Substance Over Buzz

Graduate students' analysis of interdisciplinary jobs ads suggest that many jobs aren't truly interdisciplinary, but those that are tend to be linked to dedicated centers or clusters.

October 27, 2015

Is true interdisciplinary work becoming more common, or is it simply a buzzword -- or, perhaps worse, a trumped-up name for flexible academic labor? That’s what a group of graduate students at Southern Methodist University wanted to know, so they took what data were available to them -- job ads -- and analyzed them for possible answers.

They determined that ads for interdisciplinary academic jobs privilege teaching over interdisciplinary expertise, and that the jobs that appear truly interdisciplinary tend to be at institutions that have dedicated centers for such work.

One additional finding? Many jobs do in fact appear to be more about interdisciplinary buzz than substance.

“As young interdisciplinary scholars soon to be on the job market, we wanted to understand how the term ‘interdisciplinary’ is employed in the hiring process,” reads a working paper by a group of graduate students enrolled as fellows last year at Southern Methodist's Dedman Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies. “Does the invocation of the term ‘interdisciplinary’ reveal anything about what kinds of work might be available to us in the academy? More broadly, does it reveal anything about how universities are considering interdisciplinary work, and how that might impact our own graduate studies?”

The fellows -- four humanists, one social scientist and one statistician -- say that a few basic suppositions drove their analysis. Perhaps most importantly, they wanted to know whether the advertising institution had created space, such as a dedicated center, on its campus for interdisciplinary work. When an institution hosts such a space, they say, “it explicitly commits itself to new approaches to knowledge and guards against letting unconventional scholars fall through the cracks.”

The students took their job ad data from H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online, determining that its thousands of jobs were a sufficiently representative sample. They focused on the 2013 hiring cycle, analyzing any ads posted between November of that year to December 2014 containing the word “interdisciplinary.” That turned up some 200 jobs, which the group then coded as part of its analysis.

The group coded for type of institution; whether the hiring department was linked to an interdisciplinary institute; where in the ad the term “interdisciplinary” appeared -- title, body, keyword or more than once; and whether “interdisciplinary” described the department, the candidate or some combination. The fellows also rated the stated demands of the position for how they corresponded with known traits of interdisciplinary scholarship: research methodology, topic, teaching, publication and collaboration.

Categories with weakly interdisciplinary scores merely mentioned an interdisciplinary trait as desirable in a candidate, but provided no additional details. Highly interdisciplinary scores were given when technical interdisciplinary work was specifically mentioned or emphasized in the announcement. By combining the numerical scores for all categories, the fellows creates interdisciplinary scores for each ad, ranging from zero (merely mentioning the word “interdisciplinary”) to 10 (having a detailed description of what interdisciplinary work the job entailed). More than 90 of the jobs fell somewhere in the middle, with a score of three to six. About 60 jobs scored low, up to two points. Some 40 were highly interdisciplinary, from seven to 10 points.

Within that relatively normal distribution, some interesting trends emerged. About one-quarter, or 48 of the listings, used “interdisciplinary” to describe the institution or department, not the candidate. Since most of the institutions advertising positions this way also had low overall scores, the fellows argue that they were most likely interested in interdisciplinary “buzz,” or hype, over substance. For candidates, that means interdisciplinary training might not even be required.

Consistent with their expectations, based on the current literature on interdisciplinarity, the fellows also found that those ads that mentioned skill sets, abilities and practices at related to the interdisciplinary topic had higher overall scores.

However, teaching, not topic, was the most frequently mentioned trait in job ads, from the lowest scores to the highest. Topic is the second most common trait, followed by collaboration, method, and publication or public engagement.

They also found that the highest-rated job ads tended to be found at institutions with interdisciplinary research clusters or institutes. Such clusters were mentioned in just one-third of the ads, but made up 64 percent of jobs with high overall interdisciplinary scores. Interestingly, there was no correlation between high interdisciplinary scores and area or topical studies departments -- where interdisciplinary studies have traditionally been situated. The fellows say that while area and ethnic studies departments may not have gone into much detail because they’re inherently interdisciplinary, the attention to detail paid by newer centers and clusters “may reflect a broader transformation in how and where interdisciplinary studies are taking place.”

Meghan Wadle, one of the study’s authors, said that this was one of the most important findings, personally, as well as professionally. Wadle, a Ph.D. candidate in English, is pursuing interdisciplinary research that involves applying cognitive science to literature, and the digital humanities have proved the “missing link” between a data-driven field and humanistic one. That kind of research wasn’t necessarily happening in the previous wave of interdisciplinary gender or ethnic studies, which opened up new avenues of research starting in the 1960s, she said. So Wadle said she's lucky to have been exposed to faculty members familiar with emerging interdisciplinary methodologies, and that that exposure is something she’d like to see continue in any eventual faculty position.

Wadle and her co-authors, Michael Aiuvalasit, Carson Davis, Angel Gallardo, Bingchen Liu and Tim McGee, say that one of the most important thing a graduate student on the job market can do is learn to decipher between general uses of the term “interdisciplinary” -- which correlates with low scores -- and more technical uses of the words, which correlate with higher scores.

“The mere use of the term in the ad does not mean that he hiring committee is looking for someone who is genuinely transgressing or crossing disciplinary boundaries,” crossing methods and topics as they teach, publish and coordinate with others, they wrote. “They may just be looking for someone to co-teach core curriculum classes with someone from another department.”

The fellows also say that graduate students wishing to market themselves for jobs calling for more general work -- which make up the majority of ads -- should seek a “basic level of exposure” to fields outside their own. The more technical, high-scoring ads sought traits such as interdisciplinary methodologies -- think digital humanities and the like -- meanwhile, and an interdisciplinary publication record as evidence of deep thinking between fields. So students looking to go that route should begin seeking such training early on in their careers, even though the student might risk pursuing a course of study that appears “unfocused or scattered" through a single disciplinary lens.

And, of, course, interdisciplinary teaching experience was desired all around -- something of which graduate students and faculty alike should take note, Wadle said, since teaching isn’t a major focus of most graduate programs.

The paper offers one last bit of advice for those writing such ads, urging them to “convey what they want in a candidate with as little buzz as possible.”

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Colleen Flaherty

Colleen Flaherty, Reporter, covers faculty issues for Inside Higher Ed. Prior to joining the publication in 2012, Colleen was military editor at the Killeen Daily Herald, outside Fort Hood, Texas. Before that, she covered government and land use issues for the Greenwich Time and Hersam Acorn Newspapers in her home state of Connecticut. After graduating from McGill University in Montreal in 2005 with a degree in English literature, Colleen taught English and English as a second language in public schools in the Bronx, N.Y. She earned her M.S.Ed. from City University of New York Lehman College in 2008 as part of the New York City Teaching Fellows program. 

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