Research Article

The competitive advantage of interdisciplinary training in law and social sciences

This study analyzed academic job postings over multiple disciplines to determine if interdisciplinary training is a desirable candidate quality.

By Amy Kleynhans and Brian H. Bornstein, PhD

Abstract

Law is becoming an increasingly interdisciplinary field. In theory, the additional knowledge gained from training in multiple disciplines should result in a competitive advantage in the academic job market; however, the additional specialization might also limit job opportunities. This study analyzed academic job postings over multiple disciplines to determine if interdisciplinary training is a desirable candidate quality. Results indicated that the majority of job postings were open to job candidates with interdisciplinary training. Institutions with more of a research-based focus also had a greater desire for such experience. Thus, it appears that interdisciplinary training would not be an impediment to students' success on the job market and may in fact help them to achieve a competitive edge over candidates who are trained in a single discipline or area of research practice.

Introduction

Ancient philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle argued for the idea of a unified science in which all knowledge is synthesized into a coherent whole, which then feeds independent divisions of inquiry. While the nineteenth century promoted the idea of individual disciplines, due largely to the development of expensive and sophisticated scientific instrumentation within individual fields and the founding of academic departments and professional societies, there is now an increasing movement to return to the blurring of boundaries within disciplines (Klein, 1990). In 2007, Wuchty, Jones and Uzzi conducted a meta-analysis of nearly 20 million published papers spanning five decades and found that team-based research had increased across all fields. Team-based research also resulted in more frequently cited papers and research of exceptionally high impact. Their analysis relies on the assumption that the diversity of the authors is what produces this influential team research, reflecting a movement toward the promotion of interdisciplinarity among both universities and funding agencies (e.g., Brint, Marcey, & Shaw, 2009; Davies, Devlin, & Tight, 2010). Funding agencies are influencing and potentially drive this trend by often explicitly requiring teams composed of researchers from diverse backgrounds and perspectives.

Wuchty et al.'s (2007) analysis begs the question of what, exactly, constitutes interdisciplinary research. Interdisciplinary research is a “mode of research by teams or individuals that integrates information, data, techniques, tools, perspectives, concepts, and/or theories from two or more disciplines or bodies of specialized knowledge to advance fundamental understanding or to solve problems whose solutions are beyond the scope of a single discipline or area of research practice” (Committee on Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research, 2004, p. 2). This is not to be confused with multidisciplinary research, which involves multiple disciplines in juxtaposition but not interacting (Ellis, 2009). The goal of interdisciplinary research is “not to reach across the aisle, but rather to eliminate it” (Jaffe, 2009, p. 10).

Interdisciplinary research, as suggested by the Wuchty and colleagues (2007) study, has the potential of producing better science, perhaps due to its unique ability to draw on multiple and previously independent resources and skill sets (American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2013; Yamamoto, 2013). This can result in more innovative research with greater impact on a variety of different fields. Combining previously independent fields of expertise leads to the linkage of research approaches and conceptual tools that can produce new research questions and theories (Pickett, Burch, & Grove, 1999). Simply citing research outside one's own discipline leads to a paper's having more of an influence in the field, at least using the conventional measure of how often that paper itself is cited (Shi, Adamic, Tseng, & Clarkson, 2009).

One obvious benefit of interdisciplinarity is the capacity to produce better practical applications. As noted by Karl Popper (1963, p. 88), “We are not students of some subject matter, but students of problems. And problems may cut right across the borders of any subject matter or discipline” (see also Brint et al., 2009; Ellis, 2009). This problem-solving ethos applies particularly well to research in law and social science (LSS), which has been interdisciplinary since its inception (e.g., Grisso, 1991; Tapp & Levine, 1977). In LSS, many researchers are simultaneously advancing scientific theories and conceptual models while addressing important real-world behaviors (e.g., legal decision making, criminal offending and rehabilitation, jurisprudence, etc.; see Bornstein, in press). The rapidly growing field of empirical legal studies is increasingly drawing on diverse social science disciplines (e.g., Eisenberg, 2011; Ho & Kramer, 2013). Law schools are becoming increasingly multi- and interdisciplinary, whereby it is no longer enough to do “law-and-X” research; rather, it must be “law-and-X+Y (and maybe Z).”

