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Are interdisciplinary STEM PhDs qualified to become professors? Or are they viewed more as “in-betweeners” and better suited for industry work. For example, someone who has a broad (but not deep) math background and only relevant (but neither deep nor broad) domain knowledge in, say, biology or physics, to write their papers? In other words, such a PhD candidate will be trained neither as a traditional mathematician nor as a biologist or physicist, etc.

Then what typically happens after their PhD? Do they not have deep enough knowledge to join academia as professors in any department?

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    When they hire you, they are interested in your achievements. If they are dead set on hiring a specialist, they might prefer them, but if they want someone to lead complex interdisciplinary projects, I can't see why the interdisciplinary guy would not be considered qualified. – user21264 Aug 26 '17 at 5:42
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Yes, interdisciplinary Ph.D.'s are qualified to end up in academia. In fact, I think hiring interdisciplinary faculty is a quite a popular idea with university administrations, and so my feeling is that there has been a bit of a burst of interdisciplinary positions created. If you do really excellent interdisciplinary research, I think you should have a very good chance of getting an academic job.

I think you do correctly note some disadvantages that come along with it: hiring and tenure decisions tend to be made within departments, and interdisciplinary work can sometimes look not especially deep from the perspective of either of the disciplines, or simply be difficult to see the importance of if you don't see both perspectives. But if people really do come to see the connection, then it will be highly valued.

  • yes I agree, but I think that these possitions are not on top tier institutions. – SSimon Aug 26 '17 at 15:27
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    @SSimon: What makes you think that? There are several interdisciplinary professors at top-tier institutions. There are entire top-tier institutions devoted to interdisciplinary research. Just take your favourite top-tier institution and a popular interdisciplinary field (say, biophysics) and there is a high chance that they already have professors for this field. – Wrzlprmft Aug 27 '17 at 15:27
  • @Wrzlprmft you think biophysics is INTERDISCIPLINARY???? wtf, what is the definition of interdisciplinary in your opinion? – SSimon Aug 28 '17 at 5:28
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    @SSimon: what is the definition of interdisciplinary in your opinion? – Anything that considerably involves two or more major disciplines (such as mathematics, biology, physics, chemistry, linguistics, …), which is quite in line with dictionary definitions. What is yours? (Also, this is no reason to shout.) – Wrzlprmft Aug 28 '17 at 5:36
  • @Wrzlprmft definition you provided is too shallow and reductionist, it doesn't represent reality and current trend on interdisciplinary departments. – SSimon Aug 28 '17 at 8:15
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I've head an opinion that interdisciplinary work is harmful for the career. However consider a committee that looks at IF and that your second field is larger (and thus has larger IFs!).

I would say, it all depends on the current case and there are no universal answers.

  • "harmful for the career" depends on what you want to accomplish in your career. If your goal is to get tenure in a math dept., then you should consider whether your work is perceived as valuable within that dept. If your goal is to add to human knowledge or influence practice, and you feel you can do that more effectively by being cross-disciplinary, then just make sure you understand the implications. – Philip Sep 15 '17 at 22:08
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To speak to the question raised in the comments of if top universities have interdisciplinary professors, I graduated from the University of Chicago which has many professors with multiple/cross-disciplinary appointments.

In fact, we have entire programs that are interdisciplinary, such as the undergraduate Computational and Applied Mathematics (mathematics, computer science, and statistics) and the graduate Committee on Social Thought (philosophy, politics, and sociology). There are professors who are specifically appointed to these programs / departments.

We also have professors with postings in multiple departments. We have at least four professors who have appointments in both mathematics and computer science. A number of our computational linguists have linguistics/CS appointments. Our philosophy faculty have overlap with our Divinity school. I believe we have a professor who does quantum mechanics research who is appointed to both chemistry and physics. These professors hold such titles seperate my. For example: Alan Turing, PhD. Professor of Mathematics. Professor of Computer Science.

Yes there can be reservations about the depth of knowledge of people with interdisciplinary degrees, but if you're interested in doing interdisciplinary work then an interdisciplinary degree is a great thing to have.

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Your example just described a great many mathematical biologists - many of whom have successful academic careers.

Whether this is possible or not is largely a function of departments, and how they feel about interdisciplinary research. For example, if the department is very hostile to the notion, and wants deep subject matter specialists, an interdisciplinary candidate will always lose to a specialist.

On the other hand, I recently sat on a search committee that was expressly looking for interdisciplinary candidates who would have a "home" department, but would be expected to contribute heavily to another department as well. People who hadn't made an interdisciplinary approach to their work were not considered particularly competitive in that search. My own position, additionally, is expressly interdisciplinary.

So the answer is "It depends, it can be hard, but it's certainly possible."

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I have been on a hiring committee in an interdisciplinary department. Our graduates absolutely get hired for assistant professor jobs, and we absolutely hire those with interdisciplinary PhDs for our positions.

What might be harder is to get a job in one of the traditional disciplines. However, we do have faculty who are trained in those disciplines and hold joint appointments in more traditional disciplines. To me this strongly suggests that being affiliated with an interdisciplinary dept./unit has not precluded appreciation for their work in more traditional disciplines.

Like everything it depends on your field, the market, your specific work, etc.

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