Reflections on a multidisciplinary PhD

This last Tuesday I attended the 5th Annual SIID (Sheffield Institute for International Development) Postgraduate conference. The theme of the conference was “multidisciplinary insights into international development”, so I thought it would be a great opportunity to reflect on my experience working across the social sciences and engineering during my PhD.

For me, taking a multidisciplinary approach was a decision taken out of necessity. Although I had been set up for interdisciplinary PhD work by the E-Futures Doctoral Training Centre (DTC), I had always seen myself as a mechanical engineer that would perhaps dabble in other disciplines as and when necessary.

However, after a year or so of engineering focussed research on the optimisation of small wind turbine blades for manufacture by hand, I discovered that I was barking up the wrong tree. The message from the field was loud and clear: many small wind turbines had been installed in remote communities, but were failing to deliver the improvements in quality of life that they had promised. Many of these machines were failing just months after they were installed, so was it really relevant to spend three years improving the efficiency of the blades by a few percent if the blades were going to spend the majority of their life standing still (or worse, smashing into pieces)?


In order to discover why so many small wind turbines that had been installed in development projects around the world were spending so long out of service, it was essential to understand both the context in which they were installed (social science), as well as the technical details of the design and possible failure modes (engineering). So I set out to answer this question, drawing on techniques from both disciplines to dig deeper into the underlying reasons that were causing the technology to succeed or fail in each specific context.


The range of methodologies I ended up employing covered the full spectrum, from quantitative to qualitative, from engineering to social science. This wide range of techniques allowed me to pick the most appropriate tool for the job whenever a new construct popped up. However, it was the overlap between techniques that really illustrated the merit of the multidisciplinary approach, as findings could be triangulated between techniques, adding much greater weight to the resulting argument (assuming that the findings agreed, of course!).


What is more, even though the findings of the different techniques may have been the same, the way in which they portrayed the evidence was often very different; for example, the rich qualitative anecdotes revealed by participant observation were frequently used to contextualise the hard numbers revealed by quantitative techniques such as power performance measurement.

Of course, the multidisciplinary approach isn’t without its pitfalls. Becoming the “jack of all trades, but master of none” was a significant worry for me throughout the research, and although it sounds trivial, translating between the vocabulary used by each discipline was also a major problem, as it took almost a year before I realised that both my engineering and social science supervisors were often saying very similar things, but simply using different language to describe them.


All in all, choosing the multidisciplinary path was ultimately far more rewarding than staying within my comfort zone as a mechanical engineer. Not only did it allow me to find a much more complete answer to my research question, but it was ultimately much more enjoyable, as I was able to spend time talking to people in the field, as well as build models on the computer and play around with machines in the laboratory. I think that doing any one of these three things for three years straight would certainly have been enough to drive me crazy!

If you’d like to know more, take a look at the presentation I gave at the conference or stay tuned for my thesis, which will hopefully be available here very soon…