Interdisciplinarity

Zachary Ernst, a philosopher at the University of Missouri, has written up an aggravating tale of sexism in academia. (Via New APPS. I initially mistakenly said Ernst was at the University of Wisconsin, which is where he went to grad school — fixed by commenters.) A woman philosopher in his department — who happened to be his wife — was denied tenure. It’s always hard to discern the influence of sexism in individual cases, but he was able to directly compare what his wife was forced to go through to his own experience in the same process. I have no way of judging the merits of the tenure case (and the opportunity for bias in this kind of report is clear, and clearly acknowledged), but the differences in standards seem to be pretty clear.

But I wanted to highlight this bit, because it makes a different point that I have touched on before. [Update: in the comments, Andrew Melnyk (who I gather was the department chair being quoted) offers a different recollection of this conversation.]

While I was still an assistant professor, I had published in several different areas – I had papers in ethics, action theory, game theory, logic, and philosophy of science. The chair of my department was unhappy about this, and he told me so. He said, quite explicitly, that it would be very difficult for me to get tenure with such research breadth. This may sound unbelievable to someone outside of academia, but his reasoning was quite sound. Tenure decisions were made largely based on whether the faculty member had developed a reputation in the field. And it is easier to do that if you repeatedly publish in the same narrow subset of the academic literature. Spreading myself around too much, I was told, might result in my having failed to achieve a reputation. At the time I had this conversation, I had two distinct feelings. On the one hand, I felt that this was totally absurd – how can the ability to publish in several distinct areas be considered a liability? But on the other hand, I had to admit that he was right, and that this was good advice.

The reality is that everyone likes breadth and interdisciplinarity in theory, but the resistance in practice is considerable. A university is a bureaucracy, and a bureaucracy is made of slots, into which people are fit. We know what slots we like, and are suspicious when people or ideas don’t fit into the slots. Note that Ernst wasn’t exactly straying way off the reservation, dabbling in aeronautical engineering or Medieval prosody; he was doing technical work in philosophy, just in more than one different area. To an outsider it might be hard to discern any difference at all, but within a department this is taken as a lack of seriousness.

One could certainly imagine an unapologetic defense of narrow interdisciplinary categories for their own sake; research proceeds fastest when attention is focused on depth rather than breadth, something like that. But this defense is very rarely explicitly articulated; the department chair in the above quote was just more candid than usual. (And he wasn’t trying to defend the state of affairs, just making sure it was understood.)

For those of us who do think interdisciplinary work is useful, it’s hard to know exactly how to change things. The problem is structural; universities are divided into departments, each with their own carefully-guarded boundaries, and strict sub-categorizations within the department itself. (Everyone loves biophysics, but people who actually try to do biophysics within either biology departments or physics departments inevitably encounter stumbling blocks.) Some specific institutions can be populated by individuals who respect boundary-crossing and even encourage it, and of course there will always be ornery researchers who do it despite any obstacles that are thrown their way. But it would be nice to have more reliable and institutional ways of encouraging good work for its own sake, rather than only because it fulfills a narrow ideal of what work counts as valuable. From the comments at New APPS, here’s news of an interesting attempt along these lines at USC. It would be good to see other universities consider similar strategies.

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25 Responses to Interdisciplinarity

  1. JR says:

    I went to USC as an undergrad and came out 6 years ago thinking that breadth of research was useful, important and necessary for healthy scholarship.

    Then I went to grad school…

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  2. Dirk says:

    A big problem is that too many students are still told that interdisciplinary research is good to pursue. They end up shooting themselves in the foot. They need to be told that interdisciplinary research is what you sell the funding agencies on, and NOT what you actually do! Thanks for highlighting this. It is an important lesson.

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  3. blanton says:

    I’m not going to defend the status quo as inherently sensible, but you are conflating two different things: breadth and interdisciplinarity. The first is working in many different areas, the second is working in an area bridging two or more subjects. Working on galaxy formation and also separately on string theory is not really interdisciplinary, though it is broad. In contrast, working on astronomical implications of fundamental physics theories is interdisciplinary, but not *necessarily* very broad.

