Note: This has been sitting in my drafts for weeks and isn’t getting any more written, so here it is!

I’ve been meaning to do more ‘behind the paper’ posts whenever an article gets published, but I keep forgetting. Oops. One of my recent papers, Discipline Based Education Research for Animal Welfare Science has motivated me to start up the practice again.

This paper is somewhat of a Dear John letter to my former career. You see, as of 2020, I’ve been working in veterinary education research longer than I worked in animal behaviour and welfare. Moving disciplines from ethology to veterinary education was more than a little scary, and committing myself to work in a truly interdisciplinary space was a dive into the unknown.

DBER for Animal Welfare Science marks my sixth first author paper in education research, versus my four ethology papers and my one human-animal interactions paper. In terms of time and experience, I’ve been working in education longer than I was an ethologist. 

I have a couple of reflections on changing disciplines from your PhD studies that I thought others contemplating a similar move would find useful. 

The Deficit

There’s no way of getting around it – when you jump disciplines you have a massive knowledge/reputation deficit that you need to take time to recover. I’ve been exceptionally lucky in the team I ended up in, and I was supported during that year where my productivity dived and I was getting my teeth into some gigantic projects. I have two particular projects that I think of as my second PhD, one of which has also recently been published (here) and the other I’m currently writing up. The sense of scale on those tasks felt comparable to writing a PhD, not least because you’re doing them on top of the day job. You just don’t need to do all the ‘learning to research’ part of the PhD. You already  have your workflows and your skills, and its just translating them to a new context. 

Another aspect of the deficit though is progression. I ‘only’ made it to the Lecturer position in August 2019. My friends who stayed in the same field outpaced me in earning capacity relatively quickly. I’ve had many people assuming I’m further up the academic ladder than I am. Again, I’ve got a very supportive team around me who were supportive of me taking on responsibility before I was necessarily ‘supposed’ to. I did encounter the odd person who thought a Research Fellow shouldn’t be doing whatever thing I was off doing because I wasn’t ready yet. And I am the kind of awful person who gets bothered by that. I like being recognised for what I do. Know your value, and don’t be afraid to fight for recognition as an interdisciplinary researcher. 

The Culture

Something I didn’t expect when I switched disciplines was the need to take a long hard look at myself. The cultural biases I had as an ethologist only became clear to me when they were smashed up against the norms of educational research. This was really useful for me in a lot of ways, but it was also humbling. I now sometimes find myself gritting my teeth when I hear ethologists repeat those biases. Although by the same token, I see what education researchers ‘think’ they know being spouted forward when I’m able to say “actually, in this other field we do …”

Of course you soon develop new biases and ways of thinking. Something that gets my goat very badly is how ‘interdisciplinary’ is bandied around very freely.  I don’t think you’re interdisciplinary until you’re jumping across a ‘purity’ level. Two forms of biology no longer cut it for me. This makes me very fun at departmental meetings and wins me lots of friends. 

The Goods

I have been able to take things from one field into the other. For example, we have a really interesting PTAS project looking at human behaviour using an ethology lens. And of course DBER is part of it.  

I’m also so much happier in DBER than I was in ethology. This field always appealed to me, but felt like such a strange jump after I started investing in my career path. I started my PhD, not really out of any great love of the subject, but because it was 2009 and a paid job during a recession. I came to love it, and I don’t regret it at all, and more importantly I’m better at what I do now because of that time I spent in another field.

I truly believe that academia is going to experience some big changes soon. I believe that the old postdoc model is dead and careers like mine will become more common place. If you do find yourself staring at a frightening opportunity in the next few months, I can’t tell you what to do. But I can say that I have no regrets, and being interdisciplinary is the happiest I’ve ever been


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