In theory, the additional knowledge one gains from interdisciplinary training should confer a competitive advantage, especially as science as a whole becomes increasingly interdisciplinary (Committee on Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research, 2004; Wuchty et al., 2007). Research teams now cross not only social science (e.g., psychology-political science) or natural science (e.g., chemistry-biology) boundaries, but also combine the social and natural sciences (American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2013; Committee on Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research, 2004). For example, analyzing and understanding the mechanisms of the placebo effect has required specialized knowledge of both biomedicine and psychology (Harrington, 1997).

The objective success of interdisciplinary training and research is not easy to discern, due to the difficulty of choosing the appropriate metrics (Jacobs & Frickel, 2009; Jaffe, 2009). What measures do exist show that the effects are positive. Tangible professional outcomes from interdisciplinary research include awards and publications in top journals (Lattuca, 2001). On a more subjective level, scientists working on interdisciplinary projects feel that their work is more stimulating and constructively challenging than scientists conducting more traditional, monodisciplinary research (Schunn, Crowley, & Okada, 2005). Young scientists report feeling that interdisciplinary research results in greater societal benefits in the ability to target the needs of real-world problems. One student in an interdisciplinary training program commented “I have become very aware of the horrible inefficiency of the scientific enterprise in turning knowledge into useful products … so I came to branch out from what I was doing, to do something bigger and better … and more practically important” (Rhoten & Parker, 2004, p. 2046). Interdisciplinary work often has the effect of “expanding an individual's intellectual universe” (Lattuca, 2001, p. 216) and leading to more creative thinking (Paletz, Schunn, & Kim, 2013).

One threat to interdisciplinary research, and especially interdisciplinary training, has to do with its effects on one's career trajectory. Conceptually, the additional knowledge and expertise gained from interdisciplinary training should translate to certain marketable advantages. There is anecdotal evidence that the academic job market, at least in the social sciences, has become more competitive. One might assume that the additional skills and knowledge gained by interdisciplinary training would make students more competitive for faculty and other research-oriented positions. Indeed, there is some evidence that students trained in dual disciplines tend to have more career paths available to them, especially in academia, than students trained in a single discipline (Bornstein, Wiener, & Maeder, 2008; Tomkins & Ogloff, 1990). Rhoten and Parker (2004) surveyed graduate students and professors across five university-based programs and found that a significant majority felt that an interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary approach had a positive influence on the development of their career opportunities and professional options.

However, there is often a perception that interdisciplinary scholars are hyperspecialized and have spread their expertise too thin (Jaffe, 2009). When students graduate from interdisciplinary programs, they find themselves looking for jobs in a marketplace that contains few programs like the one from which they graduated but, rather, many traditional academic departments. Thus, they may feel that despite the draw of interdisciplinary research, it “comes at a price — it may take us longer to establish ourselves in our careers” (Rhoten & Parker, 2004, p. 2046). While they may be highly desirable for specifically interdisciplinary departments, their skills may not be as desirable in the traditional academic job market. As Jaffe (2009, p. 13) aptly puts it, “the very interdisciplinary work that stands to help a developing science stands to harm the developing scientist.”

These competing views on the career pros and cons of interdisciplinary training are both logical, but little data on the question exist. One source of data is job openings for researchers, especially within the academy. Do job openings for interdisciplinary scholars exist? Is interdisciplinary training an advantage in the hiring process? The present study examines the competitiveness of academic job applicants with interdisciplinary backgrounds by analyzing academic job postings from a number of sources. Postings were coded in terms of their stated interest in interdisciplinary training. This study also examined whether academic employers' approach to interdisciplinary training varied as a function of type of institution and primary discipline (e.g., psychology, criminal justice, law). Our first hypothesis was that academic employers would view interdisciplinary training as desirable. We also examined the breakdown across disciplines. Our second hypothesis was that more heavily research oriented institutions would be more welcoming of interdisciplinary training than other institutions with less of a research focus. We also examined, for exploratory purposes, differences across disciplines.

Method

Sample

The sample consisted of 537 job postings collected from the following Internet and print sources: American Psychological Association, Association for Psychological Science, Higher Ed Jobs and the Chronicle of Higher Education. All of these organizations/websites post academic job openings, and they are relied on heavily by job seekers (Kuther, n.d.). Postings were broken down by discipline, with 120 law school, 150 psychology, 74 sociology, 114 political science, 63 criminal justice and 16 public policy department postings. The collection period took place between June and October of 2014 and included all postings in the analyzed disciplines during that period.

