Shifting (and surviving!) from science to social sciences

IMG_3897Not all academic journeys are a straight line. I would even risk saying that most aren’t. Most commonly researchers start in a specific area and then combine that with many other areas through interdisciplinary research. In other cases they fully change the area or methodological approach to research. The latter was my case.

I completed a Masters in Architecture focused on lighting and energy efficiency. Getting close to the end I realized something was missing and didn’t take long to realize what I was missing was the ‘human’ side of design.

Then I moved to a different region in my country, just to realize how a different climate changes daily lives. Palmas is a city built based on modern urbanism principles, in an extremely hot climate. Around 20 years after being planned, many aspects of the pre-determined urban morphology have been adapted or changed. The city now has streets and lanes informally created by its users and largely influenced by the local climate as people want shorter distances.

At this stage it became clear that my interest was the human scale of the city. How people use it and why. I then decided that, although my first academic training was in building science I had to shift. When I first contacted Lincoln University in 2010, my idea was based upon how climate affects the daily lives and as a consequence how locals shape the city to better fit their needs. The focus was Palmas, the Brazilian young and overheated city.

The excitement of being accepted as a PhD candidate at Lincoln was shortly mixed with the concern for the challenge ahead. I have never worked with social sciences methodologies before and that was all I would work with for the next few years. I read books about how to analyse social settings [1] and how to write in social sciences [2], and more and more I knew I was following the right path… Until the first day in the field!

That was probably the only day ever I called my co-supervisor, and this is how the conversation went:

Me: Hi! This is terrible! I obviously haven’t been born for this type of field work.

Her: Why?

Me:  I spend the whole 6 hours in one of the case study sites and got nothing. I have approached lots of people and nobody wanted to participate on my research.

Her: But this is how it works, Silvia. You have to get used to it, you will learn how to approach people.

Me: (mute)

Her: Have you done any?

Me: Yes one, just one.

Her: Oh, you have! That’s great… You were totally born for that!

I now understand what she was talking about. It is a learning process and fortunately I got to a stage when I was doing 5-6 a day.

My interests have always been architectural, urban design and climate, especially regarding human comfort. However there is a large distance between building science and computer simulation tools to aid architectural lighting design, and participant observation, in-depth interviews and long afternoons transcribing. I still sometimes feel tempted to make some simulations and gather some numbers, and then I have to concentrate because this is not what I am doing at the moment. But who knows what the interdisciplinary world will present in the future? The curiosity for new methods and approaches to knowledge and research seems to be endless.

What is your story? Have you always been in the same area? 


[1] Lofland, J., Snow, D. A., Anderson, L., & Lofland, L. H. (2006). Analyzing social settings: A guide to qualitative observation and analysis. Belmont, USA: Wadsworth.
[2] Becker, H. S. (2007). Writing for Social Scientists: How o Start and Finish your Thesis, Book, or Article (2nd ed.). Chicago, USA: The University of Chicago Press.

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