What am I doing a PhD in?

Sometimes I get asked what my PhD is in, often by people who really just want a general subject rather than research details.  This is something I struggle with, partly because research is complex (duh), partly because I’m aware disciplinary labels relate to career choices (e.g. ‘learning sciences’ isn’t a widely used label in the UK, even if it is perhaps one key label for me), and also because I’m working across a variety of boundaries, with a slightly odd history of departments (philosophy, psychology, education, now in a sort of computing/i-schoolish/ed-techish department).

This also isn’t a problem that goes away – I know where professors are appointed with flexibility on title (“professor of x”) some thought can go into what the ‘x’ should be – it impacts how you’re perceived, career prospects, whether people turn to you as an expert in ‘x’ (especially where the field is growing, but you don’t know how it’ll turn out this has impact!) etc.  In fact, as a little (speculative) thought experiment, sometimes I like to wonder what my ideal professorial title would be – which is an interesting exercise in thinking about research trajectories and disciplinary impacts (and possibly arrogance).

Anyway, some potential answers for me are:

  • Education – I’m a trained teacher, my MPhil is in education and its where most of my interests are applied, ‘researcher in education’ is a pretty broad label, but it might be entirely suitable for what I do.
  • Psychology – my undergrad is in psychology (half), and many of my methods too (including most of those explored in my MPhil in research methods). This is an interesting aspect of my work given I’d probably be considered a ‘social psychology’ working with aspects of discursive psychology.  My primary research construct is ‘epistemic commitments’ and certainly the research around that is very much in psychology (although, it’s also cognitivist – exploring epistemic beliefs, and cognition).  Both my supervisors, as well as my MPhil supervisor are also psychologists by background, so it’s a world I’m very much exposed to and consider myself to be a part of – but I’m not sure how well I’d gel in a pure psych dept.
  • Philosophy – my undergrad (half) and MA in Philosophy of Education mean I bring an interest in philosophy to the table.  I have an interest in the implications of epistemology for information technologies such as search engines, and assessment systems, I think the way we view knowledge and extended cognition has very real implications for how we think about teaching, learning, and assessment – something I’ve written about for my MA, on this blog, and in publications from my PhD.
  • Computing – the department I’m in submits to computing in the REF, I have a strong interest in methods used in computer science (HCI-side and socio-technical factors), and I’m interested in technology to support learning (including my own!)
    • learning analytics – I am explicitly working in a new area (Sub-discipline?) of learning analytics – which I guess could be described as (has been, in fact) in the middle space between learning, and analytics (qua computational techniques for the analysis of trace data of various sorts).  It’s something I am (I hope) contributing to as a fairly young field
    • CSCL, CSCW & Educational technology – I’m not sure my interest in learning analytics makes much sense without considering the environments in which I apply them.  In particular I’m interested in computer support for collaborative learning, especially around information seeking and processing…
    • Collaborative Information Seeking/Information Retrieval – I’m going to gloss any nuance here and just say I’m interested in how we find information together, particularly in learning contexts, and the tools used to support such activities.  See my publications for more.
  • Informatics, library and information sciences – The ischool model is really interesting to me, particularly given they often explore academic/educational contexts and are (obviously) interested in information behaviours. As I’ve seen them, they’re also incredibly interdisciplinary, so it might be that I could describe myself in terms of information science (or, at least, that ischools would be a good place to look for jobs)
  • Learning Sciences – Arguably the best way to sum up these varied interests, and the ways I try to bring them together is to describe myself as a ‘learning scientist’.  I’d probably agree with that label broadly (although it tends to be a bit more experimental than I am), but I’m not sure how widely known it is particularly in the UK where I can only think of one (Nottingham) University with an explicitly labelled Learning Science department (although others broadly speaking do exist in the UK).

Any other labels I should apply?!  Should I just not care?  What role might such labels play in jobs? (see parallel post on speculative job hunting here)

  • computing – the department I’m in submits to computing in the REF, I have a strong interest in methods used in computer science (HCI-side and socio-technical factors)

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