Interdisciplinary Study - pros and cons


I've just graduated with my BA in Applied Psychology and Sociology and am starting a MSc in Psychosocial studies at the same university in September. I would like to pursue a PhD in the same area afterwards but I'm worried that I'm going to be really limited with the type of PhD I will be able to do, as I have always worked across the disciplines of Psychology and Sociology. Having looked at PhDs that are available at various universities (for psychology mainly) they seem to be focused on more positivist psychology that I would not be in a position to do as I have a BA, and I didn't do much at all on quantitative methods etc.

There are a few PhDs available that consider psychosocial studies, which is a new discipline that concentrates on the interface between psychology and sociology and the associated methodologies and applications, however they are few and far between. I would probably have to stay at my current university and approach a potential supervisor there as my research interests are most consistent with some of theirs.

If I did do a PhD in psychosocial studies though, would that make it difficult for me to get a job afterwards as it is too narrow? I am concerned that I wouldn't know enough about either discipline, I know I could never teach on a BSc psychology course, for example as there is a strong focus on quantitative methodology that I don't think I will study much again as it is not the focus of my MSc course.

Am I worrying for no real reason or can interdisciplinary study stop you from specializing properly? Is it any less well-respected than studying a single subject? What are the positive things about interdisciplinary study?

Thanks in advance for any advice/information, Natassia



Go and read the debate between Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky... the first stressed individual, inner biological developemntal stages, the second stressed the role of society, Both were psychologists. Since then, their differences have been the topic of much discussion, but some have tried to figure out similarities.

What I am trying to say ism oppositions are not always horrid things, sometimes they are fruitful, and they make you think. Try reading Jerry Bruner's piece 'Celebrating Divergence, Piaget and Vygotsky', or try reading Michael Cole on Piaget and Vygotsky...

Have you heard of something called cultural/historical psychology? Social constructionist psychologists? Like BRuner and Cole... These are all scholars who battle with your exact same query and find a solution in the intellectual oppositions :-)

Happy Reading (and be prepared for many mroe of such intelelctual end-of-the-road moments! I/We have it all the time)


Hello Natassia

I think it is a good idea to keep these paradigm problems in mind as they do crop up. However, in interdisciplinary PhD's and depending on the PhD supervisor of course, it is usually possible to apply and draw on theories from a broad range of disciplines and focus the research along the lines of what interests you most.
I am doing a PhD in Geography but with a first degree in Psychology and MSc in Applied Social research (sociology dept), I sometimes feel at a disadvantage when talking to either Geography/Psychology/Sociology purists as I sometimes simply don't get or have all the lingo.

On the plus side - I think I probably, by the very nature of hopping around disciplines, I approach problems in a different way or at least question disciplinary boundaries in a different way. I think it very much depends on what you are interested in and the topic you choose for your PhD. My topic is related to health - I'm interested in inequalities of health, risk behaviours, beliefs and perceptions, area and place influences and equity of health care. Many of the theories related to these parts can be drawn on from a range of disciplines.

You may be interested in health psychology - this locates the individual in context and often uses qual methods (although not always). Perhaps worth keeping in mind! Hope that's been of some help. It is tricky but given that a lot of funding now in social sciences involve external partners such as NHS organisations, voluntary sectors orgs etc, there really is a lot more inter/cross disciplinary research happening, I think. It seems to me that real world research should attempt to answer the research questions in whichever way is applicable and by using whichever methods are appropriate, not by sticking rigidly to disciplinary rules.
I say bring it on with regards to interdisciplinary research - often the disciplines in question are often more complimentary and most are interested in 'the social'
Having a broad understanding of different disciplines should be seen as a strength and you're likely to understand social processes from a wider viewpoint.


I agree with blackbyrd.
An interdisciplinary research or even a change of subject is interesting. But it needs a lot more studying!!! I can speak from personal experience, as my firts degree was is pre-primary education, then I did a Masters in special needs, then an MBA and I ended up doing a PhD in sociology, where I incorporate knowledge from my previous studies...


Thank you for the replies - I'm certainly not as concerned about studying for a PhD in psychosocial studies - as you have said most research is going this way at the moment and 'the social' is becoming increasingly important in research across disciplines. I think psychology as a discipline could be changing as well as applied psychology (what I study) seems to be generating more interest than 'scientific' psychology.

PhDBug - I did a Critical Psychology module in my final year - focused on social constructionism and discourse analysis. I did well in this module and my tutor (who is also a senior tutor for my MSc) said that is a good indicator that I am suited for psychosocial studies and have the required knowledge. I have also studied Piaget and Vygotsky previously but not since second year undergrad and that was more about the differences between the two approaches to developmental theory - it is definitely worth revisiting so thanks for the references!


I think in terms of your question of looking for a job after your PhD (presuming its a lectureship you're after), you would need to offer a 'basic' discipline (ie psychology, sociology) as well as your psychosocial stuff, because even those universities who are 'psychosocial' in their approach (and there are plenty about) still need lecturers to teach the basic psychology stuff to the undergraduates, since Psychology undergraduate degrees are everywhere, and there are very few purely psychosocial undergraduate degrees. So it probably pays to be a bit strategic and get some undergrad teaching experience under your belt, whether covering 'basic' psychology or sociology - is that possible where you are?


