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Is it possible or legitimate to pursue two distinct research interests in the same discipline in the context of an advanced academic career (PhD and beyond that)?

For example, can I have two research interests the one concerning History of Economics and the other concerning Mathematical & Computational Economics in a PhD program in an Economics department where there are always professors that have these but usually not the same person?

Or for example, can I have two research interests the one concerning Political Theory/Philosophy and the other concerning Mathematical & Computational Social Sciences(Political Science) in a PhD program in Political Science department where there are always professors that have these but usually not the same person?

Just for the record, I have postgraduate academic education from prestigious universities both in Computer Science & Applied Mathematics and in Social Sciences(mainly Economics) & Philosophy. For this reason, I want to maintain both my strong qualitative and quantitative skills and have these, two in each case essentially, quite distinct research interests.

  • Yes, it is possible, and it is not even particularly unusual (I did it, for one). You just need to be aware you'll have to work harder than if you focused on one topic. – Koldito Jul 4 '16 at 10:26
  • Thank you all for your helpful responses. I really appreciate the fact that you devoted some time to my questions. Finally, depending on the particular department, I concluded that it is possible to approach a single topic from two quite different subdisciplines of one specific discipline. – Universalis0 Jul 7 '16 at 13:36
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For example, can I have two research interests the one concerning History of Economics and the other concerning Mathematical & Computational Economics in a PhD program in an Economics department where there are always professors that have these but usually not the same person?

Practically speaking, your PhD topic will need to be on one topic, so you will need to choose to some extent. Relatedly, you will also need one (and usually exactly one) advisor - you can have the other person as a member of your committee, or sympathies permitting, just as an unofficial mentor and collaborator, but typically the formal advisor will need to be one specific person.

However, this should not prevent you from conducting research on both your interests. Typically, there are two ways to go about this:

  1. Find a topic that naturally integrates your interests. For instance, you may write a thesis in political sciences, but with a healthy dose of econ (which almost automatically also includes plenty of applied maths), or you may write a thesis in economics, but with a focus on political implications of economic theory. In this example, both versions sound completely reasonable to me. Of course, if your actual interests are farther apart, this becomes less reasonable.
  2. Choose one of your interests as thesis topic, and work on the other as side topic. This you can do in most cases, as long as there is some understanding between the disciplines (and your advisor is generally in favour of side projects, which apparently not everybody is). This course of action has the disadvantage that ultimately, you will lose time to work on your thesis, and your thesis may accordingly take longer to complete or be less compelling than if you worked 100% on it.

That all being said, a common advice given to students is to remain somewhat narrow in their academic interests early in their career, and only start to branch out and diversify once one is strongly established in one particular aspect of a field or discipline.

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  • Agreed, but I don't think you can generally say that every thesis has to be "on one topic:" so-called 'staple theses' aren't particularly uncommon, are they? Even where this is fairly common (e.g. economics and, I think, math), it's probably superior to do as you say, but by no means an absolute must, for all I know. – gnometorule Jul 4 '16 at 18:54
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    @gnometorule I was under the assumption that even in a stapler thesis, the papers need to fit (at least this is the case in my university). You can't just staple together a number of unrelated studies. – xLeitix Jul 4 '16 at 20:15
  • @xLeitfix: I did, say (it has some pseudo-unifying notion in the introduction...but very pseudo, honestly); and a local mathematician friend is considering to add something unrelated to 2 related papers he already has, telling me that it's common in his department. It was also common in my old school/department, not just me: and not uncommon among the stats-oriented people in my wife's. Now, obviously, maybe those are the 3 exceptions to the rule in the U.S. (schools in NYC, and California) :) – gnometorule Jul 4 '16 at 21:03
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    @gnometorule: I have also heard of math PhD theses having chapters which are unrelated to the rest of the thesis. In my experience, this mostly comes under the philosophy "Once you have put what your committee agrees is an acceptable amount of material into your thesis, you can add more or less whatever you want." – Pete L. Clark Jul 4 '16 at 21:17
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In addition to the very good answers of xLeitix and Paul de Vrieze I would like to add a few thoughts on your question, especially focusing on the "and beyond" part. I am sure that it is possible to have different research interests within one field because (at least in mathematics) there are quite a few people who do that.

On the other hand, I think that, especially during early stages of the career, it is a somewhat risky thing to do. There will be some important occasions where your scientific achievements will be judged by experts in your field (e.g. if you apply for positions with a search committee or for tenure). If you are working in two different areas it is quite likely that they are only familiar with part of your work which on its own might be small compared to other people's work in this (sub)field.

I think it is less risky if you have a "main interest" and make sure that you are building a strong research record in this and consider the other field as side projects.

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First of all, some of the practicalities depend a bit on the system and your ambitions. In a PhD, stick with a single topic. This topic may be approached from two perspectives (2 disciplines/subdisciplines). The most common way to "fail" a PhD is to not finish. Students that cannot choose, or cannot stick to a problem are frequently those that fail to get sufficient coherent material together for a thesis (and in any case they will have wasted time).

Once you have a PhD it is slightly easier (although you need to be careful if you are on some sort of tenure track). If you want to build some form of reputation you will have to again stay focussed on closely related problems (so that you can build a reputation as expert on that area). This doesn't mean you can't do side-projects (people will assume it was a student with an off-interest), but you do need to maintain sufficient focus on "your" area.

If you have tenure and don't have a wish to make a strong name in research, you can however do whatever you want. As an academic with strong side-interests I fully sympathise with your wish to be broad, but it is difficult. One thing that is maybe some consolation is that as you progress/gain experience, the size of your topic/scope tends to increase in size.

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This sounds like a trivial question to answer in the affirmative, initially, but, upon reflection, there may well be differences across institutions in the level of flexibility they offer with regard to your autonomy. An easy litmus test will be to ascertain how much funding may be generated by your proposed approach from big name global brands, who you can sell the benefits of the value you can bring to them. If your proposal attracts significant investment in research funding and, perhaps, great PR for your chosen university, there should be no reason why the university would reject such a proposal? Think of your proposal both in terms of academic value and net profit -- more like a business plan.

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    "An easy litmus test will be to ascertain how much funding may be generated by your proposed approach from big name global brands" - uh, no. PhD topics are, in general, not limited to those that bring in funding from "big name global brands." – ff524 Jul 4 '16 at 1:17
  • I did NOT mention topics are "Limited" to those which bring in funding. However, I did try to emphasise the increased attraction and latitude that the student would have when asking for flexibility to research somewhat overlapping topics (potentially covered by multiple staff members), if this was seen as a step forward in BOTH academic value AND net profit through private investment. Hope that helps clarify? – mr right Jul 4 '16 at 1:29
  • This answer needs a few more big words. – gnometorule Jul 4 '16 at 18:55

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