Being interdisciplinary: good or bad? Exploring my research identity in my PhD

Working on interdisciplinary PhD projects can be exciting but challenging at the same time. The fast-paced advancement in different areas of research has created more demands for interdisciplinary PhD students. Soon, having a multidisciplinary PhD student in the lab will be far more common. For now, we are still at the emergence phase of having two different universes, or more colliding in one PhD programme.

As for my PhD, it is tri-discipline: RNA biology, bioinformatics, and plant science. It took me two years to realise that!

Currently entering my third year of the PhD programme, I started wondering if I have to choose sides. The first two years of my programme, I had the luxury to attend so many conferences, one of the benefits of being interdisciplinary. I have had a taste of how different field’s conferences. Trust me. These fields are so specialised that you immediately noticed that the thinking patterns are immensely different from others, even though they are all scientists.

While it is great to have experienced it all and to appreciate the diversity, it makes it more difficult for me to decide whether I should be specialising in either one.

Being an interdisciplinary researcher has its pros and cons.

The Pros are:

  1. Diverse skillsets of all fields
  2. Understanding different thinking patterns relevant to the field.
  3. Cross-application of techniques for problem solving
  4. Being more holistic and open-minded to out of the box solutions
  5. Acquired communication capability to tailor research content to different audience
  6. Mastery of key techniques of all fields

Comments on the pros:

I started appreciating this aspect of being an interdisciplinary PhD research student at the second year of my candidature. With my first research work published, I was extremely fortunate to be given the opportunity to present my work at a bioinformatics conference and a plant science symposium.

Should be easy with a published paper right?

Cramming a huge amount of data into a 10-ish minute talk is one challenge. Figuring out the best way to communicate to different expert audience of two different conferences is another.

In these two conferences, I am still talking about the same work, the same paper. The bioinformaticians are far more interested in technical details of data analysis, and the rational behind it. They were pleased when I walked through the entire workflow of data analysis, up to the details of parameters, code tweaks, data resolution, data structure, and statistics. They weren’t so interested in the plant physiology and phenotypic aspects of the research. However, the bizarre plant physiology and phenotypic characterisation of the same paper captured the attention of the plant scientist immediately. When I further explained the general overview of the bioinformatics analysis used to uncover the molecular aspects of the observations, excluding the fine details of what I have disclosed in the bioinformatics conference, they were attentive with the underlying molecular changes revealed via data analysis. I guess that means I could never recycle my slides for conferences, which most PhD students would be able to do.

Well, it’s not always a bed of roses. This brings me to a few downsides of being an interdisciplinary PhD student.

The Cons are:

  1. Being less specialised in a specific skill set compared to a conventional PhD student
  2. Possibly lack of in-depth understanding of a field due to constant role-shifting
  3. Being stigmatised as being less professional
  4. Difficulties for skillset assessment and set reasonable performance expectations
  5. Extra time and financial investment outside standard working hours to catch up with learning

Comments on the Cons:

I could recall at the beginning of my PhD (or rather MPhil) I felt a great sense of unease. I didn’t know where to start? Should I look at the data? Should I start my experiment? Which field should I start reading? (Now I read plants, cancer, biochemistry, bioinformatics, statistics, genetics papers) As for the different conferences which I have attended, I was concerned that only those who are specialised in the field would get hired.

What hasn’t changed now is I still spend a lot of time trying to learn about my research after hours. There is always more to learn, whether it is doing my experiments or coding a solution for my data analysis.

The longer I am in the PhD programme, the more I am exploring research identity. I am still on my way, and I do not know all the answers, for now, At least I am sure that I am enjoying that disciplinary identity in my PhD. I guess we will find out after I graduate about my place in the research community.

Photo by Yiran Ding on Unsplash

One thought on “Being interdisciplinary: good or bad? Exploring my research identity in my PhD

  1. Liliana Riback says:

    Superb blog you have here but I was curious about if you knew of any community forums that cover the same topics talked about in this article? I’d really like to be a part of group where I can get advice from other experienced individuals that share the same interest. If you have any suggestions, please let me know. Thank you!


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