As a part-time PhD student working on an interdisciplinary project, perhaps I’m in a position to comment on some of the lesser encountered aspects of doctoral study. Formulated to assist both prospective and new postgraduates — especially those applying to/joining MMU — each topic reflects on the preceding six months: the chief hope being that something useful emerges.
On entering into interdisciplinary research:
My project involves linguistics, psychology, and, to a greater extent than initially considered, psychiatry. Prior to enrolment, I'd not studied the latter two thirds of the triad in any particular depth. For anyone entering into interdisciplinary research, I’d say:
1) Revisit the subject of your first degree, brush up on the core concepts, and acquaint yourself with the latest developments.
2) Invest in intermediate-level textbooks in your secondary/tertiary disciplines and use them to complement/inform the subsequent foray.
a. Buy the latest editions, and buy them second-hand.
3) Allocate time to each discipline in a manner proportionate to their roles in your research question.
On isolating a research question:
In January 2017, I arrived at MMU with research interests, but without a research question—and unclear on the distinction. For the eight weeks that followed, I read papers. The plan was linear, the reality less so. Approaching the problem in this way did little to focus my interests; in fact, they broadened. As it happens, it was reading for leisure—an article unrelated to schizophrenia—that saw the formation of my question. Strategies that have proven helpful have included:
1) Investing in a whiteboard: charting the relationships between theories, themes, and studies can reveal fresh or overlooked lines of inquiry—that are easily missed when buried in walls of type.
2) Avoiding searching for your question within the literature. Instead, treat your engagements with the literature as one half of a dialogue; allow your creative process to assume the role of the other.
On the RD1:
Research question defined, the next stage was the ‘RD1’ form (also known as the ‘Application to Register’). This process sees a formal submission of the research question, in the form of a research proposal. From February to late June, I was working on that document. Now, I’m moving on to my HRA (Health Research Authority) ethics application.
If permitted only to share one piece of advice on the RD1, I’d choose two words:
The proposal requires a sense of the research question’s theoretical context; the nature of the study design(s); the populations of interest; sampling and recruitment strategies; the study procedures and the materials and/or instruments involved; data collection and analysis strategies; ethical considerations; and anything else specific to the particular project—in my case, a collaborating NHS Trust.
On working with the NHS and clinical populations:
Talks with the NHS were in progress long before my studies began; I’d spent much of my part-time MA working within psychiatry’s acute sector—by way of equivalation, many describe acute services as ‘mental health’s A&E’. There, my interests in psychotic experience and schizophrenia strengthened; particularly, in the contexts of language and cognition; talk and emotion; ‘thought’ and action; and all else in between. I won’t expound the narrative (which is as lengthy as it is dull), but:
- Start this process early—ideally, a year ahead of your application.
- Identify key external contacts (consultants, R&D teams); discuss your project/seek advice.
- If you plan to apply for funding, involve your external advisors.
- If you’re self-funding, form a solid contingency plan—i.e., one based on the expectation that your circumstances will change.
- Make use of the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR)’s Research Design Service (RDS): take advantage of the free consultations on offer.
On (an inevitable) identity crisis:
Interdisciplinary studies raise questions of academic identity: “Am I a linguist, passing glances at psychology and psychiatry—a psycholinguist, dabbling in neuropsychiatry—or a neuropsycholinguist?” I’ve taken to describing this as acadiaspora, born of a tension between embedded conventions, which tend to sanctify discipline boundaries, and more recent, progressive approaches. Thankfully, as MMU favours the fresher end of the dichotomy, the advice that I’ve received from my supervisors has always extinguished, rather than fuelled, these anxieties. In the event that you encounter this:
- Consider that many interdisciplinary researchers wrestle with similar questions. As time goes by, I’m seeing it more as a rite of passage than an existential crisis.
- Take comfort in the fact that the demand for interdisciplinary research continues to increase.
It’s easy, alarmingly so, to lose sight of what constitutes overworking—easier still, to overlook the signs of its occurrence. In my case, the concern that a break would lead to a sluggish, unproductive return to study resulted in almost no breaks at all. Similarly, the reverse is equally true—excess breaks may lend to missed deadlines and additional stress. Here are some signs that, in my own case, have indicated that the balance stood at risk of tipping out of favour:
- Whilst an ebbing pace is to be expected, a screeching halt is a concern.
- Allocate breaks with discipline—i.e., be firm, in terms of both their necessity and duration.
So, that’s the first six months of my PhD.
If you’d like to discuss anything I’ve mentioned above in further detail, feel free to send me an email.