DegreePh.D. in History ‘19
When should doctoral students in the humanities think about doing collaborative or interdisciplinary research? Would it be best to hold off until you’ve settled on a dissertation topic … or you’ve completed your preliminary exams … or after you submit that first chapter to your adviser … or land a tenure-track job … or should you just forget the whole thing until you get tenure?
Graduate students often feel ambivalent about this question, and that is not entirely because of the cautions offered by faculty mentors. Graduate advisers often recognize the potential value of these experiences, but may worry that such projects could distract or delay your progress on your own research. From their perspective, collaborative research seems like a less straightforward path to success than the traditional channels of academic writing and researching.
Steady progress in a doctoral program and the pursuit of collaborative, interdisciplinary research projects need not be mutually exclusive. For me, work on collaborative projects early in my graduate career offered invaluable insights into my developing interests, my strengths, and my weaknesses, all as I was figuring out my long-term aspirations as a scholar and as a historian. The skills and experiences I gained from these projects will not only help me better navigate postgraduate life, but will positively affect my upcoming dissertation research and writing.
Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion featuring humanities graduate students who have done various kinds of collaborative research. I was invited to join this conversation primarily because of my experience on Bass Connections teams, about which I have written in other contexts. As I was preparing my remarks, however, I realized that Bass Connections represented only one facet of the collaborative and interdisciplinary research I have done while at Duke.
I initially looked into Bass Connections when I began to consider my career options outside of tenure-track faculty jobs. I recognized that I needed more experience in leadership and mentorship, and was looking for opportunities that might add variety to the solitary task of archival research that defines most graduate study in history. Bass Connections, a program in which undergraduates, graduate students and faculty work together in interdisciplinary teams to address complex societal problems, seemed like a good fit for these interests and goals.
I have since taken part in two Bass Connections projects while in graduate coursework. The first team examined the social, environmental, and health impacts of hydraulic fracturing in the Bakken shale play of North Dakota; I served in an ad-hoc leadership role to guide the team towards a paper and a final poster presenting our findings. The second team, which is completing its work this spring, has explored the problem of animal waste management in large-scale hog farms in eastern North Carolina. On that team, I helped undergraduates think through the process of developing research questions and crafting an argument, while providing background knowledge and editorial advice.