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Alyssa is a doctoral candidate in interdisciplinary neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island. Follow them @yes_thattoo or check out their personal blog.


I see and hear the word interdisciplinary all the time. I think most graduate students do, though I might encounter it even more, since I'm in the Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Program at the University of Rhode Island. Yes, this means my degree is going to say I have a Ph.D. in interdisciplinary neuroscience: neuroscience that happens when we cross multiple fields of study.

Taking classes from several departments is built into our program – there literally aren't enough neuroscience-coded courses to fulfill our requirements offered by actual departments (neuroscience is a program but not a department here). I've taken electives from electrical and biomedical engineering, communication disorders, statistics, and psychology. Others have used electives from physical therapy, biology, chemistry, biochemistry, and chemical engineering. Oh, and some of us took a course on no-boundary thinking that was listed under computer science.

In terms of conferences, the Society for Neuroscience is relevant for most of us. Beyond that, we're all going to different places. My lab-mates tend towards IEEE events – electrical and electronics engineering. As I write this, my last presentation was at WorldCon, a science fiction convention, and my next will be at the American Educational Studies Association.

Oh, and my teaching experience is mostly in mathematics, with a side of electronics and most recently, chemistry. All this has taught me about communication with people from varied disciplinary backgrounds. But now that I've gone and become an interdisciplinary academic, what kind of department would I fit in?

This is where mind mapping, concept mapping, or something similar comes in. In a mind map, you start with a central concept, and then you branch additional concepts or ideas off it in a hierarchical way. Any given idea, like "Education," can have sub-ideas, like "Special Education," "Online Education," or "Teacher Experiences." Here, I'm taking a field and then listing some areas of study within that field. Then, teacher experiences would include work like "Teaching with Augmentative and Alternative Communication" and "First Time Teaching."

The idea is to create a map of your work as it relates to your research interests and the fields of study that can host those interests. In practice, this may be multiple overlapping mind maps – "Teaching with Augmentative and Alternative Communication" also goes under "Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC)", which could itself fall under communication disorders, communication and technology, or assistive technology. Disciplinary boundaries are messy, and if you're doing interdisciplinary work, any given item could fit in several places.

Some of these fields you'll be expecting. I'm in a neuroscience program, so I expect to have work that fits under neuroscience. Some of these fields may be surprises. I didn't expect communication to make sense, but AAC is about communication, and most of my AAC work fits. Making this kind of map can help illustrate how your work connects to (possibly unexpected) traditional fields of study and how your different projects connect to each other. The first can help you decide what kinds of departments it may make sense to apply to, when job hunting time comes around. Both can help you tell others what it is you do. Heck, I'm considering putting a neater version of the map on my website, when I get around to building one. If I need a map to figure out what it is I do, why should I assume other people can figure it out more easily?

[Image is one draft of Alyssa’s mindmap, created in MindMup]

How do you explain to others what you work on? How do you figure out where you fit?

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