Thats exactly what I'm worried about Zelda, as psychosocial studies is so new and not particularly established yet I would definitely need to offer something more basic that there is more demand to teach. My undergraduate degree is in Applied Psychology and Sociology - and if I were to do my PhD at the same university as my undergrad and forthcoming MSc, that would probably be the course that I would teach on (PhD studentship students can do paid undergrad teaching, there are also criminology degrees and a social science degree). I know I couldn't do straight psychology, as in BSc psychology as I simply do not know enough about psychology as a science, and the associated methodology. I could probably do BA psychology, in fact sociology would probably be more suitable in the long run.

While there are clear benefits to studying an interdisciplinary topic - I think this is probably the main problem, am I right?


Possibly, but i think the problem might more be in your confidence to teach a basic discipline, rather than whether possible employers can be persuaded. Most people, when they get to PhD level, have to be somewhat 'interdisciplinary' in order to get a rounded approach to any given topic, so you could easily persuade potential employers that you are able to teach basic-level sociology, or whatever, as your PhD will at least be in that field. But also be aware that, ultimately, a PhD teaches you how to 'think', rather than gives you any 'specific knowledge' that would be any use to undergraduates, and it is this ability to think, and question and challenge students, which makes a lecturer...rather than having a huge amount of 'knowledge', which no lecturer really has (although they may pretend they do!) because the knowledge involved in a PhD is sooooo specific and specialised.
SO, what Im trying to say, is that once you've done a PhD, you absolutely WILL be able to teach basic-level sociology/psychology - the issue is whether you have the confidence to persuade yourself (and others) that you can - and persuading yourself is always more difficult!


Thanks for the reassurance Zelda - I am certainly not as worried about my potential PhD area now, but I will discuss it properly with my tutors when I start my MSc in September. There are professors of Psychosocial Studies now who are very well respected in the field so hopefully its all going the right way!


Quote From zelda:

But also be aware that, ultimately, a PhD teaches you how to 'think', rather than gives you any 'specific knowledge' that would be any use to undergraduates, and it is this ability to think, and question and challenge students, which makes a lecturer...rather than having a huge amount of 'knowledge', which no lecturer really has

Hi Zelda

I'm not sure I agree with this. In my discipline, PhDs absolutely do give you the information you need to teach undergrads. My PhD is very relevant to some undergrad subjects. And the lecturers at my uni do have prodigious amounts of knowledge - I'm constantly amazed by their depth of knowledge and the amount of material they cover in a lecture. That said however, I also know new academics who lecture in subjects where I have a stong suspicion that they don't know the subject matter well. And this is interesting, as I'd like to lecture, but there's not many subjects in my area and so I'd have to lecture in a related area where I'm definitely not an expert. I agree that a lot of this is about confidence, and having the ability to bluff your way through a subject to a certain extent.


Hi Sue - yes, i take your point, but i was probably over-emphasising the point that there is so much more to being a lecturer than having the required knowledge and, that people often worry about having the right 'specific knowledge' (which i think was the original poster's point) when so many other skills are more important e.g. communication skills, being able to challenge and question students etc. However, i am purely speaking from a social sciences (and specifically a psychosocial) perspective - I'm sure other disciplines are very different.


Hey Natassia

I think you're worrying for no reason. I am almost done with a Mass Communication PhD that is so interdisciplinary that it is difficult sometimes to describe sometimes. Mine touches on Linguistics, Journalism and Cultural Studies, History and Politics. Theoretically and methodologically, it also borrows very widely. Mass Communication as a field is inherently interdisciplinary. In some ways this is great, because it kind of allows me to contribute to a nice selection of disciplines. Also, it helps to demonstrate that there are so many diverse ways to approach the same thing. It is also really great because your one thesis could strike a cord across various subject areas and disciplines. We have a Sociologist who lectures both in Mass Communication and Sociology. Sociology is obviously her primary specialty, but she has been able to apply it in a way that embrace more than one discipline.

Afterward, it also allows for you to be able to bring in newer perspectives to established disciplines/fields. For instance, you would be very welcome in my field.

There is nothing to say that you couldn't lecture on a BSc Psychology course, perhaps in addition to your knowledge of the quantitative approaches to it, you could infuse it with a more qualitative aspect that might be missing. Human beings are psychosocial and such an approach is very welcome. That could be your speciality.

I think going interdisciplinary might allow you to theoretically and methodologically interlink fields in a new way. That is not so bad in my book. Different academics have different approaches and this is a good thing.


Thanks Olisaa, its really reassuring to learn how PhDs can allow you to bring in aspects of other disciplines, and may be better for doing so. And for most of my undergraduate modules we had lecturers from various disciplines and research backgrounds, so I guess once you have a PhD and your own research interests, you can't be expected to know everything about the subject in equal detail, as you are so specialized. So if I did get to that stage, I would mainly be teaching topics linked to my research area. I'm looking way ahead here, but its good to know that an interdisciplinary PhD won't be any less respected and stop me from specializing - and I feel better approaching my tutors about starting a PhD in 2010 after my MSc. Natassia x


My research is based in education, but has grown and developed and now contains bits from business and labour as well as other things. The only problem I have found is that it is sometimes more difficult to locate the very bit of info you need, because it isn't in the field in which your supervisor excels, so they may not know what you need - if you see what I mean. On the other hand, you can come on here, or pick the brains of fellow researchers and someone will know. when it comes to posts, if you have something different to offer, as you will do, it can make for a more rounded department, so it shouldn't really be any more difficult.