    Furthermore, I think the argument for depth in at least one area (be it a discipline or an interdiscipline) is a very good one, and not just at the practical getting-a-job-and-tenure level. It is hard to make real progress in many areas without first getting down to the coal face, which is indeed quite deep these days. An argument *against* breadth is harder to understand of course.

    The value of interdisciplinarity is real, and the difficulty of succeeding as a practitioner between fields is indeed real. It is easy to see why, of course, for essentially the reasons you state.

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  4. MKS says:

    So what’s the point of tenure, then? To further a particular tribe? That almost sounds like a religion…

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  5. Bill says:

    Times change. When I went to graduate school, I took my preliminaries for biochemistry and biophysics in a department under a large bureaucratic umbrella of the Department of Biology. One of the prerequisites for admission was a year of physical chemistry. At the time (late 70s), most programs whose graduate students would have to deal with any sort of biochemistry, e.g., DNA manipulation, required P-chem. The problem was that with this requirement, enrollment was declining at many institutions. Department names were changed to Molecular and Cellular Biology, and the P-chem requirements were dropped. Since P-chem requires a working knowledge of differential equations, math requirements were generally scaled back to one semester of calculus. The math gap, or more precisely, a dynamical modeling gap, has increased to such a point that theoretical modeling is generally looked upon with disdain within many parts of the biological community. “Ideas are cheap.”

    Physicists and chemists made great contributions to the development of modern biology, but their foundational motivation, a determination to elucidate the fundamental processes of biology, and their quantitative mien have slowly been superseded by increasingly descriptive modes of investigation — stamp collecting.

    In some ways, the results garnered from the success of modern biological methods have outrun our ability to comprehend. Moreover, the volume of knowledge required for one to dig deeply within a specific area is so large that communication between even closely related fields is difficult. Interdisciplinary work even within the bounds of modern biology is difficult because of the lack of a recent shared history. Evolution at work, I guess.

    Yet, the need for interdisciplinary communication and collaboration is as great now as it has ever been. Sean poses the essential question, how to change things? Trying to change the fossilized bureaucratic institutions is probably futile — creative destruction will not happen within the walls of the ivory tower. David Botstein at Princeton was wise to not even try to set up a new subdiscipline for Systems Biology, rather he set up a program in which the essential courses for physics, math, chem and biology were blended into a two year curriculum after which students would then go on to concentrate within one of the departments. Just coordinating the courses required some serious mental stretching among the faculty participants.

    What would a position of interdisciplinary scientist look like? I imagine that it would be similar to a consultant (not one of the hit and run type) or a liaison/translator who can talk to the physicists and the biologists. They would have to have an entrepreneurial streak in them to be successful, as well as having the funding agencies and universities open to a grant line item for such work.

    Extra-academic institutions will likely play an important role for interdisciplinary study — Santa Fe, KITP come to mind. Graduate school courses could easily be wrapped around a number of the biological programs presented by KITP (Statistical Physics and Biological Information & Bio-Molecular Networks being two of my favorites).

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  6. Bee says:

    Rarely have I found myself agreeing so much with one of your posts.

    The problem runs deeper than that. That academia passively and actively discourages interdisciplinarity has the effect that scientists get stuck in a discipline they once thought promising. Overspecialized as they are, the only choice they have is to continue to proclaim their research field is still promising.

    Specialization occurs naturally, in research as well as in ecological systems. It’s a division of labor that allows to use resources best. But it’s not useful to discover new resources. This often comes from making connections between different fields. There’s an interesting paper by Alexander Shneider who argues that science proceeds in 4 stages and specialization is one of them. That’s of course a gross oversimplification of the complexity of knowledge discovery, but I think there’s some truth in it.

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  7. Rhys says:

    This touches a nerve for me; my interests wander quite a bit, and once I finish a project, I tend to feel like working on something completely different rather than starting another closely-related piece of work. Evidently this might count against me at some point.

