Category Archives: Education

On the Uses of an Interdisciplinary Ph.D.

Today, I participated in a panel — along with super-smart colleagues Alex Konings and Kabir Peay — for the first-year Ph.D. students in the E-IPER program, an interdisciplinary, graduate interdepartmental program (IDP) at Stanford. As is the idiom for any E-IPER event, we spent a lot of time fretting about interdisciplinarity: what it means, how you achieve it, what costs it entails for jobs, etc.

I expressed the slightly heretical opinion that we should not pursue interdisciplinarity for interdisciplinarity’s sake. What matters — both in terms of the science and more instrumental outcomes such as getting published, getting a job, getting tenure — are questions. Yes, questions. One should ask important questions that people care about. Why are there so many species in the tropics? Where do pandemic diseases come from and how can we best control them? Does democracy and the rule of law provide the best approach to governance? How do people adapt to a changing climate?

Where the interdisciplinary Ph.D. program comes in is it provides students the opportunity to pursue whatever tools and approaches are required to answer the question in the best way possible. You don’t need to use a particular approach because that’s what people in your field do. Sometimes the best thing to do will be totally interdisciplinary; sometimes it will look a bit more like what someone in a disciplinary program would do. Always lead with the question.

Answering important questions using the best tools available is probably the best route to managing the greatest risk of an interdisciplinary degree. This risk, of course, is the difficulty in getting a job when you don’t look like what any given department had in mind when they wrote a job ad. The best way to manage this risk is simply to be excellent. If your work is strong enough, the specific discipline of your Ph.D. doesn’t really matter. Now, there are certainly some disciplines that are more xenophobic than others (anthropology and economics come immediately to mind), but if your work is really outstanding, the excuse that you don’t have the right degree for a given job gets much more tenuous. Two people who come immediately to mind are my colleague David Lobell and my sometime collaborator and former Stanford post-doc Marcel Salathé.

Is David a geographer? Geologist? Economist? Doesn’t really matter because he’s generally recognized as being a smart guy doing important work. Similarly with Marcel: population geneticist? Epidemiologist? Computer scientist? Who cares? He has important things to say and gets recognized for it.

Now, alas, we can’t all be David and Marcel, but we can strive to ask important scientific questions and let these questions lead us to both the skills and the bodies of knowledge we need. These then form the foundation of our research careers. Interdisciplinarity then is about following the question. It is not an end to itself.

What Dinosaurs Teach Us About Approaching Stanford

My wife, Libra Hilde, and I are resident fellows in a freshman dorm at Stanford. The RF residences are, shall we say, not quite as grand as the masters’ residences at Harvard (which have been know to get named in Top Five Lists of Apartments in Boston), but we fill a similar ceremonial role for our students that the masters at Harvard do. This means giving speeches to parents when students arrive and for important occasions like Parents’ Weekend.

Every year, the house staff (RFs and student staff) pick a theme and then decorate the dorm in anticipation of freshman arrivals. The standard Stanford gag is to pick a theme that somehow plays off the name of the house. These themes can be hilariously tenuous — that’s actually part of the gag — and some house names are easier to work with than others. I’m afraid we’re saddled with a particularly difficult name to play off of. We are Arroyo House. Our themes over the past few years have been: “Where the Wild Things Arroyo” (as in the classic Maurice Sendak book), “ATROYO” (an ancient Greek theme), and “Arroyosemite” (as in the National Park). After a long debate at our staff retreat, we finally decided on this year’s theme of “Dinosarroyo.” Lots of great decorating opportunities, as you can see from this picture of our common room.

Arroyo House LoungeA little game I play with myself in my ceremonial role of Arroyo House Resident Fellow is to welcome the parents with a brief speech on how our house theme relates to their kids’ careers at Stanford and beyond. Now bear in mind, we choose the theme on the basis of (1) how good a pun it makes with our house name (and we don’t have a lot to work with on that front!) and (2) the decoration possibilities it entails. How that theme fits into our larger vision is, frankly, pretty low on the list. This is what makes the game fun! After giving it a bit of thought, it occurred to me that Dinosarroyo actually has a lot to teach us. There are three big themes:

(1) College is about the spirit of discovery. Romantic tales of the expeditions of paleontologists such as Edward Drinker Cope or Roy Chapman Andrews of the American Museum of Natural History have inspired the early careers of countless scientists. Students’ experience at Stanford should inspire them to explore the boundaries of knowledge, whether they are future scientists, educators, lawyers, entrepreneurs, or whatever. Stanford students excel most when they eschew the easy path. This is a research university. Our students should take advantage of this and make new discoveries about the world. Embrace the spirt of discovery embodied by those romantic vertebrate paleontologists.

(2) The Dinosauria first appeared on Earth during the Triassic period and were the dominant form of animal life for over 135 million years. The age of the dinosaurs came to an abrupt end at the Cretaceous-Paleogene Boundary, about 65 million years ago. This 135 million years that dinosaurs dominated is approximately 100 times longer than anything recognizably human has been on the planet. In fact, what appears to us to be a geological ‘instant’ where the dinosaurs went extinct at the K-Pg boundary was, in fact, probably longer than humans have been in existence. That this mighty and diverse lineage of animals managed to die out in the blink of an evolutionary eye suggests to me that we should have some humility about our own dominion. Crucially, at this moment in human history we are faced with many enormous challenges, some of which are potentially existential. We should use the incredible opportunities that are afforded to us by our association with this incredible institution to address these challenges. Our society has given us so much to allow us to be here at this remarkable point in history. Let’s make the most of it!

(3) Those synapsid ancestors of mammals who managed to survive when all the (non-bird) dinosaurs went extinct give us a clue as to what our comparative advantage in this universe is. We are adaptable. We are opportunistic. Most remarkably of all, our particular lineage is blessed with the capacity for planning and foresight. We need to encourage our students to take advantage of the opportunities given them by this university to become adaptable lifelong learners. I can’t predict what the job market will look like in 10 years (and anyone who tells you they can is either fooling themselves or trying to sell you something). What I can say, is that it will be different than it is today. And the job market ten years beyond that will be even more different. This means that learning to be flexible, adaptable, and to never stop learning is probably the greatest ‘skill’ our students can learn.