PhD Away Day

June 13th 2017

With nearly two successful years behind us, IFSTAL entered the summer of 2017 with a PhD Away Day to discuss the achievements and challenges of interdisciplinary research, provide advice on research funding and proposal writing, and practice giving that two-minute research pitch. It was a great opportunity to overcome the sometimes lonely and demotivating experience of the PhD thesis, to make contacts and to share ideas.

Typically for IFSTAL, there were a broad range of topics in our opening PhD ‘lightning’ student presentations including: the use of quantitative mathematical models utilised in the landscape of food safety; welfare schemes focused on reducing food insecurity in the UK; political economy and institutional reform in Kenyan agriculture; Cocoa small-holder responses to climate change in Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana; the evaluation of cooking skills and healthy eating habits in Brazil; science communication on genetically modified foods; the effect of farmland reverse mortgages on the agricultural sector in South Korea; and performing food and belonging.

A rich variety of topics and methodologies was evident as was the palpable interest that the candidates had for each other’s work. We can all learn so much from each other and the opportunities for solving complex problems are vast. The question is, how can interdisciplinary work best be practiced?

Professor Martin Caraher (City University London) spoke of the costs and benefits of interdisciplinary working. Whilst many agree that inter- and multi-disciplinary research provides great opportunities for solving complex problems, embarking on and managing this type of work is challenging. Academics can find it difficult to work with others within their own departments let alone across disciplinary boundaries. Training is often focused inwardly, jargon differs and there is always the risk of ‘salami slicing’ the research into several ‘meaningless’ parts in order to publish. Nevertheless, those excited by and willing to engage with other disciplines can be greatly rewarded with new approaches, knowledge and solutions. Different approaches can challenge orthodoxies, holistic understanding can bring clarity, context and wider application. A problem in one subject area can produce a solution in another. Accessing these benefits requires someone with ‘jigsaw-solving’ skills to fit together differing themes, expertise, funding bodies, output aims and partnerships. It can be worthwhile utilising alternative publication strategies such as monographs instead of journal articles to publish inter-multidisciplinary work, as can capitalising on your own knowledge and developing collaborative strategies rather than trying to know everything. Respect for other disciplines and a willingness to engage are vital to inter- and multi-disciplinary success.

Clear examples of these approaches were provided by Dr Edward Joy (London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine) who presented his research projects studying the links between agriculture, soils, diets and nutrition. Dr Barbara Haesler (Royal Veterinary College) described her multi-disciplinary experience, highlighting the need for collaboration where academically oriented disciplines reach their field limit and need to create ‘problem-based’ collaborative partnerships.

The team from the Wellcome Trust provided an excellent overview of their key funding schemes and burst the myth that the Trust only funds biomedical research. In outlining the variety of the funding schemes available, it became clear that the Wellcome Trust is keen to support collaborative work which cuts through disciplinary boundaries. They provided a number of examples of successful Wellcome Trust funded projects which bring together diverse specialisms such as neuroscience, media, psychology and philosophy. More information can be found here:

After lunch, Gek Kwan Lim from the London International Development Centre guided us through the process of what makes a successful interdisciplinary proposal followed by a practical session run by Dr Barbara Haesler who, armed with mix of successful and unsuccessful submitted project proposals, challenged the group to review and decide which would get the funding thumbs up.

Key benefits of attending the day? Here are some anonymous quotes from the students

“I feel better prepared in knowing what the next steps after my PhD may be. I’ll be using the information I’ve learnt.”

“I found it useful learning about other people’s research. What opportunities exist after the PhD. The kind of impact our research can have beyond our own disciplines.”

“I’m going to think about potential collaborations with scholars outside my discipline and how I can disseminate my work in different formats and outlets.”

Blog written by Dr Annabel de Frece, IFSTAL Education Coordinator, City University London.