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Most research profiles I've seen focus on a set of similar topics. Does anyone have experience in partaking in / conducting research in 2+ disparate fields? (especially if 1 of the fields is pretty different than what they studied in an institution)

For example:

  • Pure mathematics and biology (e.g. solving an open math problem and studying purring in cats)
  • Aerospace engineering and psychology (e.g. modeling vortices and researching psychological effects of isolation)

If a person had interest in researching a multiple, ranging topics, what advice would you give them? How do you think they should go about doing it? (if you'd recommend they do it at all)

Edit - I'm an undergraduate mechanical engineering student. I'm interested in eventually researching two topics, one in my chosen field, one in genetics.

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Research demands specialization in terms of time commitment to master a given set of literature. For this reason, we don't often call what is done at the undergraduate level "research". Is your question if you can double major or if you can simultaneously be a researcher in two disparate fields? –  virmaior Aug 2 '14 at 12:54
In civil engineering, urban engineering and architectural engineering; it is very normal to do such interdisciplinary researches (such as, civil engineering and economical, or social, or psychological impacts of the projects). –  Enthusiastic Student Aug 2 '14 at 16:02
The researchers in either of those fields will be very intelligent, hard working people devoting 100% of their time to the field. You will almost certainly struggle to distinguish yourself in either unless you find some way to connect them. –  Tim Aug 2 '14 at 16:34
@Tim I don't mean to diminish the efforts of any researcher. It undoubtedly requires a lot of hard work and a lot of time. That said, I have two interests that I'd like to pursue. AFAIK, that'd have to be done at different points in my life where I can entirely dedicate my time to it. But I'm still an undergraduate. Don't know much. Would like to see if there are any tips or recommendations more experienced people could offer. –  Kenkis Aug 2 '14 at 16:38
Related: Is doing two PhDs a good path? –  ff524 Aug 3 '14 at 8:24

5 Answers 5

You can find a way to tie math into damn near any field or topic. Often at the graduate level you end up working with tools from "outside" of your discipline to solve a problem within it, or using the machinery of your field to solve otherwise-untenable problems in another. It's getting very multi-disciplinary out here, and very translational, and whatever other term you like for that kind of thing.

Essentially, if the tools are applicable across fields, it's no big deal: your literature familiarity just has to have more breadth than typical. If they're legitimately unrelated and you aren't interested in trying to connect then or your solutions to the problems in the fields, it will be a very hard row to hoe.

From a fellow MechE, take further classes in both and see which field looks most promising and exciting to you and follow that one professionally. Keep up with the other casually and consider how your understanding of one facilitates your work in the other.

Good luck!

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I don't disagree at all with what you're telling him, but you're also telling him that the trick is to relate the two fields rather than have two truly disparate research areas. –  virmaior Aug 3 '14 at 0:23

Multidisciplinary research is currently a popular buzzword among the sciences, with a lot of (PhD) funding requiring that research students span multiple departments.

However, you will need to combine them in some way, you cannot research completely unrelated topics simultaneously (or at least find it very hard).

I am currently working in Systems Biology, which spans Biology and Mathematics, applying mathematical modelling especially to experimental biological data.

The relatively new discipline of Synthetic Biology might be suited to you, which seeks to apply the rules of engineering to molecular biology. This is an extension of the now standard practise of genetic engineering in biology. It is attempting to deconstruct biology into distinct parts and devices which can then be combined in novel ways.

Other pairings such as Physics and Biology are also very suitable.

At higher research levels, the subject lines tend to get blurred, you use whatever you need to answer the question most effectively, whether or not that falls within the discipline you trained for.

Good luck!

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It might be possible (though I would say extremely unlikely) for someone to do two PhDs at once. The sort of mind necessary to do that would necessarily be extremely rare. (As in someone at least 3 deviations or more past the standard).

Instead if you really want to do research in two fields, I can imagine two realistic routes:

Route 1: (a) build a career in one discipline by pursuing the PhD and then getting hired for it and then (b) get a second PhD in the disparate field and research in that. The example I can think of is John Polkinghorne, physicist and theologian.

Route 2: Do a second field as a hobby while gainfully employed in a different arena. But generally that requires strong overlap or that one be an armchair-pursuable field.

Don't be fooled into doing an interdisciplinary PhD -- that generally either means you won't be prepared for any research at all or that you will be prepared for a single overlapping field.

But depending on the specific avenue in mechanical engineering, there may be topics that do overlap with genetics -- such as DNA recombinance which involve machinery that can rapidly do DNA-typing or things like biophysics with flow mechanics. This would be a much more realistic goal.

This is not uncommon in the sciences these days -- to have studied a topic in say physics and be working on biology that is heavily-dated and equation oriented later.

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I second user20313's advice to try to combine the two fields instead of having two completely separate projects in different areas. An additional benefit is that there may be "low-hanging fruit", that is, you can get some interesting results from the applying standard methods and theory of an area to another, where they are less known and standard. There are lots of researchers that can do research in one topic, but very few people that know the language, problems and methods of two different fields and can "bridge the gap" and act as interface between two research groups.

This works particularly well with computer science, mathematics and statistics; everyone needs them, but often they have no idea that they do.

However, even if multidisciplinarity is a well-received 'buzzword' at the funding stage, it might count against you in some cases. In recent times people rely a lot (too much, arguably) on paper and citation counts to evaluate the output of a researcher; they may not realize that they have to normalize your impact factors and citations to the standard of a different field, or just strike you down because "his/her publication history is only partially relevant to the subject". Much depend on how the hiring system is organized in your country, though. This will only matter much later in your career though, when looking for a postdoc or a tenure-track position.

That said, my advice is go for it.

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Separating this for a moment from the internal mechanics of educational establishments, physiologically, you may find "context switching" unexpectedly tough.

Some mental agility tests are designed to be hard by challenging participants to rapidly switch between multiple different tasks.

However even on slower time scales, the time time it takes for your mind to warm up from thinking about one thing, to thinking about another, is called "context switching", and there can be many levels of context, that each need to be noticed and require a conscious push, over a significant period of time.

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