Procedure

Job postings were coded for their interdisciplinary emphasis. Entries were coded as “interdisciplinary desirable” if the ad explicitly singled out interdisciplinary training as an advantage (e.g., “the preferred candidate will hold both a JD and a PhD”; “Candidates whose research demonstrates a strong potential for interdisciplinary connections are especially encourage to apply”); “interdisciplinary neutral” if the ad was silent on the matter (e.g. “area of specialization open”); or “interdisciplinary not beneficial” if the ad implied that interdisciplinary training would not be helpful (this category was used mostly for ads that specified a very narrow research focus, e.g., “expertise in the specific area of obesity is desired”). Depending on features of the position, ads in this latter category might actually find an interdisciplinary candidate attractive (e.g., an obesity researcher with training in medicine, psychology and/or law/public policy); however, we chose this coding to adopt a conservative test of our hypothesis. No ads indicated that interdisciplinarity was actually a disadvantage.

Institutions were categorized according to the Carnegie Classification of Higher Education. Institutions with at least 20 research doctorates awarded per academic year were categorized into Category I. Category IIA included institutions with at least 50 masters degrees awarded per academic year. Category IIB referred to institutions where bachelors degrees represent at least 10 percent of all undergraduate degrees, and Category III included institutions where an associates degree is the highest degree awarded.

A between groups design and an alpha value of .05 was used for all analyses.

Results

A chi-square test of goodness-of-fit was performed to analyze the distribution of job postings, and categorization was not equally distributed, ( X 2 (2)= 176.52, p<.001). As hypothesized, interdisciplinary training was, on the whole, viewed either neutrally or as an advantage, with the majority of job postings across disciplines categorized as “interdisciplinary neutral” at 53.8 percent, followed by “interdisciplinary desirable” at 38.3 percent. The fewest postings were categorized as “interdisciplinary not beneficial” at 7.8 percent.

Discipline

As only 7.8 percent of job postings were categorized as “interdisciplinary not beneficial,” we combined this category with “interdisciplinary neutral” for further analyses. As noted above, no posting distinctly stated that interdisciplinary training was undesirable, and simply because the job opening required specific expertise did not mean that interdisciplinary training would not have been viewed positively and competitively. The categories of “interdisciplinary neutral” and “interdisciplinary not beneficial” are, in a sense, functionally equivalent. We therefore combined these categories into a new category of “interdisciplinary ambiguous.”

Table 1 shows the contingency tables for these variables. There was a significant relationship between type of discipline and job categorization, ( X 2 (5)= 21.1, p=.001). Public policy and sociology job postings had the most (more than half) postings desiring interdisciplinary training, and one-third or more of political science, psychology and law postings also desired interdisciplinary training. Interdisciplinary training was least advantageous for criminal justice (22.2 percent).

Discipline

Interdisciplinary Desirable

Interdisciplinary Ambiguous

Psychology

35.3 percent

64.7 percent

Law

33.3 percent

66.7 percent

Sociology

55.4 percent

44.6 percent

Political science

43 percent

57 percent

Criminal justice

22.2 percent

77.8 percent

Public policy

56.3 percent

43.8 percent

Table 1. Job posting categorization by discipline by Carnegie Classification of Higher Education.

Postings from institutions that did not fit into a Carnegie Classification, totaling 17 postings, were dropped from further analysis. This included stand-alone law schools that are not affiliated with a comprehensive university, as well as nonacademic research-based institutes. 306 postings were classified as Category I, 145 as Category IIA, 69 as Category IIB and nine as Category III. Table 2 shows the contingency table for these results by posting categorization. There was a significant relationship between job posting categorization and Carnegie Classification, ( X 2 (3)= 14.89, p=.002). As hypothesized, institutions with more of a research focus had a greater desire for interdisciplinary training.

Carnegie Classification

Interdisciplinary Desirable

Interdisciplinary Ambiguous

I: Research doctorates

45.1 percent

54.9 percent

IIA: Masters degrees

28.3 percent

71.7 percent

IIB: Bachelors degrees

36.7 percent

63.3 percent

III: Associates degrees

11.1 percent

88.9 percent

Table 2. Job posting categorization by Carnegie Classification.

