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I am a part-time PhD student coming towards the end of my first year – I have another five years left. My PhD is in Music and I do like my topic a lot. However, in the last 18 months I have also become very interested in an area that is not that related to music – computing and open source. I started looking at it as something extra to learn before my PhD started and am now finding it difficult to put down. As well as this, I would like to integrate some aspects of what I have learned into my PhD. I just don't really know what and how.

Is this something that I should bring up with my PhD supervisor or should I just "put up or shut up"? She may think it's a bit weird to mention it since she will probably feel that it doesn't really relate, however, computing (and its related ethics) are fundamental to the ways in which we undertake academic research these days. We've even had a few classes on software use. I feel that I could probably link the two in some way but little has come up yet which is obvious, though it may well present itself in the future. From past experience I tend to function at my academic best when integrating different challenging interests into my learning and I would love to integrate my learning of computing into my music PhD. I feel I have learned – and applied – a lot and I want to continue learning alongside my music learning and to combine the two in my topic.

Question: should I raise this with my supervisor, float some ideas past her about this or should I just ignore it? If I do the latter the question may well come back to haunt me further down the line. I don't think I "can" (nor do I want to) give this up, well, not without forcing myself to since it fascinates me. Do others have experience of wanting to mix in new ideas/subjects into their PhDs and how did you go about it?

For clarification - the PhD in Music is ethnomusicological, i.e. the PhD is to do with the study of music in culture and as culture rather than composition or performance.

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    It sounds like you want to integrate a whole new field of study into your PhD, not a "subtopic"...
    – user9646
    May 9, 2018 at 10:15
  • You may be right. Maybe I should change the title of the question.
    – C26
    May 9, 2018 at 10:24
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    This is way too broad. In general, doing an interdisciplinary PhD is all fine. But "PhD in Music" doesn't tell me anything - are you supposed to write a software that will in real time signal a dissonance in live music (in such a case I see no problems in joining the two), or are you to compose a symphony (which I can't imagine how can be – in the classical context – related to computing)?
    – user68958
    May 9, 2018 at 10:39
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    Both "ethnomusicological" and "computing and open source" are too broad. If you want to incorporate computing in your thesis, you need a reasonable use for it. Don't force it. Is there something in your topic that would benefit from using some computational algorithm? I am speaking as an "interdisciplinary computer scientist" here. If you forcibly try to find a computational challenge in your work it will most likely not work or be fairly irrelevant.
    – skymningen
    May 9, 2018 at 12:53
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    I think "don't force it" is good advice. I have an idea - well, one is developing - about the relevance of computing to the topic. But this is just something that came up from reading someone else's work, it wasn't forced. I think your comment is a good answer for now, At the very least if I can't make this whole thing interdisciplinary I can make this idea of mine a chapter with relative ease.
    – C26
    May 9, 2018 at 13:27

2 Answers 2

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First, this makes perfect sense. What you are describing is a project in the digital humanities, and there are others in music using computational methods to analyze music and its social context. The place I would suggest starting is to look at the Music Encoding Initiative, which has developed an xml mark-up language for music. The community there can lead you to many other possibilities for integrating music and computation at various levels of computational complexity. The focus remains on the music as the object of study but applies new research methods to it.

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There are two "challenges" I see in this:

  1. First, do you actually have the background to do the computer science at a good enough level (in CS PhD students are expected to publish). It is far from a social studies field and uses very different approaches and requires quite some technical knowledge.
  2. A very common way to fail a PhD is the lack of ability to focus. A PhD requires you to focus on your topic for the entire duration of your PhD (which in part time is more than doubly hard - part time tends to be an up hill battle all the way). Going into a different field is a surefire way to waste your time not being able to present a single coherent PhD thesis/topic. (Esp. in the UK situation as 3 years/6 pt is very short. You normally take 1 year for getting started/literature review, 1 for writing up, and then have only 1 year for results (which would be double for continental 4 year PhDs).

Note that this doesn't mean that you should be able to find your own "angle" on your topic and refine the specific research question(s) you address.

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  • Thanks, but this question was asked five years ago.
    – C26
    Mar 29, 2023 at 11:47

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