As an undergrad, it’s easily to communicate what you’re studying. You ‘major in’ a particular subject. You take courses that are prescribed for that major, you graduate with a degree in that major, and you know how to answer when people ask you what you’re studying.
As a postgrad researcher, it’s a little more complicated. You’re enrolled in a particular department, and you’ll graduate with a degree ‘in’ that subject. But your research might not be easy to describe in such simple terms. It might be interdisciplinary, intradisciplinary, crossdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, or transdisciplinary (you can read a simple primer on all these terms here). It might use a number of different lenses, or employ a range of different perspectives. In other words, your actual research might not fit in a nice neat disciplinary box.
So how can you conceptualise and communicate your research without being limited by an institutional view of its place?
This is something I have personally struggled with. The diploma on my wall says “Doctor of Philosophy in English”. That fact, in itself, is unsurprising. Throughout my PhD, I was enrolled in an English Department. My supervisor was from the English Department. My prior work was in English departments. Officially, my PhD is ‘in’ English.
My problem is that that’s massively misleading. People with qualifications in English are supposed to know about classic works of literature, right? I know very little about Shakespeare. Almost nothing about Chaucer. Need someone to answer the literary questions on your pub quiz team? Ask someone else, because I’m not especially well-read.
The reason I was based in English departments was because I worked on novels and films. But I wasn’t interested in them as works of cultural significance. I was interested in their function as vehicles for ideas. All my postgrad research was about the ways in which cultural texts communicate information about science and technology. How do the books we read, the TV shows we watch, and the magazines we flip through at the dentist contribute to our scientific literacy? How do they shape our philosophical understandings of what science is and does?
My research, while technically conducted from the English department, drew from the fields of philosophy, psychology, biology, bioethics, the history of science, communication studies, and law, among others.
For a long time, I felt stuck with the idea that my qualifications were ‘in’ English. That fact didn’t represent my expertise and interests; on the contrary, it misrepresented them. I didn’t want to stake my job prospects or my academic reputation on a degree ‘in’ English. It wasn’t right. It was not only misleading to others; it also badly affected the way I framed my expertise in my own mind. I limited my job search to English departments, and I avoided any claims to credibility in the subjects I had actually researched.
This wouldn’t do.
These days, I choose my words carefully when talking about my qualifications. I avoid talking about what my PhD is ‘in’. Instead, I prefer say that I have a PhD ‘with a focus on’ science communication. By using phrases like ‘with a focus on’ or ‘with a thesis about’ I can describe what my research actually explored, rather than how the university categorised it. I can pitch my experience, and myself, in terms that feel much more honest.
I can also highlight the aspects of my research that suit different purposes. At conferences, I make sure to showcase whatever common ground I have with the attendees. When providing a biographical blurb, I write about whichever aspect of my research best fits the context.
Officially, my degrees are ‘in’ English. I don’t hide that fact, and I wouldn’t want to, since it reflects (in part) the objects and methods of my research. But I can prevent that categorisation from functioning as a limit. By choosing how to represent my research in different scenarios, I can not only manage others’ perceptions; I can also expand my own sense of potential.
Yes, my PhD is in English. Yes, I can apply to that philosophy conference. Yes, I can express an informed opinion on bioethics. Yes, yes, yes.