Changing departments – the pros and cons of being away from home discipline(s)

Last weekend, I updated my Linkedin page to indicate that I’ve now completed the move between departments at UCL – from the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geomatic Engineering to the Department of Geography. It’s not just me – the Extreme Citizen Science group will be now based at the Department of Geography.

With this move, I’m closing a circle of 20 years – in September 1997 I came to the Department of Geography at UCL to start my PhD studies at the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (At the time, CASA was an inter-departmental centre with links to the Bartlett, Geography, and Geomatic Engineering). At the end of my PhD studies, in 2001, after four years of self-funding the PhD by working as a sysadmin in Geography, research assistant in CASA, and few other things, I was looking for opportunities to stay in London for a while.

Today, the plight of EU academics in the UK due to Brexit is a regular feature in the news. In a similar way, as a non-EU person, I had to take into account that every job that I’m applying to will require organising job permit, and consider how long it will last. This ‘silent’ part of the academic experience that was there for many people is becoming common knowledge, but that’s another story…

With that in mind, I have applied to quite a diverse range of jobs – and finding myself shortlisted at urban planning at MIT, Geography at Leicester, Geography at LSE, Geography at the Hebrew University (where I’ve done my BSc and MA), and Geomatic Engineering at UCL, in addition to management consultancy, and a GIS software company. The MIT, LSE and the commercial jobs weren’t successful, and Leicester offer came too early in the write-up process. In the end, UCL Geomatic Engineering materialised at the right time and this is where I ended.

I found myself staying at the department (including its merger with Civil and Environmental Engineering) for 15 years until it became clear that it is time to move because an incompatibility between the direction that my research evolved and the focus of the department. I did consider staying within the faculty of Engineering – some of my work is linked to computer science, and to interaction with geographical technologies which is related to Human-Computer Interaction, but it felt just as incompatible – after all, most of my work is appearing in journals and conferences that are not valued by computer scientists but by geographers. It was good to discover that my interest in moving to the Department of Geography was welcomed, and now the process is complete. So what have I learned in these 15 years of being a geographer (geographical information scientist) in a civil engineering department? and what reflections do I have about being a researcher of one discipline but having an academic position in another?

Straddling fences

Let’s start from my own position – Nadine Schuurman & Mike Goodchild interview from 1998:

NS Some of the human geographers have partially built their careers upon writing critiques of GIS. How meaningful is participation in these debates for people in GIS?
MG Quite meaningful for geographers interested in GIS. If I were advising a new graduate student on how to succeed in geography these days, my advice would be to try to straddle that fence. It wouldn’t be to come down on either side of it because you have to be able to talk to the rest of the discipline and yet you have to be able to use the technology (Schuurman 1998, emphasis added)

This matched also recommendations that I received before starting my PhD, and my own interest from previous studies in linking social aspects in the environment and society interface with GIS and technology. During my PhD, I was lucky to be linked to three areas of studies at UCL – CASA, with its focus on GIS, computer modelling and visualisation, the Environment and Society Research Unit (ESRU) in Geography, and Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and Usability Engineering expertise in the department of Computer Science. The result was that my PhD thesis had both a technical part, as well as social-theoretical part. It also demonstrated in papers that I wrote collaboratively during the PhD – for example, a technical paper about the use of agent-based modelling, was followed by a social theoretical paper about the methodological individualism that is embedded in the models at the time.

The technical part of my academic identity was part of the reason that Geomatic Engineering accepted me, and at least at the beginning I tried to fit in – e.g. by directing my attention to technical aspects of GIS data and processing representations and supervising a PhD on 3D data storage. However, participatory aspects of GIS continue to interest me – so I seized opportunities to develop this area. For example, once I heard about OpenStreetMap, I directed my research effort towards it, or when I learned about London 21 Sustainability Network effort to create a London Green Map, I offered help and designed MSc projects to support it. Since 2007, my research became more concentrated on participatory mapping and citizen science. As a result, the work that is linked to geomatic engineering (i.e. surveying, precise measurements, photogrammetry) shrank, as well as relationships with other areas of work in the department, this eventually led to where I am now.

Considering that I have found myself as an interdisciplinary researcher in a department that is completely outside either my ‘home’ disciplines (either Geography or Computer Science), had benefits and challenges.

Benefits

The most important benefit, which eventually paid off, was the disciplinary freedom. While at the point of promotion applications, or specific evaluators for a research applications and such, I did provide a list of people who relate to my area of work (Geographic Information Science), on the day to day work I was not judged by disciplinary practices. Shortly after securing the lectureship, Paul Longley introduced me to the 3Ps – Publications, Pounds (grant money), and PhD students as criteria that you should pay attention to in terms of career development. Because of my involvement with London Technology Network, I’ve learned about the fourth P – Patents (as in wider impacts). With this insight in mind, I was aware that around me, people cannot evaluate my research on its merit so they will check these general matrices, and as long as they are there, it does not necessarily matter what I do. This freedom provided the scope to develop the combination of technology development which is embedded in social science research which I enjoy doing.

