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If one is doing a PhD in an area that is on the borderline of a few areas (see the specifics below), would it be harder for them to find a job in academia after graduating?

To be more specific, the fields of linguistics (formal semantics), math (natural logic), and philosophy of language are closely connected. There is even a Dutch term which stands for the joint study of the three (which I cannot remember). Assume that one's PhD dissertation would be in that area(s), and the PhD itself would be a "dual" (double major) PhD in math and linguistics.

On the one hand, such a background suggests that more academic positions may be available (in applied math departments, or in linguistics departments, or in philosophy departments). On the other hand, being between the fields may be a disadvantage because the person doesn't actually belong to one specific field.

And a related question: what should that person do to make the process of finding postdoc positions easier?

  • Interdisciplinary work is often valued in academia precisely because it means you are more flexible and can play well with others. Finding postdocs is the same as other areas - get to know people and research groups in your area of interest. – Jon Custer Apr 25 at 23:29
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    Most research in linguistics is interdisciplinary, so I'm not clear on the point of the question. – Anonymous Physicist Apr 25 at 23:41
  • While I can't speak for your specific field, the vast majority of faculty that I know have dual appointments. They have both a primary department and a secondary department that they belong to. – Matt Apr 26 at 15:29
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We can't really make general statements about one focus of research being better than another. Maybe in this hiring season there are 6 jobs out there perfectly suited to someone doing X, while there are 7 that specifically want (or just prefer) someone doing X+Y. And another year the ranking of numbers might switch.

Certainly "interdisciplinary research" has a strong positive connotation. My guess is that is because it most commonly entails the combination of a traditional (perhaps stagnant) old field with some sexy new field. The idea is that you are progressing toward "the future" where the field will be evolving in these new directions. While the old pigeonholing of research into particular categories becomes increasingly outdated.

On the other hand if you just combine a couple overcrowded fields that have been around forever you may not gain anything.

One possible drawback I can think of would be in teaching. Even when the hiring committee looks for someone with a lot of breadth, they still may require a lot of depth in their main field. They don't want to be stuck as the only one who can teach that boring old core required course forever.

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I think the question calls for opinion, mostly, but I can try to give some perspective to your thinking.

For research, it is mostly narrowness and depth that is valued. That may be wrong, but it is how people are used to looking at new academics. But it is especially wrong on some questions. Noam Chomsky, for example fundamentally changed (part of) the study of linguistics through his application of formalism. He also added greatly to the study of computing languages. He was able to bring disparate ideas together and do something significant in both realms.

But, I suspect that those sorts of opportunities must be relatively rare, or academics would be more comfortable making judgments about the value of research that crosses lines. Applied math is, of course, better about this that theoretical math.

But, if you want a career primarily in research, and want to stand across multiple disciplines you will have to find ways to make it especially clear about the value of what you do. Every academic has to make their own case about their research, of course, but you will need to find ways to overcome this bias toward depth and narrowness.

If you want a career in teaching, primarily, the situation is a bit different. As others have commented (and answered) there is perceived value in interdisciplinary work among teaching faculty. But you can't be seen as heater-skelter in your interests. Your goal shouldn't be to say that you can teach either math or philosophy, I think. But your cross discipline insight can, and should, be a strong force in motivating students to think deeply and advance on multiple fronts at the point in their education where breadth is, perhaps, more important than depth.

I was once able to visit one of the colleges at Cambridge as an invited guest. After dinner the faculty gathers for discussion (and a spot of Jerez, of course). But the colleges at Cambridge are multi disciplinary and so the discussion was among people with very wide interests, from philosophy to computing. It was an enlightening experience. We seem to lack that cross discipline contact in US universities, and I think it is a shame. The BIG problems are solved by people with a wider view, perhaps. An part of the reason for that is that the wider view helps one see what is truly important.

However, at the end of the day, it is you that will need to make the case for the value of what you do. I think it can be made, but it may not be an obvious case to everyone.

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Interdisciplinary PhD education comes with great potential and great risk. If you do it right you will achieve a lot but you can also fail fundamentally (both is possible in a "normal" PhD as well but extend is often more extreme in an interdisciplinary PhD).

You might want to read Ten simple rules for surviving an interdisciplinary PhD for some deeper background. Computer/Math/Biology is not exactly what you are searching for but I think it is similar enought that most rules should apply to you as well.

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