Changing disciplines

Last year, one of our readers wrote:

I would like to ask/know if it is possible to develop research and apply for funds affiliated in a faculty different from your field – that is, following a logic of interdisciplinary work, can we be affiliated in medicine and develop research in psychology, for example? Or be affiliated in philosophy and develop research in medicine? … Combining the two seems great but is it done?

Ape masks, hand and foot from planet of the apes
NYC – Queens – Astoria: Museum of the Moving Image – Planet of the Apes, by Wally Gobetz on Flickr.

Most of the researchers that I work with are working on interdisciplinary work, so I see this question more often than you would think. It generally comes in two different forms:

  • I’ve changed disciplines. How do I present the work in my old discipline to the best advantage?
  • I have a lot of expertise in one discipline, but now I’ve started moving to another disciplinary space. How do I get funding for that?

People are concerned that new readers won’t understand, or won’t give them credit for, their old work. Given that I’m generally talking to them about a grant application, that is a serious concern. Writing a funding application is all about getting the other person to understand and support your request. I don’t want anything getting in the way of that.

Talking about this change can be a challenge if assessors have an image of an uninterrupted progression through Honours, Masters, PhD, postdoc and onwards, all in one topic. Do you just drop your old work? If you include it, what do you do with citation numbers, where norms vary wildly between disciplines? Do you talk about why you changed? If so, how?

Have you changed disciplines?

Before I begin, I want to talk about what constitutes a change of discipline. This has always been unclear to me, but the Australian Research Council recently provided a useful definition. They sent out their annual call for new members, and asked for applicants with cross-disciplinary expertise. They defined this as scholars with expertise across different 2-digit Field of Research codes. These codes are very broad. For example, 01 is Mathematical Sciences, 02 is Physical Sciences, and so on. So, they aren’t talking about someone who has expertise in Cinema Studies plus Interactive Media, or from Visual Arts plus Performing Arts.

Changes in discipline can be this dramatic. I work with a great researcher who had a career in physics, and is now established in conservation science. His old publications talk about “B→ K π, ππ, and K K¯ decays” and his new publications talk about “biodiversity offsets”.

However, most people don’t make such dramatic changes, and sometimes it can be unclear if you even have changed disciplines, or just moved around within the discipline. Discipline boundaries blur into one another, and one person’s ‘discipline’ is another person’s ‘niche’.

One way to tell if you have actually moved across disciplinary boundaries (or just changed direction within the discipline) is to compare the norms of the old discipline with those of the new discipline. For instance, are citation patterns different? Are the ‘top journals’ similar? If they are the same, then you probably won’t have any trouble communicating with your audience. If they are different, you will probably need to do some extra work.

As in all things, consider your audience. Will your audience consider that this is a clear change of discipline? Will they understand the norms of your old work? It doesn’t really matter what you think, it matters what they think. If you are unsure, ask them. Get the advice of senior people in your new disciple.

Talking about it

If you have changed discipline, then you need to talk about it. Don’t ever leave questions or gaps in your CV. That is an invitation for critical assessors to assume the worst: that you are hiding something. You don’t want them to do that – you want them to understand you, not be suspicious of you.

Most academic CVs consist of two parts: a publication list (often with very tight formatting guidelines) and a discursive section about your contribution to the field. In your publication list, include everything, but mark a clear division between your old discipline and your new discipline. That might be as simple as:

———— Change from [old discipline] to [new discipline] ————–

This alerts the reader to the fact that you have changed and when that change took place. Don’t worry if there isn’t a clear dividing line. People understand that publications can take years to come out, so it won’t matter if there are a few ‘old’ publications on the ‘new’ side of the line.

In the discursive part of your CV, include a short paragraph (just two or three sentences) confirming that you moved from x discipline to y discipline. Highlight any skills or methods that you have applied from the old discipline to the new discipline, if they are helpful in your work or uncommon to the new discipline. If there have been other clear advantages, mention them here.

You don’t need to say why you changed. There are a lot of different reasons for any change in life. Often they can be quite personal. While your reasons matter a lot to you, they don’t matter to your reader. They are judging you on the quality of the work that you have done, not the reasons you have moved. Include your old work, and a note about your change of discipline serves to put that work in context.

You don’t need to talk about differences between the disciplines or your level of performance in your old discipline. Generally, your reader is interested in your new work, so concentrate on that.

In general, I don’t think that you should include numerical indicators from your old work. Citations, journal impact factors and other quantitative indicators are very blunt instruments, and don’t translate well across discipline boundaries. If your application is bring read by computer scientists, there isn’t much point in giving them information that will only have meaning for literary scholars. There is a danger that they will apply their own norms to this information, or that it will add confusion, rather than help your case. If, however, a cross-disciplinary panel were judging your work, then it would be worth providing that information. Members of the panel can explain and interpret for others, if necessary.

Qualitative measures, such as awards and prizes, translate across boundaries much more easily. While assessors may not understand everything about the Ferran Sunyer i Balaguer Prize, they can see that it is a prize for the quality of your work.

Doing it

Having said all that, changing disciplines is easier said than done. While you aren’t exactly starting from scratch, you will need to build up your credibility all over again. That is why people build cross-disciplinary teams – it is more effective than trying to do it all yourself.

I sometimes see people trying to parachute into a new field by adopting new methods or techniques. This never works well. If, for example, you are not a computer scientist but you are starting to use computer science techniques, it probably isn’t a good idea to pitch your funding to computer scientists. They are not going to understand your frame of reference, and will probably find your use of their techniques to be under-theorised and poorly thought out. This isn’t going to help your case at all.

You need to start from where you are, and work towards where you want to be. Your current discipline will probably find the use of new techniques to be novel and interesting. You might need to spend a bit more time justifying why these techniques are suitable, but at least you are all starting from the same basic understanding. This can be a really effective way to move forward.

As you move towards your new discipline, you are probably going to need to find a mentor or role model that can help you decode and understand the norms of your new discipline. This will probably mean that you are working as a collaborator on someone else’s project, rather than directing your own research. You might need to learn new skills and techniques, and you are probably going to do a LOT of reading. It will be hard.

Having said that, it is possible to do it. If you look around, you’ll probably find researchers in your extended network who have built a successful career in a second discipline, or even spread their work between several disciplines.

People who have changed disciplines often make remarkably good researchers. They can bring a different frame of reference to a problem, which can be helpful in making cognitive leaps to new solutions. They bring with them new techniques, and a background in a whole different body of knowledge.

So, if you are reviewing a grant and see that someone has changed their discipline, have a close look at what they are doing. You may be pleasantly surprised.

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