can be challenging but is, she believes, necessary if you want to be a successful scholar in more than one field. Also, look for ways to stand out: “Someone once suggested doing one thing that you can put on your CV that is a little bit different and interesting, so that your CV might stand out from others. (In fact, I think his example was actually participating in producing a documentary.) I think it was good advice.”

While presenting yourself as competitive in more than one field requires some strategic thinking, it’s also an opportunity for you to showcase aspects of your work that are unique, interesting and set you apart from the other applicants, which can be a tremendous asset.

Here’s a summary of strategies to consider if you’re applying to positions in more than one discipline or subfield:

During your degree

  • Once you become aware that your research interests have a natural connection to other fields, take some courses, do readings and have discussions with faculty from these fields.
  • If the interdisciplinary element is core to your research, investigate the possibility of slanting your comprehensive exams in that direction – this will be an effective way to demonstrate theoretical competence in multiple fields on your CV.
  • Attend and present at conferences in multiple fields – where possible, begin to submit papers in a range of journals as well. Be sure to take advantage of the opportunity to engage in conversations with scholars from other fields – listen to their concerns and notice where your ideas seem irrelevant to what they see as the most important issues.
  • Pick a supervisor who is versed in and supportive of the interdisciplinary element of your research. Select committee members from relevant fields and meet with them regularly during the writing process.

When on the Job Market

  • Customize your CV for the various positions for which you apply and highlight the aspects of your scholarship that are most relevant to each posting.
  • Target your job talk to your audience by making the links between your premise and their interests explicit.
  • Engage in conversation with faculty and students from multiple disciplines at conferences and during campus visits. Demonstrate a genuine interest in their work and look for opportunities to ‘cross pollinate’ through collaborative projects.
  • Prepare a research plan that reflects issues and ideas relevant in more than one field.
  • Alternate your publications and presentations between fields. Try to add new selections from each category every year you’re on the market.
  • If you’re applying for sessional contracts, seek out positions that will help you build your teaching experience in multiple fields.
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