Plugging In: How One Graduate Program Shaped Doctoral Students’ Scholarly Identities as Interdisciplinary Scientists

Dawn Culpepper, KerryAnn O'Meara, Amy Ramirez
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 15  •  2020  •  pp. 001-028

The purpose of this paper is to understand how one graduate program shaped doctoral students’ scholarly identities as interdisciplinary scientists.

Scholarly identity refers to the ways individuals see themselves as legitimate, contributing members of their academic community. However, much of the research on scholarly identity focuses on students and faculty within traditional, discipline-bound contexts. We therefore know little about how doctoral students develop scholarly identities that are interdisciplinary in nature. By interdisciplinary, we refer broadly to scholarly work that uses methods, concepts, frameworks, or perspectives from two or more academic fields or disciplines, or scholarly work aimed at addressing research problems that spans multiple academic fields or disciplines.

This qualitative, ethnographic case study focuses on the University of Maryland’s Language Science Center (LSC), which houses a National Science Foundation Research Traineeship (NRT) Program for doctoral students in the interdisciplinary language sciences, which includes fields such as linguistics, hearing and speech, computer science, and neuroscience. The LSC is nationally and internationally known for its interdisciplinary graduate training program and thus provides a platform for understanding the components of graduate training that contribute to students’ scholarly identity development as interdisciplinary scientists. We draw from four years of qualitative data collection, including student interviews, student and faculty focus groups, ethnographic observations, and document analysis.

Across the public and private sectors, there is a strong push for developing interdisciplinary solutions to society’s problems. However, many colleges and universities are not organized to encourage interdisciplinary collaboration and research. Focusing on the ways one graduate program facilitated interdisciplinary scholarly identity development for doctoral students therefore provides graduate programs with a potential roadmap for navigating the barriers that may block the development of students with interdisciplinary research interests.

We found curricular and co-curricular NRT program activities contributed to students’ scholarly identity development as interdisciplinary scientists by connecting them (or “plugging them in”) to a pre-existing, interdisciplinary network of students and faculty; increasing doctoral student competence in the methods, cultures, and perspectives of other disciplines; encouraging doctoral students to find common ground with scholars from different disciplinary backgrounds; and broadening doctoral students’ views of the potential impact and application of their work.

Graduate training programs in the interdisciplinary sciences should think strategically about the kinds of activities that help students develop a scholarly identity and the conditions and contexts in which scholarly identity development might be undermined. We offer multiple examples of the kinds of activities graduate programs can consider using to facilitate scholarly identity development and the underlying mechanisms that make such activities successful.

Developing a scholarly identity is an important component of doctoral student success and should be considered as a useful potential theory for individuals who study graduate education.

Graduate programs play a critical role in training not only the next generation of faculty, but also the next generation of scientists in government and industry. If more graduate programs can successfully train doctoral students to be interdisciplinary scientists, societal benefits could include more responsive and adaptive solutions to pressing social problems.

Future researchers should consider how different graduate training elements produce students with different types of interdisciplinary scholarly identities, how the scholarly identity of students trained in interdisciplinary graduate programs continues to evolve as they transition into both academic and non-academic careers, and the strategies and experiences of faculty members who mentor students from outside of their own disciplines.

graduate education, scholarly identity, interdisciplinary research
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