html xmlns="" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: Bad grad school, II of II

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Bad grad school, II of II

My second grad school program prided itself on being interdisciplinary. It was an environmental policy program housed in the Ecology Group. We were required to take graduate level classes in ecology, economics, political science, engineering (just modeling), and statistics; I was doing a law degree on the side. By the second year, I hated being interdisciplinary. There are two huge problems with it; first, you are always bad at everything, and second, no one is interested in your interdisciplinary insights.

For everything but the engineering, I was walking into Ph.D. level classes with whatever background I got in undergrad and a lot of skill in going to school. I could take the tests, but I always knew that I wasn’t understanding the material the way the students from that discipline did. I wasn’t fitting new things to a framework of knowledge I already held; ideas couldn’t click together to confirm or discount something I already thought about; I had very little depth or sense of scale or repetition in any of those fields. I couldn’t get good at anything. On an emotional level, it is hard to be a student that way. I remember taking a first glance at a midterm one day and seeing that it was completely bewildering. I knew instantly I couldn’t pass the midterm but I didn’t even know if the test was hard or I just didn’t know the right things. (It was hard; he threw it out when he saw our scores.)

Then, for all that you are working so hard in so many directions, there is no pay-off. There’s no one else to talk to. Academics talk big about the value of interdisciplinary work, but I can tell you that they don’t want to hear it in class. They mostly don’t want to hear it out of class, either. Most chose their discipline because that’s what fascinates them; they are naturally less interested in other things. But even though you understand how the property rights system you are discussing in environmental law will undermine a carbon emissions trading system, you would have to show the proof to explain and no one is willing to follow it with you. Your (very nice) ecology professor isn’t real interested in discussing whether a model of foraging behavior depends on animals being rational economic agents, either. I know. I tried. If a thought was hard and interesting, it would require someone else with enough background in both disciplines to critique it; I gave up hoping to talk about what I was learning.

I like understanding all that different stuff and I think interdisciplinary collaborations have potential; people rooted firmly in their own disciplines working on a common problem can yield interesting and useful results. I still think I see a niche for me as an environmental mediator, moving between people in their own disciplines. But being interdisciplinary itself was rough and unrewarding. I wish I had had a department instead of a graduate group. I wish I had stayed in a field.


Blogger Dennis said...

Yeah, but you made a nice bid, hon!

10:00 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

What's with the trench coat? Isn't it a million degrees and humid?

10:07 AM  
Blogger Dennis said...

It keeps raining like crazy! But yeah, it's pretty warm too. I didn't think shorts & t-shirt, while more accurate, conveyed 5" of rain in 24 hours.

10:58 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

Oh sweet Megan, I owe you ten bucks. Your painful memories are full of food for thought for me (try saying that ten times fast), especially the interdisciplinary stuff, since my interests are somewhere at the intersection of psych, sociology, and econ, and I've heard no other cautions about spreading oneself across disciplines. Now to let my brain digest for a while...

11:04 AM  
Blogger Abby said...

Your comments on the perils of interdisciplinary research are right on. It is very depressing to be working on a dissertation that I know no one can fully appreciate because no one else has the wierd mix of disciplinary backgrounds that I have. And no doubt, none of the types of work I do measure up to the individual standards of the disciplines.

Which is all too bad, because I think I might actually understand something policy relevant because of the mash of disciplines I am using!

11:58 AM  
Blogger Dubin said...

Love it. I should get my mom to read this, she got a Master's in Public Health after having originally earned a PhD in Biology and working in universities for a long time. She was naturally sort of interdisciplinary at that point, since she was bringing expertise from a science field into a policy field. She HATED the experience and felt that no one gave her the time of day. At the time, she assumed it was because she was older and opinionated and people found that annoying in an ageist sort of fashion. Maybe it's because her classmates in policy were young, which meant that they had a very black/white view of what made good policy and were learning it from books. Or maybe it's a policy thing in general -- for me, the whole idea of even TRYING to influence policymaking makes me want to poke my eyes with forks. I think this is because policy programs are teaching grey intead of sciency black/white, and feeling satisfied in them is harder for that reason.

Personally, I had a similar experience in seeing graduate schools of design pay a lot of lip service to "interdisciplinary" studios between architecture, landscape architecture, city planning, urban design, historic preservation, and the fine arts. While design schools claim success in this educational endeavor, this is what I saw from the student's perspective: architects think they're the best and don't care about any design other fields, landscape architects make pretty posters and don't even learn about plants anymore and noone knows what they really do, city planners are neither here nor there in any respect, preservation students are TOTALLY marginalized and no one else cares what they're doing at ALL, and everyone's jealous of the painters because what they're doing looks funner than what we're doing but we probably think we're smarter. When there is an interdisciplinary studio intended to draw students from the various departments, each group does what they already know how to do and doesn't really try to figure out what the other people know. Am I jaded? Ooh, sorry, that all just leaked out. I'll be more unbiased next time.

The point I'm making is that working in groups with "other" is HARD and working in groups with "same" is easier. Not that it isn't worth trying, it's just less likely to be easily satisfying.

2:24 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

I'm totally gonna tell Chris what you said about city planners.

2:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Most chose their discipline because that’s what fascinates them; they are naturally less interested in other things.

Wow. This is such an inaccurate understanding that I can't do a response justice. This being the "Blogosphere", however, I'll try. In general, we absolutely love learning about other things, but we rarely have the time or the energy to spare. One who dawdles in other areas is toast academically, it's that brutal. Not to mention the very real possibility of inadvertently causing bad things to happen, as you discovered.

4:06 PM  
Blogger Dubin said...

No way, stop it. I didn't say anything about city planners, I was just reporting my impression of the general sense of it. At that time, I was in Preservation, so I was the lowliest of them all. People thought we were librarians. (Not that there's anything wrong with librarians.)

7:11 PM  
Anonymous Dan said...


Your concern about "spreading yourself too thin" may be especially appropriate given your area of interest.

Many economists look at "sociological" questions, and I'd guess there are sociologists looking at "economic" questions. But there's a big methodological rift and some serious skepticism between the fields.

I'm interested in economic models with a big behavioral component, but my department would disown me if I tried to add a sociologist to my dissertation committee.

That's probably true of most econ departments.

This isn't to discourage you. It sounds like the questions you are interested in are super-interesting. You should e-mail faculty from each subject about what you specifically are trying to do. They'll probably be very helpful.

My grad school experience has been great... but I believe Megan when she describes the vicissitudes of interdisciplinary study.

9:07 AM  
Blogger alex said...

Sounds like, in part, a case of too many disciplines. I think its easier if you are "interdisciplinary" in only a small number of fields - two would be optimal, I think. Concentrating the classes in fewer disciplines means they stack up and reinforce each other more.

3:54 AM  

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