Disciplines do set which journals you should publish in, what conferences you’re expected to present in, and similar aspects of an academic career. Being outside a discipline means that I could publish sometimes in computer science (my top cited paper) and sometime in geography and urban studies (my second top cited paper). Noticeably, I don’t have a single publication in a pure geomatic engineering journal. This allowed for exploring different directions of research that if I was inside a disciplinary department, I would not necessarily be able to do.

The second important benefit was to learn how to communicate with engineers and people who do not see the research from the same perspective as you. Because I was in an engineering department, I was applying to the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (the categorisation of my research on EPSRC website are interesting – and I know that they are not what I entered to the system!) and that meant that I needed to think about the reasons that someone who reviews my applications or judges them on a panel will see the benefits from their perspective. I had to learn how to think about structuring research applications, or submissions to REF so they are convincing and relevant to the reader – there was no point in going over the philosophy of technology reasons for researching VGI because this does not help in convincing the reader that my research is worth funding. Highlighting the technical advances and the potential for wider societal impact was more important.

Third, the position that I found myself in was pushing my interdisciplinary understanding further. Not only I had to get used to the engineering mindset and support engineering education (to a very minor extent), I also was in a position that I was doing participatory action research but within an engineering department, which made it more palatable for various researchers in the natural sciences and engineering to approach me while applying for funding. They needed a “safe” person to carry out a participatory part of a wider research project, and I guess that being based in an engineering department made it look this way.  Over the years, I had discussions if the group that I led can be considered as “social scientists” on a project, because of the departmental affiliation. I found it puzzling, but I guess that for reviewers who look less at the details of each applicant’s background, and used to look at affiliations, this worked.

Downsides

The most obvious downside of being out of a disciplinary department is the issue of resources – this was frustrating while also understandable. Many requests for resources, such as appointing a lecturer in my area, were turned down. Throughout the whole period, the activities that I was carrying out were interesting, or even one that worth highlighting at a departmental level from time to time. When it came to the hard decisions on investment and resource allocation, the activities were not part of the core mission of the department and therefore not fundable. This left me with a continual need for bootstrapping and figuring out ways to secure resources.

The second downside is a version of the imposter syndrome that I started calling  “the hypocrite syndrome”. This is the downside of the communication across disciplines (and therefore epistemologies and ontologies) that I mentioned above. It is the feeling that while what drives the research is a social theory, the process of writing an application is about dampening it and emphasising technical aspects. A good example for this is in my paper about data quality of OpenStreetMap – if you read carefully the paper, it’s fairly obvious that my main reason to carry out quality assessment is so I can have a measure that will help me to show the social justice aspect of the project. Most of the papers that cite this work take it as a paper about data quality. It was a useful way of developing my research, but it doesn’t make you feel that you have provided a holistic description of what your aims are.

A third downside is the additional effort that was required to keep in touch with the development of the discussions in your home disciplines – I frequently went to geography conferences and followed the literature on HCI and computer science, but this is not a replacement for attending regular departmental seminars or even noticing discussions during departmental meetings, that keep you up to date with the general development. In Geography, I was lucky to be on the board for a leading journal (Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers) for about 5 years, and that provided another way to keep in touch and learn about the discipline.

Overall, I don’t regret the decision to go for an engineering department. The journey was interesting, I have learned a lot through it, and have developed my academic career this way. In hindsight, it did work well. What will happen next? I don’t know – I’ll probably need to reflect in 5 years what were the impacts of joining a disciplinary department…

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Published by

mukih

Professor of GIScience, University College London

2 thoughts on “Changing departments – the pros and cons of being away from home discipline(s)”

  1. Bridging divides is always a tricky situation, as you describe. I have had three positions outside my ‘core’ origin (in fact I only held one position in Geography – though the 17 years in Geography balance with faculty slots of 15 years in other units). My first position as an Assistant Professor was in Landscape Architecture (itself a complex mixture of design, planning, botany, history, and geography). LA had the extra issue of having very few PhD programs, so many landscape architects had PhDs in other fields like geography. The imposter syndrome is spread around. I left the LA department with much appreciation for the collection of expertise, looking forward to a return the the home discipline of Geography. Of course that was and remains a moving target.
    I worked for 8 years in a department of sciences geomatiques, the origin of the term in fact. There were geographers, engineers, computer scientists alongside the core of land surveyors. In Quebec, land surveyors are their own professional order distinct from engineers, as they are also in Victoria, Australia, my last academic post. If my specialty is called land information, geographic information, geomatics or geospatial sciences, I am not bothered. It has to be a big tent. There is no way to transmit the whole Body of Knowledge required to understand everything in any 3 year or 4 year program, let alone a 1-year professional Masters.
    Three years out of my last academic post, I am glad to have the varied experience. I am getting ready to reflect on this range of experience, though a longer gap than Muki’s five years may be required.
    To Muki, I wish you a productive surge with some new synergies.
    Nick Chrisman

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