Career Center

Recent City University of New York graduate Caitlin Cahill, PhD, could be considered by some to be a new strain of PhD. This spring, she earned her doctorate in environmental psychology--an interdisciplinary program whose faculty includes architects, anthropologists, psychologists and geographers. During graduate school she taught an environmental psychology class at nearby Barnard College, where her students hailed from environmental science, English, political science, anthropology and psychology.

Indeed, with a bachelor's degree in art and architectural history to boot, Cahill's road to academe has been interdisciplinary every step. This fall, she starts a tenure track faculty position at the University of Utah in an interdisciplinary department of family and consumer studies--a program that's focused on how social, economic, political and physical environments affect families and consumers. A growing number of universities are sponsoring such collaborative departments and training programs--such as in cognitive neuroscience, family studies, environmental psychology and human development. While those in cognitive neuroscience have moved mainstream, other fields are still carving out their identities--a situation that provides both opportunity and challenges for recent graduates. For instance, interdisciplinary academics can find themselves on the margins of the fields they've combined. But at the same time, they can find themselves at the center of exciting trends with the opportunity to blaze their own path.

"When asked what you do, you always have to explain," says Cahill, of her environmental psychology background. "There is never a nod of acknowledgment. The flipside is that there is a lot of space to define your own professional identity. You are not limited by the definition of the field...You are creating and advancing a field."

Indeed, recent grads of interdisciplinary programs say there are pros and cons to pursuing one of the many interdisciplinary graduate training programs that are cropping up as science shifts toward the multidisciplinary.

"We're a new breed of scholar--a new form of Renaissance man in a way," says interdisciplinary scholar Claire Vallotton, PhD, a graduate of the human development PhD program at the University of California, Davis.

Market Value:

Many recent grads chose an interdisciplinary program over a traditional psychology PhD program because they sought a breadth of topics beyond what the typical single department offers. For example, Vallotton debated between pursuing clinical or developmental psychology, but found aspects of both through a human development PhD program at the University of California, Davis. The program covers human lifespan biological, cognitive and social development from the perspectives of psychology, sociology, genetics and even animal behavior.

Her choice to go interdisciplinary not only expanded her mind, but also her job opportunities, she says. While she considers herself to be a "developmentalist," she says her training could be valuable to a traditional psychology, child development or education department.

"With this degree, I can market myself in a number of different ways," notes Vallotton, who began a research fellowship this fall at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She's studying whether children's social and language development varies in abused or neglected children.

Indeed, a student's broad training can open up doors at large universities with many multidisciplinary research centers or programs; it may also shut out other opportunities at traditional departments or smaller colleges, experts say.

For example, because programs like Vallotton's span knowledge across disciplines, students have to sacrifice some depth for breadth, she says. "For each of the several ways I could market myself," she adds, "I may not look like the strongest candidate because of a lack of depth in the area."

That's not the only challenge interdisciplinary graduates face. Take Steve Gotts, PhD, for example. Gotts is a graduate of the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition cognitive neuroscience graduate training program of Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh; the program blends computer science, psychology, mathematics, robotics, statistics and neuroscience. Gotts--currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the National Institutes of Health--says some departments may not have the animal facilities, magnetic resonance imaging machines or other infrastructure to support his specialized research, which currently involves studying the neural basis of attention and learning in monkeys using single-cell neurophysiology and in humans using functional magnetic resonance imaging.

At the same time, he says his opportunities will likely grow as more departments look to step up their technology. In fact, departments are increasingly seeking skills like Gotts's, says APA Executive Director for Science Steven Breckler, PhD.

"Cognitive neuroscience has gotten over that hurdle of being new," he says. "Being a student out of a cognitive neuroscience program makes you a hot prospect for employment all over the place, and not just in psychology."

Plays Well with Others:

Job-hunting aside, interdisciplinary training without a doubt preps students for collaborative careers, say recent grads.

Crystal Tyler, PhD, says the policy experience and training she earned as a doctoral student in family studies at the University of Maryland groomed her for an unexpected aspect of her first postgrad job--collaborating with and speaking before the Richmond, Va., City Council to garner funding for her employer, the Virginia Cooperative Extension, a federally and state-funded educational outreach program.

"I wouldn't have been prepared at all for doing that without my interdisciplinary training," says Tyler, who twice visited Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., and learned how to write for policy-makers as part of her graduate program, which pulls from psychology, social work, child development and economics, among other fields.

She says the ability she honed in graduate school to appreciate multiple views also readied her to team with the range of professionals she meets in the youth development centers, schools and social services offices she works with to help youth aging out of foster care gear up for life on their own. Cahill agrees that her varied training will serve her well, in her case teaching students across disciplines and publishing and collaborating with faculty from psychology, economics and sociology. Nevertheless, she expects such collaboration to offer up challenges.

"How do you know that you are always talking about the same things when you are talking across disciplines?" she wonders. "Will I find people interested in the things I am interested in?"

Identity Issues:

Nontraditional students also face the joys and tribulations that come with having a less-than-traditional professional identity. In publishing or funding their research, professionals with these varied backgrounds may be able to tap a range of publishing and funding options; at the same time they may be shut out of opportunities directed at a specific, single discipline. They also may find themselves educating other professionals about the skills they bring to the table.

"My professional identity usually becomes an opportunity for educating about the field [of environmental psychology]," says Cahill. "This can be a somewhat interesting--and somewhat repetitive--conversation."

Indeed striking out can be rewarding, but also challenging. That's why students who apply to the interdisciplinary PhD program at Marquette University are required to discuss in their application proposal the caveats they foresee to earning an interdisciplinary degree, such as not quite fitting in to one traditional department or another, says its director, Vice Provost for Research Thaddeus Burch, PhD.

A caveat is just what Tyler experienced in 2004 when she and a fellow family studies grad both applied for a faculty position they agreed sounded like a perfect fit for their training. The problem? The position called for a candidate with a PhD in psychology, sociology or criminology, and offered no leeway for a family studies grad. Tyler--whose degree offered training in all three of these areas--felt that with a little more flexibility on the qualifications, either one of them could have gotten the job.

"But you can't sell yourself if you can't get in for the interview," she says.

The good news? While Tyler went on to take the Virginia Cooperative Extension job, the department posted a similar faculty position one year later and added the words "and related disciplines," opening the door for Tyler's friend to apply for--and win--the job.

Interdisciplinary academics...can find themselves at the center of exciting trends with the opportunity to blaze their own path.