Inter-disciplinary research

I have come across this debate of inter-disciplinary research at multiple occasions, most recent one being in Cyber Security Retreat at Princeton University. As a part of discussion, faculty members and students from Computer Science and Electrical Engineering discussed the need to actively engage in it. This event was restricted participation (only invite) and was a full house.

Few days later there was a lecture by Ben Shneiderman at Computer Science Department, Princeton University on Visualization (pioneer in the field), but the student attendance seemed low.

This raised couple of questions. Did the graduate students think
a) Visualization is a not that hard a problem ?
b) It is unrelated to their research and hence skip it ?

How should a graduate students think of research which is not closely related to their field ?

First, I will talk about is the thought process of a newly joined graduate students and then my perspective on some of the discussion on above questions.

When I started my PhD in Computer Science, I thought having a field like HCI (Human Computer Interaction) is actually waste of government funds( oops, I said it), because I was taught in my undergraduate school that having a good interface to your system is a job of a good system developer (yes, everything is devs job for a student at IIT Madras), so why have HCI ? Why don’t just system developers do their job a bit better!

It’s only when I took a course in HCI(by Gregory Abowd and Thad Starner) that I can admire the need for a whole area of research. These might be personal realization but I think a lot of graduate students carry the same views throughout their PhD, downplaying other research fields. I think it is important to understand the need for different disciplines (not so mainstream as arts and music, but something similar to HCI).

I have a recommendation for all graduate students to try to attend as many different talks on campus. May it be proposal, defense talks of senior graduate students but also talks by visiting faculty. It gives you a very good idea about the research in their area and helps you question your beliefs. It also helps you give a vision of how research can fundamentally effect future courses of countries, international politics, law or something totally unrelated.

As much as a PhD has to be grounded in the concepts and principles essential in his/her field, I think they should be equally understanding of the long term non-scientific implications of many things that do not relate to their research. As a PhD student myself, I find the job incredibly difficult but I would say at-least I am aware that it should be possible. This has of-course been a realization over the years as a graduate student, but I would be glad if someone had told this to me when I was starting as a graduate student.

I would like to focus out two aspects of research

1) Interdisciplinary research(as discussed in the Cyber security retreat)
2) Intra-disciplinary (for lack of better term) which is creating a new specialization within a discipline

Let me start with mentioning, the first one is a no-brainer. The real question is how to do it effectively. There were good ideas like encouraging spaces in department where sociology or policy students can sit in Computer Science department or a Computer Science graduate student working in the Electrical Engineering department (similar to how I landed up in EE department due to joint project with Prof. Mung Chiang(EE) and my adviser(CS)). It is not difficult to see that fundamentally different streams such as Sociology and Computer Science do have many interesting problems at the confluence of the two.

Obviously, one needs to have the vision among faculty members in which colleges or institutions have the right expertise to merge students from different disciplines to do research and get the appropriate funding for such difficult (to the extent you can term it very experimental graduate research) topics.

This also brings the point how hard it is for students from either major to develop their taste in other fields early in their graduate life and be adequately placed between the two to carve out their future. To learn deep concepts placed in both the fields and then make observations. Although if they can do it successfully, then their hybrid thinking can be huge assets to the society in future.

There are thoughts on having faculty collaborate and have a student work on a project combining multiple area (I have been pursuing research in electrical engineering and computer science with perspective on building real system using information theory background). I find it incredibly hard job as it takes a lot of effort to gather strong concepts and be able to produce research paper. On the other hand, there are graduate dorms which can possibly solve this problem of developing inter-disciplinary skills when graduate students interact in dinners etc but this does not give them enough ground to do a research project combining ideas (unless the fields are quite close).

The intra-disciplinary research is in most cases (as I have observed) an individual pursuit. Your research is so cutting-edge and niche that after exploring the idea for quite sometime you stumble upon a novel, well defined technique to solve a cluster of problems. Due to development of methodologies, technologies etc, things just seem right to have a new take on an age-old problem. History of Software Defined Networks (SDN) might be an excellent example to visit in this context!

There will be lots of experiences in your graduate life, it is upto you, what to make out of them!