    But on a more objective level:
    I understand the argument for specialisation/depth — that with our current state of knowledge, it is very hard to make significant progress any other way — but does that mean *every* academic needs to be ultra-specialised? Many academics spend an entire career without doing any ground-breaking work anyway, so perhaps it would be beneficial if some positions were instead taken up by broad thinkers, who can look at the bigger picture, and assist with cross-fertilisation of ideas etc., maybe without ever making any earth-shattering discoveries themselves. Perhaps I am being idealistic, and this doesn’t really work in practice…

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  8. David Brown says:

    The problem of a biophysicist working in the biology department or the physics department might be solved by creating a fully fledged biophysics department. At least biophysics is a large field that might justify its own department. One idea might be to have a scientists’ interdisciplinary department that accommodates excellence in small interdisciplinary domains (applications of physics to archaeology?) or extremely multidisciplinary domains (collaborations of 5 or more traditional departments?).

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  9. Gene says:

    Its a good thing people like John Von Neumann weren’t subjected to the limited constraints of todays academia.

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  10. Square Peg says:

    I couldn’t agree with this post more. After several postdocs at well-reputed institutions I have been repeatedly denied jobs I was shortlisted for on the basis that my research is too broad. My confidants and advisors all tell me that my breadth is a good thing and is one of the real strengths of my research — but behind closed doors they also warn me that this is the reason why I am having difficulty landing a permanent job.

    It seems that increasingly departments and individual researchers are playing fetch with whatever funding agencies decide to throw into the field. One way to halt the trend of ever increasing specialization is to de-compartmentalize funding agencies such as the NSF.

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  11. Iluzun says:

    To ‘stir the pot’ a bit. The book, Lila, by Robert Pirsig (Zen & the Art of Motorcycle
    Maintenance), deals w/such phenomenon & his frustration w/such. Certainly, a broad & intelligent thinker, Mr. Pirsig’s wide scope & range, propelled by a tempestuous nature, ultimately put him @odds w/acedemia ‘silos’. An excellent read….

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  12. Matthew LaPine says:

    This quote seems to be reveal some assumptions about modern academia, namely that the point is to collect data, rather than to produce people. Generalists might be better for producing virtuous people, but certainly not for mythical progress of the data machine we call the modern project.

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  13. @11: I’ve read ZATAOMM three times and twice. I rarely read books more than once. In the prolog to ZATAOMM, Pirsig remarks that the manuscript was rejected by something like 120 publishers before one publisher accepted it, thinking it would ruin him financially but that accepting such good manuscripts, whether or not they would be commercially viable, was what he went into publishing for in the first place. The book turned out to be a best-seller.

    Times have changed. A few years ago, someone was awarded a doctorate for a thesis involving Pirsig’s work.

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  14. I know nothing about the case above (haven’t even read up on it yet), but here’s a thought: Is it clear that it is sexism, or could it be that they were hard on her because her spouse already had tenure and didn’t want to be seen as doing a favour to a married couple? (Not that this is any more excusable, of course, though on the other hand giving someone tenure, or a permanent job, just because they are married to the right person is equally absurd, despite the fact that many people actually suggest this as a solution to the two-body problem.) In other words, if she had tenure first, would they have been just as hard on him?

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  15. Mike says:

    Hey, just to be clear, it seems like Ernst–according to his CV and the school website–is still at the University of Missouri, and he got his PhD from Wisconsin. Which means he still works with the colleagues he’s criticized.

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  16. bob says:

    The reverse problem does exist, though: people who are multidisciplinary and are credited with far too much brilliance because others are unable to judge them in all their fields. The paleontologist George G. Simpson wrote about attending a conference in honor of his friend, the paleontologist and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. In chatting with other attendees Simpson found that the other paleontologists agreed with him that Teilhard wasn’t all that good in paleontology, but he still must be brilliant because – look at all the great philosophers who are attending the conference. But then Simpson talked with the philosophers, who told him that Teilhard wasn’t a very good philosopher but he must still be brilliant – look at all the great paleontologists attending this conference!