Discussion

Academic institutions appear to be responding to science's increasingly multidisciplinary approach. The results of this study indicate that interdisciplinary training would not be an impediment to students' success on the job market and may in fact help them to achieve a competitive edge. Close to 40 percent of all job openings analyzed specifically desired interdisciplinary training as part of their search criteria. This is particularly beneficial as interdisciplinary teaching and scholarship continue to infiltrate the traditional disciplinary framework, at all kinds of institutions of higher learning (American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2013; Committee on Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research, 2004). Interdisciplinary training will help with graduate students' preparation for teaching careers in multi- and interdisciplinary programs (e.g., legal studies; criminology, law and society; social justice), where students come from diverse disciplinary backgrounds and are required to become well-versed in a variety of scholarly approaches (Wareing, 2009).

While it makes sense that 45.1 percent of research doctorate based institutions and only 11.1 percent of associates degree based institutions would request interdisciplinary training due to the emphasis on research and specialization, it is interesting to note that 28.3 percent of masters based institutions specifically requested interdisciplinary training as compared to 36.7 percent of bachelors degree based institutions. It is possible that masters based institutions may be more focused on highly specialized fields with less opportunity for interdisciplinary research, while there may be greater need for smaller liberal arts institutions to hire applicants who are capable of bringing more to the table than their single discipline counterparts. Such institutions now exceed the number of research-intensive universities; for example, more than half of the members of the Association of American Colleges and Universities include interdisciplinary courses as part of their general education curriculum (Hart Research Associates, 2009). Interdisciplinary training will better enable faculty to teach these general education courses, as well as to teach in the growing number of interdisciplinary programs (e.g., public policy, human rights, women and gender studies, GLBT studies). Therefore students who are trained in more than one field may gain a competitive career advantage over candidates who are trained in a single discipline or area of practice.

Limitations and future directions

One limitation of this study is that interdisciplinary job postings may not necessarily translate to the hiring of more interdisciplinary scholars over single discipline scholars. A posting that simply encourages applications from those with interdisciplinary training does not necessarily mean that these applicants are interviewed or hired more frequently than more traditional, monodisciplinary applicants. Because the job candidate review process is not public, it is impossible to ascertain how well the wording of job descriptions translates into actual hiring decisions. However, there is no reason to suppose that academic programs are deliberately being misleading in the qualifications that they list for recruitment purposes. Future studies should address whether the apparent interdisciplinary advantage translates to more interdisciplinary hires and not just more potential employment opportunities.

In addition, our sampling procedure took place over a relatively short period of time (5 months). Thus, it may not have been representative of the job openings for all disciplines, and the study year (2014) might have been uncharacteristic in some way. By 2014 the slowdown in academic hiring caused by the Great Recession of 2007-09 had abated considerably; our impression (admittedly subjective — we know of no data on the matter) is that it was not anomalous compared to recent years. We sought to address the sampling issue by continuing sampling through the fall, which is typically the peak hiring season for the disciplines in question. Except for public policy, for which there are fewer programs/departments nationally, each discipline had over 60 job openings, and there were more than 100 for law, psychology and political science. These sample sizes are substantial, though certainly not exhaustive. Subsequent research is needed to show whether the present findings will hold up in larger samples, as well as in additional disciplines in both the social sciences (e.g., economics) and other areas of inquiry (e.g., natural sciences, humanities).

Conclusion

The results of this study indicate that interdisciplinary training is not an impediment to students' success on the job market and instead may help them to achieve a competitive edge. Academic, research-based postings were more likely to be open to interdisciplinary scholars, 92 percent overall, with 38 percent specifically requesting applicants with interdisciplinary training. Public policy and sociology departments were most likely to seek interdisciplinary applicants, while criminal justice departments were least likely. In addition, institutions categorized as research doctorate based had the most job postings that specifically requested an interdisciplinary focus.

Academic institutions appear to be responding to science's increasingly multidiscipline approach. This is particularly beneficial as interdisciplinary teaching and scholarship continues to infiltrate the traditional disciplinary framework. Interdisciplinary training will thus enable future faculty to teach general education courses, as well as in a growing number of interdisciplinary programs

Author note

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