Humanities Indicators
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Higher Education  >  Graduate Education
 
The Interdisciplinary Humanities PhD
(Updated September 2015)

Doctorate-holders in all disciplines are increasingly likely to describe their work as interdisciplinary. The indicators below explore the trend in interdisciplinary degrees and how far new PhDs travel from their home discipline. Other studies have shown that respondents have varied understandings of the meaning of “interdisciplinary” research, so these findings can only suggest the extent to which dissertation research is extending beyond any particular discipline, the direction in which such work extends, and how far researchers might have travelled from their primary discipline.[1]

Findings and Trends

  • From 2003 to 2012, the share of new PhDs reporting that their “dissertation research was interdisciplinary” increased by 23% or more in each of the major academic fields (Indicator II-23a). The largest increase occurred in the humanities, where the proportion of doctorate recipients reporting interdisciplinary research rose from 26.5% in 2003 to 43.5% in 2012. The field with the largest percentage of 2012 PhDs describing their work as interdisciplinary was life sciences (45.3%).
  • While a large percentage of doctoral recipients describe their research as interdisciplinary, most of these dissertations draw upon multiple disciplines within the same broad field of study (e.g., a humanities PhD describing their dissertation as drawing on history and philosophy, or a life sciences PhD reporting molecular biology and medicine as their primary and secondary fields; Indicator II-23b). Students in the life sciences reporting interdisciplinary dissertations were the most likely to remain within the same subject field (with 84.2% of the graduates from 2011–2013 reporting that their secondary discipline was also in the life sciences), while graduates in the physical sciences were the least likely to remain in the same broad field (at 55%). In the humanities, 72.1% of 2011–2013 PhDs with interdisciplinary degrees reported another discipline in the humanities as their secondary field.
  • When humanities PhDs ventured into another field, they were most likely to cross over to the social sciences, with 17.3% of the 2011–2013 humanities PhDs who reported interdisciplinary research indicating that their work extended into this field. Another 1.1% reported that their interdisciplinary work was in the life sciences, while 0.8% crossed into the physical sciences. In comparison, 9.1% of new interdisciplinary PhDs in the social sciences reported that their secondary work was in the humanities, while 12.3% reported that their interdisciplinary work was in the life sciences.
  • Among new PhDs in the humanities who described their dissertation research as interdisciplinary, philosophy students reported the largest percentage of dissertations that crossed fields rather than partnering with another humanities discipline (over 50% in the 2011–2013 cohort), compared to less than a third in the other humanities disciplines; Indicator II-23c). In more than a third of the interdisciplinary philosophy dissertations produced by the 2011–2013 cohort (35.2%), the secondary field was social sciences. Another 12.1% of the interdisciplinary dissertations in philosophy were reported as drawing on the life or physical sciences. In all other humanities disciplines, the percentage drawing from the life and physical sciences was three percent or less. For each of the other humanities disciplines, from 12% to 20% of interdisciplinary PhDs reported the social sciences as a secondary field, and a minimum of 7% said their work drew on other fields (including business, education, computer science, and engineering).
  • Among 2011–2013 PhDs reporting interdisciplinary work contained within the humanities, historians were the least likely to draw on another humanities discipline, with over 59% reporting another history subject as their secondary field (Indicator II-23d). The discipline of letters (which encompasses English and American languages and literatures, as well as creative writing and comparative literature) also had a relatively high level of new interdisciplinary PhDs who identified their secondary humanities emphasis as being within the same discipline (34.9%).
II-23a: Share of New Doctorate Recipients Reporting Interdisciplinary Dissertations, by Primary Field of Study,* 2003–2012

* Life sciences includes agricultural sciences and natural resources; biological and biomedical sciences; and health sciences. Physical sciences includes mathematics and computer and information sciences. Social sciences includes psychology.

Source: National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED; a custom tabulation of SED data was prepared for the Humanities Indicators by NORC at the University of Chicago).

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II-23b: Shares of Interdisciplinary Dissertations Completed in Various Secondary Fields, by Primary Field of Dissertation,* 2011–2013

* As reported by dissertation author. Life sciences includes agricultural sciences and natural resources; biological and biomedical sciences; and health sciences. Physical sciences includes mathematics and computer and information sciences. Social sciences includes psychology.

Source: National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED; a custom tabulation of SED data was prepared for the Humanities Indicators by NORC at the University of Chicago).

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II-23c: Shares of Interdisciplinary Humanities Dissertations Completed in Various Secondary Fields, by Primary Humanities Discipline,* 2011–2013

* As reported by dissertation author. Life sciences includes agricultural sciences and natural resources; biological and biomedical sciences; and health sciences. Physical sciences includes mathematics, and computer and information sciences. Social sciences includes psychology. “Letters” encompasses English and American languages and literatures, as well as creative writing and comparative literature.
** Differs from the “other humanities” category used in standard Survey of Earned Doctorates publications in that it excludes philosophy, religion/religious studies, and Bible/biblical studies.
† Value for life and physical sciences has been suppressed to avoid disclosure of confidential information.

Source: National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED; a custom tabulation of SED data was prepared for the Humanities Indicators by NORC at the University of Chicago).

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II-23d: Shares of Dissertations Spanning Two Humanities Disciplines Completed in Various Secondary Humanities Disciplines, by Primary Humanities Discipline,* 2011–2013

* As reported by author of dissertation. “Letters” encompasses English and American languages and literatures, as well as creative writing and comparative literature.
** Differs from the “other humanities” category used in standard Survey of Earned Doctorates publications in that it excludes philosophy, religion/religious studies, and Bible/biblical studies.
† Values for history and languages and literatures other than English have been suppressed to avoid disclosure of confidential information.

Source: National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED; a custom tabulation of SED data was prepared for the Humanities Indicators by NORC at the University of Chicago).

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Endnotes

[1] Morgan M. Millar and Don A. Dillman, “Analyses of Interdisciplinary Doctoral Research Data from the Survey of Earned Doctorates,” Technical Report #10-063A (Pullman: Washington State University Social and Economic Sciences Research Center, 2010).