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  17. Andy says:

    This post begins with the facts reversed: it indicates that Ernst is now at the University of Wisconsin and formerly of the University of Missouri, but the reverse is true: Ernst and Chant were at the University of Wisconsin years ago as graduate students, and are now (still) at the University of Missouri.

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  18. Josh T. says:

    The essay from Prof Ernst is an interesting read. Ignoring his obvious bias, it sounds like a rather blatant case of sexism. Is there any venue for redress for people denied tenure? Is there any chance of success if one filed a discrimination lawsuit? I don’t know the answers, nor do I know if there is any precedent.

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  19. Andrew Melnyk says:

    I am the department chair whose views my colleague Zac Ernst purports to represent in the passage quoted above. I would like to correct a factual error. When Zac was hired, before I was department chair, his CV showed forthcoming or published papers in action theory, game theory, logic, and philosophy of science; and his job talk to the department was a paper in ethics. Far from being unhappy with Zac’s research record, I was an enthusiastic supporter of hiring him (together with his wife) and was delighted when they accepted our offer. In light of my strong support for hiring Zac, it would have been bizarre if, after I became department chair a year later, I had said that “it would be very difficult for [him] to get tenure with such research breadth”. And in fact I told him no such thing, explicitly or otherwise. What I did tell him, since it is my view, is that some tenure evaluators are looking for evidence of a focused research program, but are also looking for evidence of breadth; the ideal research record would have both focus and breadth.

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  20. Pingback: Interdisciplinarity | Cosmic Variance | University of Missouri

  21. C says:

    If Ernst’s description of the reasons for which his wife was denied tenure, then I think the department made a horrible decision. Is it sexism? Hard to say. Maybe it’s just a case where a bad decision was made that negatively impacted a female candidate for tenure and it just happens to be the case that the department’s bad judgment never negatively impacts male candidates for reasons that have nothing to do with the sex of the candidate. (It would be nice if somebody could confirm whether Ernst’s account of the department’s reasons for denying tenure is accurate, but I understand why Prof. Melnyk wouldn’t want to comment on the recent decision to deny tenure.)

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  22. Sean says:

    Andrew Melnyk, thanks for that clarification. I will update the post to point to it.

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  23. piscator says:

    Since ‘jack of all trades and master of none’ is a standard expression, it is clear the same logic can and does hold outside academia.

    Without evaluation of the actual quality of research, there is little reason to gripe about breadth or depth. A crummy paper doesn’t become good because it is interdisciplinary.
    Writing five bad papers on five separate topics does not make you better than someone writing five good papers on one topic.

    It is true that brilliant, radical and foundational insights may come from another discipline. And it is also true that the truly great people (thinking of people like Maldacena, Weinberg, Wilczek, Witten, etc) leave contributions in many disciplines. But the converse isn’t true. This is the Galileo fallacy – Galileo’s ideas were rejected, my ideas are rejected, therefore I am Galileo – and writing papers across different areas does not a great thinker make.

    At least in physics, work that sets out to be broad (‘Today I am going to write an inter(sub)disciplinary paper’) on the whole does not seem to me that good. The best work of this kind is where the link has emerged by naturally following good ideas.

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  24. Yvette says:

    I’m currently a PhD who does a good amount of public science outreach as a hobby because I rather enjoy it (writing for magazines and the like). When I applied to graduate school everyone told me flat out this was a liability instead of an asset because it would be seen as me not being “focused” enough on my future research.

    Luckily I got into graduate school for a great program in Europe where people tend to be more well rounded, but my advisers were right in their predictions in that I never got into a graduate program in the USA (whereas in Europe several were interested, although in some interviews the public outreach WAS addressed as a liability even here). It just worried me that a field that de facto relies on taxpayer money would consider someone interested in explaining science as such a bad thing.

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  25. Allyson says:

    You see Phillip, she’s sleeping with a member of the faculty/band, and is therefore not a musician/philosopher. ;)

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