Finding Your Perfect Interdisciplinary Graduate Program

Posted December 2, 2014 by Emily Dolson in Graduate School / 0 Comments

Finding the right graduate program is normally a bit of a challenge. However, this challenge can be magnified if you’re looking to go into a field outside of clearly defined disciplinary lines. You may be sure that there are people studying what you’re interested in, but figuring out who they are and what words they’re using to describe their research is often difficult. During the beginning of my senior year of college, I almost gave up on trying to find a place where I could study the combination of things that I wanted to. It felt like I was just pouring in more and more effort without getting any results. Obviously, I ultimately succeeded – the Ofria Lab is a pretty darn good fit for my interests – but only via a combination of brute force and dumb luck. Nevertheless, I think I learned some things over the course of my search, and I thought I’d share them here in hopes of making it easier for others:

(Note: This advice is relatively US-centric – I can’t speak to its relevance to other countries)

  • On applying: First off, standard advice for applying to grad school holds. How to best prepare, how to choose a program, how to apply, and so on are thoroughly covered elsewhere on the internet. This post is focused on finding programs to apply to in the first place.
  • You are applying to an adviser, not a school. Aside from the obligatory reminder that numerical rankings of programs are garbage and you shouldn’t listen to them, if you are reading this post, your research area is probably not something that there are even rankings in. So don’t worry about them. The lab that is the best fit for your interests is automatically ranked #1 in the sub-field of you.
  • An adviser who shares your interests or one who tolerates them? It will probably be a lot easier to find an adviser who is okay with you learning things on your own than to find one who can mentor you in learning all of the things that are important to your interests. In particular, this is common if you’re trying to go into a more quantitative branch of an existing field. Ecoinformatics (an emerging field focused on using computational techniques to analyze giant ecological data-sets) is a great example. A lot of ecologists think that it’s really important for ecoinformatics to exist, and would love have a grad student with that skill set. However, because ecoinformatics, as a field, is still in its infancy, your average ecologist is not equipped to provide guidance on how to best do ecoinformatics. If you are self-directed and okay with forming outside collaborations, this might work for you (this advice on dealing with pet bioinformatician syndrome may be helpful). Still, I would caution against it. If your adviser does all of the things you want to, they will be much better positioned to help you come up with interesting ideas, troubleshoot problems, and introduce you to the right people. You will be making your path through grad school much smoother by putting in the effort to find such an adviser.
  • Ask for advice: If you happen to know anyone (perhaps your undergraduate adviser) who is at all connected to the field you’re interested in, definitely ask them for suggestions. You can also ask your undergraduate professors for advice even if they aren’t quite in the field you want to go into – just don’t expect them to have all (or even most of) the answers. Minimally, they can probably tell you what universities are strong in a broader field, which will be useful for the next bullet point.
  • Look at department web-pages for universities that are strong in a related field. It’s usually pretty easy to get information about universities that are strong in well-established fields. Generally, it’s worth a shot to look at faculty in all potentially interesting departments at those universities, because there may be well-established collaborations.
    • Example: I knew UC Davis was strong in one of my interests, ecology, so I looked at their Computer Science Department. Sure enough, they collaborate with the ecologists..
    • Note that the set of departments you’re interested in might vary pretty heavily based on the way the university is organised. Also note that some universities have a limit on the number of departments you can apply to (I’m looking at you, UC Santa Barabara!).
  • Interdisciplinary research is often done at centers that have been established for it. This is definitely not always the case, but can be a good foothold from which to start looking for people doing stuff you’re interested in. The BEACON Center for Evolution in Action (where we are), for instance, is an NSF Science and Technology Center (STC) focused on studying evolution from both computational and biological perspectives. Other STCs focus on addressing other questions from an interdisciplinary perspective. The NSF also funds Synthesis centers, such as the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (there are synthesis centers in other fields too, but at the time of writing this there doesn’t seem to be any over-arching list). There are also myriad centers funded by other sources, which often can be found with a quick search.
  • Google relevant keywords. This is pretty hit-or-miss, but it’s worth a shot, and can be highly successful when it works. You might turn up a variety of things: blog posts, tweets, faculty web pages, department web pages, web pages about groups of people working on related problems, etc. Any of these could potentially point you towards people who are doing research that you’re interested in.
  • Try to find papers are related to your interests. This can be challenging. I often found that papers I was interested in were on the fringes of their authors’ research areas. Moreover, figuring out what keywords are used to label your interests in the scientific literature can be challenging. Thus, your goal here shouldn’t so much be to find individual papers that you’re interested in, but a body of research (representing a community of scientists) that you find interesting.
    • Google Scholar can be really helpful for this. When you find a paper that you’re interested in, look at the papers that it cites. Keep drilling backward in the citation network until you find people who are actively focusing on that topic of research. If you get to papers written in the 80’s or 90’s, try going forward again by looking at papers citing the older ones.
    • You can also try looking at co-author networks, accessible from a given author’s google scholar page.
    • Once you track down people who have recently written multiple papers that you’re interested in, try looking for their websites or e-mailing them.
  • E-mail faculty in programs that might be doing stuff you’re interested in. There are two reasons that this is important:
    • Professors are busy people. As such, a lot of websites listing research interests are out of date. Looking up recent publications of people that you’re interested in (Google Scholar makes this easy) can help fix this, but a quick e-mail exchange will give you a much better sense of their plans for the future. They can also point you towards other people doing similar work.
    • In most cases, you should e-mail professors you’re interested in working with before applying anyway. Grad school admissions are pretty heavily driven by whether or not there is a professor who is excited (or at least willing) to take you on as a student. Finding out if they are taking on new students this year and if you are correct in thinking that your research lines up with theirs are both important things that you can do at this point. I found this blog post particularly helpful when trying to figure out how to write such e-mails. Caveat: This is a less common practice in some fields. Always read the department’s and professor’s websites first, as some say not to e-mail before applying, or have special rules for doing so.

Good luck!

Emily Dolson

I'm a doctoral student in the Ofria Lab at Michigan State University, the BEACON Center for Evolution in Action, and the departments of Computer Science and Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, & Behavior. My interests include studying eco-evolutionary dynamics via digital evolution and using evolutionary computation techniques to interpret time series data. I also have a cross-cutting interest in diversity in both biological and computational systems. In my spare time, I enjoy playing board games and the tin whistle.

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